Big R Bridge is celebrating 40 years of innovation this year. In this, the second of a four-part series, we invite you to travel back in time with us for a glimpse of Big R in its second full decade of operation — the 1980s.
In our last installment, we followed Sid Wilke through the 1970s as he got his start with the Ranch Wholesale Company in Greeley CO, which quickly lead to him heading up their corrugated pipe division under the Big R Manufacturing and Distribution Company banner. He was soon joined by his brother, Dave Wilke, and their friend Tom Selders. At the end of the 70s, they were flying high in their Cessna, photographing one of their first modular bridges rolling down the highway on a flatbed, and wondering what the next decade would bring.
That little plane helped them reach even greater heights in business as the 80s took off, eventually logging over 3,500 flying hours flitting all over the US Midwest and even to Canada. On one occasion it helped them deliver a critical tender proposal when the only road had been blocked by an avalanche!
The 80s were considered the ‘Me’ generation. Big hair. Big shoulder pads. Big consumption. Big growth.
The Reagan administration had made a concerted effort to develop America’s own oil reserves in the face of a very politically uncertain Middle East and skyrocketing oil prices. The oil drilling industry became big in the early 80s, especially in the ‘Overthrust Belt’ across Wyoming, Utah and Idaho. Modular bridges really came into their own. The Big R team sold dozens and dozens of them. Oil companies would need a handful of bridges to reach a certain exploration area. If it turned up dry, they’d move them to another area. If it was good, they were all set. In one instance, a drilling site south of Jackson Hole, was intended to drill for a year and needed seven bridges — five temporary and two permanent. Typically, these bridges could be up to 40' long, 16' wide, and weigh 50,000 lbs with 50% greater loading than standard HS highway loading.
Big R was more aggressive than many steel fabricators of the day, in that they actually went out and sold their capabilities instead of waiting for tender calls to cross their desks. They had a team of five salesmen covering the western half of the US, Alaska and parts of Canada.
The oil exploration boom peaked in the mid 80s and that part of the Big R business dropped off accordingly. Fortunately, the forestry industry took a jump along with the housing industry and the need for modular bridges quickly followed suit. Once it was apparent how fast and easy Big R’s modular steel bridges could be dropped into remote sites with minimal ecological impact they were in high demand.
In 1986, a new era began when Sid, Dave and Tom negotiated the purchase of the Big R Manufacturing and Distribution division from the Ranch Wholesale Company, with financing set in place by Ranch. Business was rolling along nicely. The modular bridges had really hit their stride. Mainstay items like corrugated pipe, roll-formed cattle guards and bridge decking, and aluminum culverts were going strong. Big R brought their roll-forming process in-house and re-tooled it over time to also produce sheet piling.
Aluminum was competitively priced in those days and Big R was one of the first to get into the large diameter aluminum culvert business. There were a great number of interstate highways being built and land development going on. Through their special arrangement with Kaiser, aluminum sheets were punched and corrugated in South Carolina, shipped to Big R and inventoried there, ready to be rolled to order. If Kaiser sold a job, Big R was contracted to roll it and deliver it. If Big R sold a job, they could simply buy the stock from Kaiser right on the spot. Big R’s fleet of six flatbeds could deliver assembled culverts up to 15' wide and 80' long and Big R also did a good job at assembling culverts on site — a task most contractors didn’t want to get involved in.
As the 80s were drawing to a close, the forestry and highway business declined somewhat, but along would come another interesting category that would take Big R to other heights they had not yet imagined. In the next edition of Profiles we’ll take you there.
» Next chapter in the Big R Bridge story: the 90s