Walbridge Aldinger Co.
Walbridge Aldinger Co.
Sales: $800 million (2000 est.)
NAIC: 23331 Manufacturing and Industrial Building Construction; 23332 Commercial and Institutional Building Construction; 23594 Wrecking and Demolition Contractors; 23411 Highway and Street Construction; 23493 Industrial Nonbuilding Structure Construction
Walbridge Aldinger Co. is one of the 50 largest construction companies in the United States. The Detroit, Michigan-based firm has a long and distinguished history of building structures in the Motor City, ranging from concert halls and stadiums to the “People Mover” monorail. The company has had a highly fruitful relationship with the auto industry over the years, completing numerous major projects, including Chrysler Corporation’s headquarters building in Auburn Hills, Michigan and many manufacturing facilities. Company subsidiaries also perform work in Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom, as well as in other American and overseas locations. Walbridge Aldinger provides design, engineering, and project management services, in addition to performing final construction. The privately held firm was purchased by John Rakolta in 1945 and is currently headed by his son John, Jr.
Walbridge Aldinger was founded in 1916 by two Detroit, Michigan contractors who sought to form a company that would be large enough to handle the many projects the growing city and its nascent auto industry were generating. George B. Walbridge had served as a colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and had moved to Detroit in 1914 as vice-president of the New York-based construction firm George F. Fuller Company. His partner, Albert H. Aldinger, was a banker of German extraction who had previously founded a Canadian construction firm.
The new company quickly began to take on major assignments. Early buildings included Detroit’s Orchestra Hall (1920); the Women’s Colony Club (1924); Ford’s Dearborn plant (1925); Olympia Stadium (1927); and the United Artist Building (1928). The next few years saw the city’s WWJ Broadcasting studios and the University of Michigan’s women’s dormitories completed, among many others. In 1945 Walbridge and Aldinger sold the company to 23-year-old John Rakolta and a partner.
Over the succeeding decades, the company came to concentrate on work for the automobile industry. One notable project was the Chevrolet Technology Center, completed in 1954. John Rakolta continued to run the company throughout these years, and as he grew older he began grooming his son to take over. John, Jr., started working for the family business following completion of a degree in civil engineering, and in 1975 the 28-year-old began to take the reins from his father, assembling a new management team with John senior’s blessings. He was named company president in 1979.
John Rakolta, Jr., adopted a more aggressive approach than his father had, boosting revenues from $50 million in 1975 to $80 million in 1979. The company’s earnings at this time were still primarily derived from contracts with carmakers. At the start of the 1980s, the expanding Walbridge Aldinger moved its headquarters from Detroit to the suburb of Livonia.
One idea Rakolta had for growing the business was diversification into the commercial construction industry. Attempts to develop this area from within were made, but the key event came in 1984 when Walbridge Aldinger purchased a financially troubled Detroit-area commercial contractor named Darin & Armstrong. The acquisition more than doubled the company in size and also gave it a branch in Florida that operated throughout the southeastern United States. Rakolta’s eye was increasingly on cultivating clients outside of Michigan, with new projects soon under way in Florida, California, and elsewhere. Highlights of the 1980s included the Spaceship Earth building at the Epcot Center in Florida, the Ford Hermosillo Stamping Plant in Mexico, and Detroit’s People Mover monorail system. The company also built three auto plants in Canada during the decade in partnership with Ellis-Don Ltd. of Toronto.
Heading into the 1990s
In 1989 the company’s headquarters were moved back to Detroit when a 100,000-square-foot building was acquired from U.S. Mutual Savings & Loan, after that company ran out of funds to complete a renovation of the structure. Walbridge Aldinger completed the work at a cost of some $9 million and moved 100 of its employees into the space. A parking structure also was built across the street for their use. The move was attributed in part to the company’s desire to attract more minority employees, as African Americans made up a much larger percentage of Detroit’s population than Livonia’s. Another motive was simply that the company was investing in the city in which it had been founded.
