Big R Bridge is celebrating 40 years of innovation this year. In this, the first of a four-part series, we invite you to travel back in time with us for a glimpse of Big R in its first decade of operation — the 1970s.
The year was 1970. A large farm supply outfit, The Ranch Wholesale Supply Company, in Greeley, CO, had been so impressed by young keener, Sid Wilke's, success at growing their new corrugated pipe category, that they decided to establish a separate division with Sid at the helm. Enter the The Big R Manufacturing and Distribution Company. With a lot of new ground to cover, Sid had to wear many hats in the small operation. Nonetheless, they sold $330,000 in their first year, which was a lot in those days.
Sid's brother, Dave Wilke joined the firm around 1971, after returning from active Army duty in Vietnam. By 1973 there were four or five employees, with their good friend, Tom Selders, joining up with them after his service with the Navy in Vietnam. Together the Sid/Dave/Tom trio would form the key leadership team, growing the division and eventually purchasing it from Ranch later in the 80s. One of the reasons for their success was a core belief in actually going out and selling solutions instead of just waiting for the tenders and opportunities to arise.
Their culvert business was booming with a lot of aluminum and some steel being rolled into all shapes and sizes of culvert structures and shipped around the US with their fleet of six tractor-trailers. (In photo: Dave, Sid and Tom with a new tractor.) Their relationship with Kaiser Aluminum out of Spokane, WA, would prove to be a key element of their future success. Kaiser had been supplying them with culvert for years. As the business grew and the relationship progressed, it evolved to partnerships between Kaiser and Big R, where Big R was building added facilities to begin rolling and riveting their own corrugated pipe and structural plate products in Greeley.
Also big at that time, was a purchasing arrangement to supply cattleguards to government agencies under the General Services Administration and the Bureau of Land Management. Big R used a roll-formed technique to manufacture these for less than half the cost of press-break manufacturers. This arrangement is ongoing today and keeps manufacturing crews busy in the off-season.
Business continued to grow steadily. Their 4.25" corrugated steel bridge decking and rolled beam girders were big sellers to the location-built bridge contractors. In 1979, a county road supervisor convinced them to design and build a bridge of their own. He helped them see how easily they could make their own bridges and they supplied their first location-built bridge.
Not long after that, the Big R team created their first modular bridge design for an installation for the Forestry Service in Jackson Hole, WY. The team was so excited to ship their first modular bridge out on two flatbeds, that they even chased it down the highway in their new Cessna 210 to get some good aerial photos.
It was with this particular bridge that they got into building modular bridges full time, effectively, taking control of the category and revolutionizing the industry. That single move was key in securing a very successful future for Big R.
As they took off into the 80s — with their new plane, their new bridge designs and other innovations in mind — little did they know how well their business would follow suit. In the next issue of Profiles, we'll follow Big R through the ups and downs of the 80's, through the mid-west oil boom and beyond — turbulence and all.
» Next chapter in the Big R Bridge story: the 80s