The Making of an Icon
How alumna Ruth Bley lit the eastern span of the Bay Bridge —
and redefined the region’s skyline
They have builded magnificent bridges where the nation’s highways go; O’er perilous mountain ridges and where great rivers flow. Wherever a link was needed between the new and the known They have left their marks of Progress, in iron and steel and stone. There was never a land too distant nor ever a way too wide, But some man’s mind, insistent, reached out to the other side. They cleared the way, these heroes, for the march of future years. The march of Civilization-and they were its Pioneers.
— Evelyn Sims
California Gov. Frank Merriam
couldn’t have known when he read the above lines at the opening ceremony of the
Bay Bridge in November 1936 how many future generations of pioneers it would
take to sustain the most vital and heavily traveled artery in the region.
He also couldn’t have predicted — though he was surely aware of — the incredible forces of nature at work in the bay. Forces that kept the project locked in the dream-stage for decades, and demanded the state’s best engineers to innovate spanning 8 miles of water through torrential winds, corrosive saltwater and hibernating fault lines.
And then, after surmounting all those obstacles, the Loma Prieta earthquake came to call. At a magnitude of 6.9, the 1989 quake ripped through the fault lines that run parallel to the Bay Bridge on both sides, causing a portion of its top deck to collapse. Politicians of the day began earnestly planning the bridge’s replacement — a massive undertaking that required a fresh wave of pioneers to not only improve upon one of the most difficult suspension bridges ever built, but to construct something worthy of defining the East Bay skyline. A new icon.
It’s also where Cal State East Bay alumna Ruth Bley (B.S. ’82, Geology; M.S. ’88, Geology) enters the evolutionary tale of the incredible conduit. Bley is a geologist by training, entrepreneur by calling — and pioneer by nature. Bleyco, her namesake business, has been the winning bidder for building out the lighting and electrical components at several BART stations and nearly every bridge in the region, including the new span of the Bay Bridge — a job set in motion more than 20 years before it was finally completed in 2013.
And with those achievements comes the responsibility of hundreds of thousands of travelers depending on her work each day.
It’s no job for the faint of heart.
“I think it’s all about ambition and focus and trying to get it done,” Bley says of three decades at the helm of her own construction business. “And being a little bit aggressive.”
Bley had chosen to study geology in college out of a long curiosity about rocks and stone, and an affinity for collecting them since childhood. She originally left the Bay Area to attend Cal Poly, but returned to Castro Valley when her father, who also has a storied career in Bay Area construction, did what his daughter had long been begging him to do: Buy land in the country where she could raise and ride horses. It was enough to convince the equestrian (now a champion event rider in her 50s, and sponsor/mentor to young female riders) to come home and enroll at then-Cal State Hayward.
Still, her plans for the future were indefinite.
“My father thought I had too much spare time on my hands when I was in my master’s program,” Bley says with a laugh and roll of the eyes. “So he put me to work at his company (Dome Construction), part-time and eventually I went full-time.”
But, she adds, there was never any intention of her working in the family business.
“Because I had always loved animals, [my parents] encouraged me to be a veterinarian,” Bley says. “Or they would say I could be teacher or a nurse.” But, it wasn’t that the Bleys were trying to prevent their daughter from a different path, she explains. “They were just more traditional. I didn’t think of [a career] in construction, but no one else thought of it either.”
In fact, that role had already been tabbed for Bley’s brother, who at just a year older than her, was already working at the family company. And with her father stepping down from the business, Bley candidly says she “didn’t get along with” his business partner and began looking for opportunities on her own.
“I just didn’t think there was going to be any place for me to go in that company at the time — and in hindsight I was probably wrong,” she says. “I could probably have just continued on and been a part of eventually buying him out, but I think I was trying to figure out what I could do on my own so that I could be in control. I don’t micromanage and I’m not controlling, but I like to be in control of what I’m doing. Truthfully, I’ve never looked back.”
Bley founded Bleyco in 1987, one year in advance of completing her degree from Cal State East Bay. Though she did consider a job in geology, by the time Bley finished her master’s, she says the idea of going back to an entry-level position — and starting pay — had little appeal compared to being her own boss.
However, plenty of lessons carried over.
“Cal State East Bay had what I believe to be one of the best geology departments anywhere,” Bley says. “I think going out in the field [in geology] — you have to be comfortable with it and you have to be able to figure things out, and I learned that at Cal State East Bay. And in construction, you have to be comfortable going out to the job site and figuring things out. And they both have that three-dimensional aspect, which either I’m good at or I just really like.”
The ability to figure things out, as well as the young entrepreneur’s mounting independence, is eventually how large-scale transportation projects became a mainstay of Bleyco’s project lineup.
Bley pieced together small jobs for her first decade in business, but on the heels of Prop 209 in the late-90s — which eliminated affirmative action measures at the state level in California — she began going after federally funded contracts, where there were still opportunities for small and women-owned businesses to carve out money from large contracts. And to gain competitive edge, she expanded her business to include electrical work by teaming up with now-vice president of Bleyco, Chris Berge.
“It gave prime contractors incentive to use you,” she explains. “We still had to be the low number [in the bidding process], but they were incentivized to use us and potentially be a little bit nicer — though I don’t know if that last part is true.”
Bley specifically recalls her first meeting with transportation officials over a small change to a contract, which she had thought would be a simple, quick discussion.
“All of sudden, [I walked into the room] and it was like one person — me — and 20 people to discuss this one change order, all men,” she says. “They try to outnumber you. You have to learn to stand your ground. Construction tactics, is what it is. I’ll always remember that first meeting — and the subsequent meetings were always kind of like that, too.”
Bley started winning contracts to work on various aspects of the lighting and electrical for bridges — lesser known ones at first, such as the High and Park street bridges linking Oakland to Alameda — and a series of jobs for BART, including portions of the Hayward, Castro Valley, Millbrae and North Concord stations.