John Rakolta, Jr., was a strong booster of Detroit, which had seen its fortunes decline as economically advantaged residents fled to the suburbs and many once-proud buildings came to be abandoned in the downtown area. Rakolta and his wife, Terry, had earlier joined the Detroit Heritage Fund, a group of prominent local citizens who banded together in an attempt to revive the city’s renowned London Chop House restaurant. The Rakoltas were active in conservative political causes as well, John as a fundraiser for the Republican Party and Terry with a campaign to protest the excessive doses of sex and violence served up by television programs such as “Married with Children.” Her efforts to organize boycotts of advertisers garnered much national media attention.
The 1990s started off well for the company, with Walbridge Aldinger completing the 44-story, $250 million One Detroit Center building in 1991. It was the city’s first major new office structure since the five-tower Renaissance Center had been built in the mid-1970s. Work also was underway on the $700 million Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The company’s docket consisted of approximately 60 percent auto industry-related construction, 30 percent commercial building, and ten percent public projects. Walbridge Aldinger was now one of the top two contractors in the state of Michigan, second only to Barton Malow of Southfield. Annual revenues stood at $550 million, more than ten times the 1975 figure.
The early 1990s saw a decline in revenues, however, as the economy slowed and building projects were scaled back. Walbridge Aldinger, again seeking to branch out, made its first bid on a Michigan Department of Transportation project, the $42 million Blue Water Bridge Plaza expansion in Port Huron. Before it could submit a bid, the company was required to undergo an 18-month certification process.
In 1993 Walbridge Aldinger was named the construction manager for Chrysler Corporation’s newly announced world headquarters, which would be located near the automaker’s Technology Center. In 1995 a strategic alliance was formed with Brown & Root, Inc. of Texas, called Walbridge Brown & Root International L.L.C. The new entity was charged with seeking international contracts for auto industry construction projects. Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., operated internationally in the fields of engineering and construction, working for a wide range of clients, including governments, oil companies, and the chemical industry. The joint venture’s first project was a Chrysler plant in Venezuela.
In 1997 Walbridge Aldinger won a contract with Toyota Motor Manufacturing of West Virginia to build a $400 million engine plant there. The project would require hiring some 700 workers, with completion scheduled for the following year. The U.S. construction industry was now returning to good health, with the Clinton era economic boom loosening up purse strings for new projects. Employment of construction workers also was up, and it was sometimes becoming difficult to find enough skilled workers for the many projects that were coming in. Detroit had legalized casino gambling during the decade, and several major players in that industry began racing to complete lavish facilities in the downtown area. The Detroit Lions and Detroit Tigers athletic teams also were making plans for new stadiums, and the company was involved with these projects as well. In the case of the Lions’ stadium, Walbridge Aldinger and Perini Building Co. of Southfield were tapped initially to lay the groundwork for construction, but before actual work could commence they were dropped from the project, resulting in a severance payment to both companies.
In 1998 Walbridge Aldinger was rehired to work on the Lions’ stadium, and the company also won a contract to demolish the landmark Hudson’s department store building, an 88-year-old, 22-story structure that had been closed since 1983. A new Ford plant in India was completed during the year as well. Annual revenues reached a new high of $615 million.
Our success as innovators in the construction industry is based upon a devotion to providing the best construction-related services that exceed our customers’ expectations. We achieve this through a responsive team of experienced professionals with a “Commitment to Excellence” towards one common goal—A satisfied and valued client. It is this motivation which allows Walbridge Aldinger to stay on the cutting edge, providing commercial customers with the best possible services at the lowest possible cost. Our reputation as a leader in the industry is based on our greatest asset, our people and their ability to provide a variety of contract services: Integrated Program Management, Full-Service Turn-Key, Process Engineering and Technical Services, Construction Management, General Construction Contracting, and Design/Build.
