It's a routine meeting, and nothing about the conference room seems the least bit dangerous. Even so, Manuel Rondón starts things off with safety announcements.
He reminds people where the nearest exits are and how to reach them in an emergency. He gives detailed directions to the restrooms - just in case.
Rondón is a man who doesn't like leaving anything to chance. And, considering the task he has in front of him, that's probably a good thing.
Rondón is in charge of building the new $849 million Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The suspension bridge will be the longest built in the United States in 40 years, and it will cross a channel notorious for tidal currents and high winds.
The first bridge across the Narrows, "Galloping Gertie," shook itself apart in a 1940 windstorm, going down in history as one of the world's most spectacular engineering failures
"There's no room for error," Rondón says.
The physical challenges of Rondón's job are daunting, but the political ones are potentially treacherous, too.
He's surrounded by local residents angrily opposed to the new bridge and eager to find screw-ups. His company, Tacoma Narrows Constructors, is a partnership between two of the world's biggest construction companies, Bechtel and Kiewit, meaning he must satisfy the egos and expectations of two corporate offices. And his work is under constant scrutiny not only of the State Department of Transportation but also of thousands of commuters who drive through the construction zone each day.
The complexities of Rondón's job bring to mind the Flying Karamazov Brothers, juggling running chain saws, Jell-O and live chickens.
Relentless planner, negotiator
Rondón, 49, is a native of Venezuela, and the Narrows project is his first in the United States.
His Spanish accent, along with his fuzzy, gray-streaked beard and ready smile, can give the initial impression of a charming, sophisticated teddy bear. He loves music, good wine and good food. At the office Christmas party, he was dancing with the best of them.
But associates and employees say he's a detail man, an unrelenting planner and, when necessary, a fearsome negotiator. In the builder's offices, located in a Gig Harbor business park, he leaves no doubt who is in charge.
"What they say out here is, 'I wouldn't want to piss him off too much,'" said Tom Draeger, Rondón's boss at Bechtel's headquarters in San Francisco.
Draeger said he and other corporate executives chose Rondón for the Narrows job in part because of his bridge experience. His most recent job was a tricky retrofit of the suspension bridge over the Tagus River in Lisbon, Portugal, the longest in Europe. He added a second deck for freight trains and commuter trains while 140,000 cars a day continued to use the top level.
Rondón also was chosen for his ability to coordinate and lead, Draeger said.
"Leading these big projects today, one of the biggest challenges is coordinating all of the interests involved, and Manuel is very skilled at that," Draeger said.
"He struck me as a guy who could get the two biggest elephants in the construction business - Bechtel and Kiewit - working together."
Rondón downplays his personal role in the Narrows project.
He may be the boss, he said, but he is by no means the most important player. What is important is building a strong team and holding it together, he said.
"If you have a strong team," he said, "you can put Mickey Mouse at the head and the team can still function."
Arab oil embargo a windfall
Rondón was born and raised in Caracas, the son of an electrician.
"We valued what we had," he said, "because it was not easy to get."
His rise from a blue-collar background was, at least in part, a matter of fortunate timing. In 1973, when he was in college, the Arab oil embargo created a windfall for his country. Oil prices shot from $8 to $40 a barrel, and Venezuela suddenly had more money than it knew what to do with.
With some of it, the government created a scholarship fund to send thousands of top students abroad to study. Rondón was among the first chosen.
He went to Tufts University in the Boston area, where he studied electrical engineering, an experience he now sees as a stroke of extraordinary good luck.
"That was a turning point in my life," he says.
It gave him credentials from one of America's top schools, honed his English and gave him a taste for international culture and travel.
"Now," he says, "when I come to the States, I am at home."
Tufts changed Rondón's life in a more personal way, too. It was there that he met his wife, Yoko, the daughter of a Tokyo banker, enrolled in a child studies program. They were married in the school chapel.
After college, Rondón returned to Venezuela and a job with a subsidiary of Exxon. His first assignment disappointed him. He was to manage the installation of a lighting system in a commissary.
"Are you kidding?" he remembers thinking. "I graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University. I have a master's degree, and you want me to do this?"
But the job turned out to be excellent experience.
"That is where my passion for projects started," he said. "It gave me a taste of the things that were to come." He learned, he said, that "it is better to be the head of the mouse than the tail of the lion."
Rondón worked his way through a succession of building projects in the petrochemical and aluminum industries, each more complex and difficult than the one before.
He built an export facility for a bauxite plant, an office building for an aluminum smelter, a methyl tertiary-butyl ether production facility.
In the 1990s, his work in a consortium with the German company, DSD Dillinger Stahlbau GmbH, led to the Tagus River job.
"Why do you want me?" Rondón remembers asking his prospective employers. "I have no experience with bridges."
They wanted him not for his expertise in bridges, it turned out, but for his ability to coordinate, control and make decisions.
"We want you because you can make the consortium work," he was told.
The qualities that add up to that ability, Rondón said, are difficult to define.
