Wednesday, July 29, 2015

THYME Magazine: The Bridge Builder's Tale XIV

Citizen Journalism with a Better Flavor

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To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often." -- Sir Winston Churchill

Rupert Zimmerman first laid eyes on Siberia through the window of a Boeing 747 400 bound for Osaka. He asked the flight attendant what he was looking at and she gave a sly smile: "We can send you there if you like... it's SIBERIA!" Snow covered ragged mountains passed beneath the plane. At first there was only wild beauty in black and white... then a little village would appear. Surely this was unconquerable country. Indeed this wilderness would prove to be the greatest challenge in building the Bering Strait Bridge.

Zimmerman, at a time most men would retire, still had the insatiable desire to build. A real estate developer, he had made his fortume in the lower 48 anticipating trends and building economically. When his daughter Elizabeth married Martin O'Malley, he found a man to match his mountains. O'Malley knew the difference between true economy and cheap. As most people in the industry turned out badly built product, Martin learned how to rethink building so that craftsmanship was still present. He partnered with an innovative Swede to pre-manufacture his houses. With no weather delays and craftsmen organized in one shop, Martin and Zimmerman delivered quality and value in a world that was starved for it.

Martin's background was civil engineering and now the two men turned their attention to a work of epic proportions. Zimmerman and Elizabeth produced beautiful renderings of what could be called nothing less than one of the great wonders of the world. Martin's calculations brought about the realization that the bridge was no more impossible than the Chunnel or the transcontinental railroad had been in their day. He studied the building of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-tunnel in Virginia. He'd essentally have to build two Bay Bridge-tunnels to link Siberia to Alaska.

The main reason England and France took so long to be physically connected was not possibility, but politics. Since the Norman Conquest the English Channel was seen as a deterrent to invasion. In World War II, the channel was an important barrier, far more non-negotiable than the Maginot Line. The Bering Stait had served as a similar divide between the world's two superpowers. In the end it was Elizabeth, assistant to her father, and not Martin or Rupert that bridged that barrier. Elizabeth deftly managed Zimmerman's meeting with the cash-starved Russians. Zimmerman simply wanted a right-of-way, Elizabeth saw the opportunity for more.

Taking quite a risk, Elizabeth suggested the creation of the Siberian Autonomous District, a self-governing entity to administer the Siberian approach road. Russia would receive a percentage of the profits from oil and development in the district, but Russia would not administer it. Realizing his daughter's brilliance, Zimmerman cut her a percentage that would ultimately make her richer than her father. One unusual trait Rupert possessed was the ability to be comfortable with people on his team who outperformed him. Indeed, he didn't consider himself all that brilliant. He would always ruminate on the wonder of having Martin and Elizabeth's dynamic energy at his service... and he loved them for it.

How many times he'd seen it. A man like Zimmerman would assemble a brilliant team, the venture would flourish. Then, the super-ego of the man in the big chair would say: "That salesman is making TOO MUCH MONEY!" Commissions would be cut, brilliant people would move on to reestablish themselves with a competitor. The brilliant venture would wither at the hands of its creator. Zimmerman always credited much of his success to knowing how to get out of the way. He'd once worked for a man who couldn't let go of his great work. The man had thrown himself into building his great work, neglecting his wife and daughters. He proclaimed himself too important to bother with the affairs of family. He ended up divorcing his wife and marrying his secretary!

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(to be continued) [click to read]

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