Centralized Public Utility Management

Centralized Public Utility Management

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Excerpt from Centralized Public Utility Management: Development of Stone Webster's Management Organization in the Past Thirty Years

The only thing that we do want you to have in mind is that when you take this contract out and show it to people in your local community, you should explain to them what it means. It is necessarily pretty complicated. We do a great many things for the companies under our management, and in order to express these in the contract, we have to cover a great deal of ground. There is possibility of misunderstandings, and the contract should be explained as far as you may so that every one will understand it. The more people understand what we are doing and what that contract is, the better for all concerned.

I want to go back to that tree that Mr. Stone and Mr. Webster sat under when they agreed to go into business together. They decided at that time to go into the business of engineering. They had in mind in a vague way that they might do something in connection with public utility work, but for the first three years the business was confined entirely to construction and engineering. The thought of management came later.

In the early nineties the public utility business was in a pretty bad way. The investor was very much discouraged. The net earnings were very small and the situation was almost desperate. That gave Stone & Webster their opportunity. They were invited by investors here in Boston to look over certain properties and try to see if they could not find out what was the trouble with them and what should be done to improve the properties and get them on their feet. So Mr. Stone packed his bag and Mr. Webster packed his bag. and they started off. Before they were through, they had looked over something like seventy-five or one hundred properties, - at any rate, enough so that they had a pretty good picture of the industry as a whole. They found out a number of things. In the first place, those were the early days of the business. Properties were pretty poorly designed; the apparatus, generators, cars, and other parts of the properties were as good as could be obtained at that time, but they were poorly put together. The system as a whole was not properly designed for good public service. It was not designed for economy. Practically none of the ideas which we have now had been developed at all. There was no thought of the growth which was to take place in the future, no thought that there must be a strong financial structure to take care of it. The methods of finance were most unfavorable for raising money on a satisfactory basis, and the operation of the properties was decidedly uneconomical. Now those properties were all small. Even in the larger cities the individual companies were small because of competition. Before we became interested in the Seattle properties there were in Seattle, I think, eleven street railways and three electric light and power companies. When these were all combined the gross earnings amounted to only about $700,000. It was pretty clear that the one great difficulty of these companies was that they could not get the kind of men they needed, the brains and experience which they had to have in order to build themselves up. The gross earnings were not such that they could afford to have even the proper executives, much less to maintain on their forces skilled men who were familiar with detailed operations, construction and finance. The one great problem to be solved was to find men fitted for their positions whom the company could afford to employ.

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