Then, the bridge work began in earnest with a five-piece contract for an integrated security platform called Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition, which involved wiring and installing surveillance cameras on the San Mateo and San Rafael bridges, among others.
“We’ve basically been on every bridge in the area,” Bley says.
But the moment she realized that all the drops in the bucket were adding up came with the Benicia Bridge.
“The Benicia Bridge was the first one that was a really big contract,” Bley says. “And it was in two parts, the north landing side and then the main bridge part — and when we first got the [north landing], it was a shock. We had done little bridges, but to actually get [a big one] — it made us more aggressive to go after other projects.”
Like the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, and the “light show” art installation that now plays continuously on the western span — a job Bleyco was requested to handle due to its track record of quality.
Yet Bley is surprisingly nonchalant about the most high-profile, high-scrutiny jobs of her career.
“We don’t do dog and pony shows,” she says. “We have a reputation for doing the stuff that we’re doing, so there’s no issue about ‘Can you do this work?’ And we have a reputation with Caltrans because our stuff actually works. Then it’s a hard bid number. We’re either low or we’re not.”
However, she does admit, “I know I’m faster at making decisions than a lot of people are,” as one key to her success.
And, to ensure the consistency, Bley has amassed a trustworthy team of “mavericks” over the years, which she keeps tightknit.
“I have been extremely lucky in the people that we have — and that’s why we’re still small,” she says. “Because I don’t think I ever figured out how to make a larger company and still pay attention to the details. And construction is so risky that if you don’t pay attention you’re going to lose money quickly. Our standing joke is that when we go to Reno or whatever, we never gamble because we gamble every day — we roll the dice.”
For instance, the problems and escalating costs that plagued construction on the Bay Bridge, California’s most expensive public works project to date, are now a part of its notorious history. But from Bley’s point of view, those issues also had unexpected positive side effects.
“The lighting was spec’d out to be a different kind of lighting but the delays, delays, delays led to the point where the technology on LED lighting had developed and we could do it,” she says. “The lights that Caltrans originally wanted were the traditional bridge lights — it was going to be, you know, boring bridge lighting … I think we were instrumental in influencing Caltrans’ idea about the type of lights to use on the bridge because we had the relationship with Musco, the manufacturer for the lighting. As the LED technology progressed, they jumped in and said they could make a light that would work on the Bay Bridge, and then we, along with the engineers, got Caltrans to agree to it. It was fun to be involved with.”
Bley is also careful to point out that what drivers, pedestrians and cyclists actually see is far less than the whole picture. “You have to look at bridges as connectors. Look at the Benicia Bridge — the lighting on top is really nothing, but the electrical underneath is substantial. And the Bay Bridge, that bridge brings electrical out to Treasure Island. People depend on that power.”
In the end, she’s confident in the result.
“It was not worth all of the angst that it created,” she says of the press surrounding construction problems on the Bay Bridge. “If you’re worried about [the stability of] the bridge now, you should have been really worried before. The only thing I worried about for a little bit was [an earthquake happening and] the old bridge falling on the new one.”
With her business on solid ground, Bley has been able to devote more time to her passions in recent years, including reflecting on her role in the making of the East Bay’s icon.
“I didn’t realize it was going to make such an impact on the skyline,” she says. “But the day it opened, we went back to Oakland and had dinner and looked out on it, and I just thought ‘Wow.’ Because when you’re building it, you don’t know. But the overall effect of it is quite impressive. And the innovation for that suspension bridge was good. I’m glad that the two mayors, including now-California Gov. [Jerry] Brown, wanted something special for the Oakland side.”
Bley also serves on the board of Women Construction Owners & Executives, USA, and on small business councils for Caltrans, California High Speed Rail and California’s Department of General Services, where she pushes hard for representation among female and small-business owners in a world dominated by corporate conglomerates — a lesson she knows well from having struck out on her own all those years ago.
“We need to make sure that women are represented on all of these councils,” she says. “It’s funny because we started on a lot of BART work, so it’s been a lot of transportation type stuff — so helping the Bay Area. The focus, the reason it went that direction is because it’s where you have assistance to women-owned businesses. I’m considered a graduate, but unfortunately, I don’t think there’s that many of me out there, which I’d like to see more of.”
And finally, if she isn’t in her office or out on a job site or climbing the 500-foot spire of a bridge (why take the elevator?), Bley is almost certainly atop a horse on her 120-acre Castro Valley ranch — a place she takes comfort in, and that keeps her head sharp for business.
“To actually want to go out and gallop cross-country at 550 kilometers per minute, jumping solid obstacles that look like cars, you have to be aggressive enough to want to do that,” she says. “And I think construction’s the same way. You have to think that you can do it — and if you don’t think you can, don’t bother. Don’t bother submitting a number.”
FUNDING FUTURE PIONEERS
During her time at Cal State East Bay, alumna Ruth Bley says the field trips she used to take as a geology student were “the best part of the whole thing — taking your knowledge and applying it,” and helped launch her own success. Now, she’s carving out that same opportunity for today’s students.
Recently, following a funding deficit that put the field excursions to geological sites throughout California and Nevada on hiatus, Bley is helping get them back on track.
“Field trips are crucial — we really can’t teach geology without taking students out into the field,” says Professor Luther Strayer, who completed a trip to Death Valley with 18 students during the spring quarter thanks to Bley’s support. “It’s a coming of age when a student spends time in the field. They come back different. And Ruth, specifically, enabled students to have that experience.”
It’s exactly the type of pipeline Bley is hoping to help build, whether for students in geology, construction or another field of work entirely.
“I think women should be allowed to find their place,” she says. “But, you have to know about it to find it. And you have to be exposed to it.”