Ralph M. Parsons
By all accounts, Ralph Parsons was not the best student nor was he the best engineer. But during his life, he would evolve from being a fisherman’s son on Long Island to founder and leader of one of the world’s largest and most influential engineering and construction companies.
At just 13, he helped his older brother open a machine shop in Amagansett, Long Island. Instead of finishing high school, he earned a two-year degree in machine design and then joined the Navy for training and experience in aeronautical engineering.
Mr. Parsons’ secret, a friend and colleague said long after he died, was “good luck . . . the proper perception of people . . . and a good feel for the future of business.”
By the time Mr. Parsons died in 1974 at age 78, the firm he founded around the end of World War II had completed a list of projects that reads like a history of industrial and urban development in the 20th Century. It built scores of major projects in more than 30 countries: oil and natural gas facilities, shipyards, power plants, irrigation and water development projects, metal and mineral mines and processing plants, airports, subway and rail lines, sewerage systems, NASA facilities and more.
Along the way, Mr. Parsons worked many 15-hour days, traveled the globe, married twice but had no children, owned two of the largest private yachts ever built, and became a talented photographer.
In his 20s and 30s, Mr. Parsons continued to learn engineering and business skills, and partnered with leading engineers, including Stephen D. Bechtel, who later became his chief competitor in the industry, and John A. McCone, later head of the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1944, Mr. Parsons decided to develop his own business, hiring six top engineers. The firm quickly earned international acclaim. Mr. Parsons said that his ability to hire and retain good people was key.
Later, the writer of an authorized company history observed: “When something went wrong, he said what he thought and that was the end of it. He never belabored a point or held it against you if you were not deliberately at fault. He judged you on your overall performance.”
Certainly, Ralph Parsons led a remarkable life. He moved easily in government and industry circles, but he was also respected for his honesty and for being an “all-around guy.”
In 1961, he founded The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation as the charitable giving arm of his company. On his death, he left the Foundation 600,000 shares of Parsons Company stock and $4 million in cash. In 1976, two years after he died, the foundation became fully independent of the company, with which it now shares only Mr. Parsons’ name. The Foundation has no financial interest in the company. In 1978, the Foundation made another transition from giving to just a few designated recipients to inauguration of a multidisciplinary grantmaking program. That program continues today.
The Foundation leads the philanthropic community in Southern California. The legacy of Ralph Parsons continues.