"It's not something you learn," he says. "It's like an art. You have to be ahead of things."
Rondón's formula for successful management, he says, goes like this: Pick good people, entrust them with responsibility and give them the power to do their jobs. Tell people what you expect from them, and be a good listener.
"The most important thing is people," he said. "Building this bridge is not about the cable. It's not about the deck. It's about encouraging people, inspiring people."
'Did we have fun?'
Rondón's personal office is all business. It's an anonymous space, indistinguishable from dozens of others in the buildings Tacoma Narrows Constructors has leased.
There are no mementos or personal photos on the walls, just the standard desk and computer, a bookcase stuffed with technical engineering documents and a small circular meeting table.
He prefers to meet with his top people around the table and hammer out problems face-to-face. Phone messages sometimes pile up, he admits, and unread e-mails can languish in long queues.
His top people are an international mix of specialists from Europe, South America and throughout North America, several of whom have worked together on previous bridges. Suspension bridges are built so rarely that the top people in the field tend to know one another and travel the world from one project to the next.
Rondón's intense focus, which his whole team seems to share, is not the grim, joyless variety. The atmosphere at the office has a definite boys-in-the-sandbox feel. It is not difficult to imagine them as a pack of kids, racing around with old boards and their dads' tools, determined to build the best treehouse ever.
One of Rondón's criteria for the success of a project, he says, is: "Did we have fun?"
On the Narrows project, he says, "I expect to have them say at the end of the day, 'We did.' And that goes from the lady at the reception to my deputy."
Curiosity about the Narrows project abounds, and, as the boss, Rondón has been asked by dozens of civic groups to make presentations. For the most part, he dodges them. His interest is not public relations, it's bridge-building.
When the governor and his staff wanted a briefing, Rondón sent one of his managers instead of going himself.
"They were happy, (the manager) was happy and I was happy," he says.
On the Tagus River Bridge job, Rondón said, interest among the public and other engineering professionals was so high, it became a serious distraction.
"So many people wanted to come and see what we were doing, it got annoying," he said. "It was unsafe."
Safety is a top priority with Rondón.
"Every accident can and must be prevented," he says.
Rondón is determined to complete the Narrows bridge with no deaths or serious accidents.
"There is nothing more difficult than going to somebody's family and saying he or she is not coming back tonight," he said. "What is it worth at the end of the day if you sacrifice a human life?"
Despite an aggressive safety program on the Tagus River job, Rondón said, two workers died on the project, a heartbreaking disappointment for him.
"As project manager," he says, "it was my duty to make sure that the families were properly assisted, and it was the tradition that they would come to the site to meet us shortly after the accident.
"It is beyond words, the emotions that permeate a meeting like this."
'Isn't it beautiful?'
Construction on the new Narrows bridge began just last month, but Rondón has been in Washington more than three years, working on planning, contracts and budgets.
He and Yoko bought a house in Gig Harbor, near Artondale Elementary, shortly after they arrived from Lisbon.
Their daughter, Isa, now 21, is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Diego, 16, an aspiring drummer, goes to Gig Harbor High School, and Gabriel, 9, is a student at Artondale.
They loved Lisbon, Rondón says, but they like Gig Harbor better. He says they've been having a great time scouting out good restaurants, going to concerts at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, and, on summer weekend afternoons, going to Rainiers baseball games.
"We embraced the community," he says.
But they quickly discovered the community did not embrace the bridge.
When they arrived in Gig Harbor, antibridge sentiment was so high, Rondón said, people warned him not to tell people where he worked.
His son, Gabriel, came home from school and asked him, "Is it OK to say you work with the bridge?"
Rondón feels such pride in the Narrows project, this is disconcerting to him - but not surprising.
"It's going to be a big inconvenience for people," he said. "I would be upset, too."
But the fact is, he said, unless you build something in a green field in the middle of nowhere, construction always causes some disruption. The more urban the project, the greater the disruption.
Building a bridge is like having a baby, he said. No matter what you do, it requires a certain amount of time and involves a certain amount of pain.
Rondón firmly believes the finished product will be worth the struggle. Suspension bridges are works of art, he says, magical in their simplicity and grace.
"They are very elegant," he said. "I can talk about this for days.'
In his office, he pulls a big glossy coffee-table book off a shelf crammed with engineering studies. The book is a photographic record of the Tagus Bridge project, and he opens it face down on the table, so the panoramic photo on the cover is displayed in full.
He runs his hand across the length of it.
"Look at that," he says. "Isn't it beautiful?"
One of his great satisfactions in Lisbon, he says, after the bridge was finished and the construction material cleared away, was going back to a favorite restaurant on the Tagus River, where he often ate lunch during the project.
He would take a table by the window and eat lunch looking out at the bridge soaring above him. It gave him great pleasure, he said, sitting there and knowing he had some part in building it.
"I would think, 'My God, when we were first starting ... now look at it! Who would know that I had something to do with that bridge? That is my satisfaction - just to know it's there."
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Rob Carson: 253-597-8693