1998 ISO 9001 Certification Paving Way for a Bright Future
The year 1998 also saw Walbridge Aldinger receive ISO 9001 certification. The International Organization of Standardization in Geneva, Switzerland, had issued the standards, which prescribed construction techniques that improved efficiency and productivity while reducing costs. Walbridge Aldinger put its employees through extensive training and the company underwent a 16-month assessment to receive the certification, which gave it an advantage in procuring contracts with major clients, including the big three automakers.
The following year Walbridge Aldinger won a $50 million bid to build portions of an access road to Detroit’s Metro Airport. Since 1991 the company had performed $142 million worth of work at the site, building parking structures, roads, and a hangar. The new access road, which connected the southern end of the airport with two major public thoroughfares, would be three miles long when finished. On May 15, 1999, the company performed the largest continuous concrete pour in history, using 150 concrete trucks carrying 2,333 separate loads. The 950-foot-long, 150-foot-wide section of concrete roadway was four feet thick. The decision to pour it continuously was dictated by the road’s proximity to the airport’s runways and the need to minimize disruption to travelers.
The year 2000 saw the company once again off the Lions’ stadium project, this time because of a dispute with project manager Hammes Co. and clashes with the football team over costs. Co-contractor Barton Malow also withdrew. A major new assignment in Detroit was in the offing, however. Computer software and consulting giant Compuware was making plans to move from suburban Farmington Hills to the downtown area, and Walbridge Aldinger was brought in to manage the $550 million, 16-story project. The company was hired by developer REDICO, which was to build the structure and then lease it to Compuware. In March 2000 REDICO’s president died, however, and Compuware decided to fund the project itself. This resulted in a series of delays while the design underwent further development. Meanwhile, Compuware’s stock value was falling precipitously, and some speculated that the project might be downsized if the slide was not reversed. Nonetheless, in the late fall of 2000 a tentative beginning was made at the building site in downtown Detroit. Completion was projected for June 2003.
Throughout its 80-plus-year history, Walbridge Aldinger had taken on some of the largest and most challenging construction projects in the Detroit area, as well as in Florida, Canada, California, and abroad. The company’s reputation for efficiency and quality was bringing in a continuous stream of work, especially from the automakers that had long been its bread and butter. The recently expanded commercial contracting business also was yielding many projects. As the 21st century dawned, the company’s revenues were at record levels, and its future looked bright.
Belding Walbridge; Walbridge Contracting, Inc.; Walbridge-Canada; Walbridge de Mexico; Walbridge Tilbury Ltd. (U.K.); Walbridge International.
Barton Malow Co.; Bechtel Group, Inc.; Clark Enterprises, Inc.; Fluor Daniel, Inc.; Foster Wheeler Corp.; Halliburton Co.; Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc.; Parsons Corp.; Peter Kiewit Sons Inc.; Turner Corporation; Washington Group International, Inc.; The Whiting-Turner Contracting Co.
- Company is founded in Detroit by George B. Walbridge and Albert H. Aldinger.
- Company builds Ford Motor Company’s new Dearborn, Michigan auto plant.
- John Rakolta and a partner acquire control of the company.
- Chevrolet Tech Center complex is completed.
- John Rakolta, Jr., begins to take over operations from his father.
- Company headquarters is moved from Detroit to neighboring Livonia.
- Acquisition of builder Darin & Armstrong doubles size of company.
- Headquarters is moved back to Detroit.
- Company’s tallest building to date, 44-story One Detroit Center, is completed.
- Chrysler Tech Center is completed.
- Chrysler world headquarters building is finished.
- Company is first U.S. general contractor to receive ISO 9001 certification.
- Work begins on $550 million Compuware headquarters building.
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Goodin, Michael, “Walbridge Gets Chrysler HQ Contract,” Crain’s Detroit Business, April 12, 1993, p. 1.
——, “Walbridge to Bid for Blue Water Project,” Crain’s Detroit Business, May 6, 1991, p. 15.
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