Their name in pavement

Sept. 26, 2003

The greats of Hollywood have their names forever placed in concrete. In the contractor business, a true measure of success is to see exactly how long your mark remains intact within the local infrastructure. Griffith Co.'s 1928 stamps are still available for viewing in the Orange County, Calif., area.

"We're the oldest contractor in southern California," Jim Waltze, president of Griffith Co., told Roads & Bridges. "We started out building roads and have always built roads. That has always been our foundation."

The greats of Hollywood have their names forever placed in concrete. In the contractor business, a true measure of success is to see exactly how long your mark remains intact within the local infrastructure. Griffith Co.'s 1928 stamps are still available for viewing in the Orange County, Calif., area.

"We're the oldest contractor in southern California," Jim Waltze, president of Griffith Co., told Roads & Bridges. "We started out building roads and have always built roads. That has always been our foundation."

Griffith Co. was playing a leading role in the paving industry well before the lasting mark was placed in Orange County. Fairchild-Gilmore-Wilton orginated in 1902 as an engineering contractor focusing on paving, grading, underground work, concrete work and site development. The Griffith family made its move as early as 1906, when George P. Griffith joined the company as director before he was elected vice president. His cousin, Stephen Griffith, left Spokane, Wash., to join the operation two years later. George rose to president in 1920 and Fairchild-Gilmore-Wilton continued to crank out a high volume of country road and city street miles. The paving machine changed its name to Griffith Co. in 1921, and the sudden passing of George left the controls in the hands of Stephen. He led operations from 1928 to 1956. Ben Griffith (1956-1971) and George P. Griffith III (1972-1983) kept the family name atop the head desk until ownership was turned over to employees.

Business, however, wasn't quite as consistent, and like many contracting firms Griffith Co. went outside the box for continued success. In the 1930s the company broke into the dam building scene. The 1950s was spent helping the war effort which included the construction of airport runways and barracks. The energy crisis of the 1970s once again had Griffith rewiring its power--and revenue--generator.

"We have found about every 10 years we're in a little different market segment," said Waltze. "We've maintained our flexibility in that way."

Still, the highway construction industry has been, and continues to be, a salvation. Griffith Co. inked perhaps one of its biggest deals in its signature industry in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The freeway program in California was simmering, and Griffith was one of the first to bring it to a boil.

"We were on the leading edge of the freeway program," said Waltze.

From Orange County to big banana

It took some time before roads grew to be four lanes wide. In the beginning, Griffith Co. put its name in for city street work in the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as Orange, Riverside and Ventura counties. In fact, Griffith road crews saw action in Wilmington, Long Beach and San Diego as early as 1904.

Orange County quickly became a favorite. Fairchild-Gilmore-Wilton dedicated land for the construction of the intersection at La Veta and Glassell streets. Griffith Co. remained on the scene in the 1920s building curbs, streets and gutters in Newport Beach and Corona Del Mar. The contractor officially settled in the region in the 1950s with the establishment of a district headquarters.

"We were in early in Orange County," said Waltze. "There was a tremendous amount of growth down there and we were a part of it."

When projects in California turned major, Griffith always found a way to be included. In September 1936 the company won a $397,000 contract to widen the last 18.7 miles of the Los Angeles-Pomona Lateral, a route that contributed to the development of cities and communities east of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

The Santa Ana Freeway and Highway 99 in Bakersfield were Griffith achievements in 1949. The extension of the Santa Ana Freeway totaled four miles and required 14 grade-separation bridges. Griffith Co. was in charge of grading and paving the new section. In terms of safety, this stretch of the Santa Ana Freeway was the engineering marvel of its time. Griffith constructed 5-ft-wide, 3-in.-thick shoulders to enable cars to make safe emergency stops, and new directional signs using lowercase letters and fluorescent lighting increased legibility and nighttime visibility.

Griffith helped take the danger out of Highway 99. Serving as the only direct highway connection between Los Angeles and the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, the tight Highway 99 carried both truck and touring automobile traffic. As the accident rate climbed the California Division of Highways opted to have 23 miles of the highway reconstructed and modernized. Griffith Co. handled 2.6 miles of the route and paved 8- to 9-ft shoulders. To help motorists safely pass slow-moving trucks, the contractor also built a central division strip to separate northbound and southbound traffic. 

Griffith Co. had run-ins with the rich and famous in 1950-51. Assigned to the most challenging section of the Hollywood Freeway (10 miles), which included 1 million cu yd of excavation, building relocation and the accommodation of area landmarks, Griffith completed an eight-lane divided freeway extending from Western Virgil.

