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Conrad Frank.

Conrad Frank

CONRAD FRANK WAS A TEENager washing dishes on a Canadian cruise ship the first time he saw Alaska. He had no idea then that some 50 years later he would have a hand in helping to build the state.

Frank, vice president and general manager of Ghemm Co. Inc., of Fairbanks, has handled construction projects throughout the northern region of Alaska - Nome, Kotzebue, Delta Junction, Prudhoe Bay, and on the government's early warning detection system that has stations scattered on the northern coast. Much of Ghemm's work has been in Fairbanks and at Fort Wainwright.

Now at age 68, Frank still enjoys the challenges of construction, including the unusual situations that can crop up when working in far-flung areas of the state. "The biggest difference out there is there's no hardware store to go to," he quips. Then more seriously, he adds, "Everything is compounded by the remoteness and need for air shipments."

One job in particular tested his company's ingenuity. It was on the Yukon River in the winter of 1963-64. Ghemm's contract called for placing riprap on the bottom of the river to slow erosion of the bank, which threatened the nearby U.S. Air Force fighter base near Galena. That meant finding an effective, cost-efficient way to dump about 15,000 yards of rock into water that was frozen thick, while working in temperatures that dipped to 40, sometimes 50, degrees below zero.

"At first we were cutting away the ice and dumping in the rock," Frank says. "It was very slow and very expensive."

So he and his crew put their heads together and came up with a dynamite idea. "We put explosives in the ice and put the rock on top of the ice. We'd shoot off the explosives, creating ice cubes that the rock filtered down through, settling on the bottom," Frank says.

It wasn't easy getting approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They had to zone off the ice and monitor the work closely.

But the riprapping was completed with no accidents. Later on that project, however, a caterpillar tractor with its driver on board dropped through the ice. The man was rescued immediately and the tractor was later fished out by a crane.

Sometimes, Frank says, challenges with no satisfying solutions appear. One such case was a contract to build government-funded housing in the village of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island.

"The ground was extremely muskeggy and the housing agency didn't have enough money to put in a proper gravel foundation. So we had to slog through the mud to do the job. It was grim and not profitable at all," he says. "It was discouraging to Ghemm."

Since then, the government let a contract to jack up the houses and lay the proper gravel foundation.

Although Frank doesn't go out and stay on remote jobs now as often as he used to - "we've got a good team of younger people who do most of that" - he still likes to visit the sites to stay on top of what's happening.

He didn't start out to be a general contractor. Born in Alberta, Canada, he moved to Helensburg, Wash., in 1939, after high school. The U.S. Army snapped him up in the draft, but after the war, in 1946, he came to Fairbanks to study civil engineering at the university. "I'd heard it was a pretty good school," he says. Plus, he liked what he had seen of Alaska years earlier during his dishwashing stint on the ship.

While what Frank found in Fairbanks was a different Alaska than that he had seen on his trip up the inside passage, he found it somewhat similar to Alberta. He liked Fairbanks well enough that he went into the concrete block business there after graduation. He was city engineer for a few years before hooking up with Ghemm Co. in 1959. The company had formed seven years earlier as mostly a heavy equipment rental company before branching into general contracting.

Though Frank had started out in civil engineering, he soon found he liked construction better than design and drafting. The money was better, an important consideration since he had a family to raise.

He has seen interesting changes occur in his field. "There's been a tremendous change in the quality and sophistication of equipment available to do construction work," he says.

"And it's a very competitive market now, although that goes up and down. In this day and age, since the fall of the economy, there's more contractors than there is work. This has brought on a competitiveness in productivity. The craftsmen and workers compare favorably to any found anywhere in the country."

Working in the Bush through the years, he has seen more skilled construction workers coming from villages. "We've always been able to get a good amount of local help," he says, "In the villages, at least, we can get a certain percentage of fairly well-qualified labor ...I think it's improved over the years due to a lot of them have gotten out to work with the pipeline and such."

It takes dedication to stick with construction in the current slump. "Cut, cut, cut," he says, laughing. "We've cut our overhead very substantially and we've had to possibly take more risks. Those with ownership have cut back our compensations and so on."

He adds, "I suppose I've never seriously thought about getting out. I've never though too much about complete retirement. If I thought I'd live this long, though, I'd have taken better care of myself."

In fact, Frank swims 16 laps a day. He's been doing that half-mile aquatic workout daily for the last 10 years. A self-described "duffer," he also golfs a little. He has plenty of reasons to stay healthy, including 15 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

When you ask Frank what he has learned from his years in construction, he says, "Never count your chickens before they're hatched. And the best way to resolve disputes is early on, before they get encumbered with additional legal costs or personal aggravations."
COPYRIGHT 1990 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:People in Construction
Author:Campbell, L.J.
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1990
Words:1015
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