Breaking the worst bottleneck in southern California--Highway 466--proved to be a true test of human will. The project involved the construction of 12 miles of four-lane highway through the Tehachap Mountains between Bakersfield and Bear Mountain. The heat often climbed into the 100s and the mountainous terrain lacked legitimate water supply. Twelve miles of 8-in. water line was built from the Harley Barling farm into the Bear Mountain area, and six reservoirs and pumping stations were constructed to boost water from an 800-ft elevation to 2,000 ft above sea level. Crews used 2,000 lb of ice a day to assist in the slow curing process of the concrete.

Griffith was awarded three contracts for viaduct work in the Santa Monica Expressway in 1960. The eight-lane viaduct structure crossed 38 city streets, which remained open during construction, at a height of 20 ft. Griffith poured 61/2-in. bridge decks and used 14,000 frames of tubular falsework. To save time, Griffith built a mobile pouring unit, called "the traveling elephant," that served as a traveling conveyor machine. The unit allowed crews to cut a one-hour-per-column job down to 15 minutes. Griffith also turned innovative when it came to clearing 800,000 tons of concrete building slabs and foundation within the freeway right-of-way. With crusher plants located at three sites, concrete was broken up, hauled and turned into aggregate for base material in the ramp fills and frontage roads.

Other sources of energy

The 1970s was a dry one for California contractors. Not only did the energy crisis put a charge into the price of asphalt, but highway and road work in general diminished significantly due to an inattentive state legislature and pressure from environmental groups. Griffith Co. had to make a move to survive.

"We had asphalt plants all over southern California in the early 1970s and were doing a lot of freeway work," Waltze explained. "That freeway work would be two or three years in duration, and when the energy crunch hit we had a lot of major contracts with a lot of asphalt that was two years down the road in a fixed-price contract.

"We did get all of those jobs paved and we recovered some of those earlier losses, but the board of directors decided that with the uncertainty of the oils it would be a good idea to sell our asphalt plants."

With the plants out of the way Griffith Co. started to focus more on the bigger projects where it could use its size and expertise as an advantage.

"We got into the bigger projects that demanded a little more planning, scheduling and sophistication," said Waltze. "We thought we were more competitive there and weren't as reliant on the asphalt. We could go anywhere in southern California and do work and just buy the materials we needed."

But Griffith did not want to go anywhere with just any crew and began implementing a project management system. By assembling teams and forming a best practices guide, Griffith Co. maintains control of a particular project from beginning to end. Everything became more standardized.

"We have divisions and districts working together and we needed a standardized method," said Waltze. "When we go to a job meeting we hear the same thing, and by standardizing it it really allowed us to move forward with that 80 years of knowledge that we had at the time."

Griffith Co. took operations a step further by forming specialty crews. Instead of relying heavily on subcontractors to perform specific tasks Griffith developed its own divisions (structures, undergound, crushing), thus allowing the contractor to offer a broad range of expertise at every proj-ect.

"Over the years we've been able to develop some of the best crews, and we think we bring the best of the best to the project. The more self-performing we do, the more competitive we are," said Waltze.

It's easy to excel in the self-promoting department too, especially when you continue to put the name out there in different market segments. In 1994, Griffith Co. completed its first multi-modal transportation center (Century Freeway Metro Rail Terminus), and the company's last two dominant proj-ects have involved the port authority.

The aim of the Pier 400 project was to expand the capacity of the Port of Los Angeles' Terminal. Griffith Co. took on two critical sections of the job. Work involved the construction of two grade separator bridges and two pedestrian bridges. To elevate the separator bridge over rail and roads, Griffith installed a system of precast retaining walls as high as 40 ft. A series of overhead signs with LED displays also were installed, which allowed the port operator to direct truck traffic on the man-made island.

While the Pier 400 project was taking place, Griffith stretched its resources to complete its largest modern-era contract--the $71 million Pier T. Here is where Griffith used its specialty approach to the fullest. After placing 2 million cu yd of excavation and earth fill at the container storage facility, Griffith installed an underground system that consisted of more than 81,000 linear ft of water, sewer and storm drain.

To accommodate an extensive crane system, Griffith's concrete group installed more than 32,000 linear ft of concrete crane pads and hatch cover facilities.

The contractor also was responsible for placing over 500,000 tons of asphalt and $35 million worth of rail work, as well as being responsible for a $10 million electrical job.

Despite some enormous feats, Griffith Co. prefers handling jobs on a smaller scale. The company is currently working on the reconstruction of Rodeo Drive.

Perhaps Hollywood stars will be the ones anxious to look down and admire the work of a legend.

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