Then and Now

I graduated from high school in May 1970. By the fall of 70 I went to work in the underground utility industry. I believe I was earning around $3.00 per hour. Considering the minimum wage back then was $1.60, I was doing pretty well. A top operator was paid $3.75 per hour.

By late spring of 1972, I had learned enough about the business, plus what I had picked up being around trucks and machinery my whole life, I subcontracted my first water line installation project in Burnet, Texas. I had a crew of 4 or 5 people including myself. I knew if we could install 300 feet of water line each day, we’d make a little money. So immediately we set our sights on laying 600 feet. We did it most days. Times were good. That was done with one rubber tired backhoe. It was a new machine, that cost around $16,500. Today the same machine costs over $60,000. I guess all things considered, that isn’t so bad. My first new pickup cost $3,000. My most recent pickup purchase was $60,000.

In today’s world, it takes a 8 man crew with 3 or 4 pieces of heavy equipment to accomplish the same thing. Requirements and regulations are much different now, which accounts for a lot of the difference.

By August of 1973, Nelson Lewis and I formed Lewis Contractors Inc. and operated it together until early 1978, when I took complete control of it. We were a company of 15 to 20 people at that time. There was one man running the office, with me bidding work part time, mostly at night and in the early morning hours. We eventually got up to 80 people with only the one old gentlemen in the office.

There were no computers used in accounting back then. There were ledgers and checkbooks. My bidding was done using a 13 column pad, a pencil and a calculator. Every item was written out, hundreds of entries on each bid. Copy and paste? Not hardly.

Now a construction company operating 50 to 100 employees will have 6 or 7 people working in the office. Each with at least one computer.

The first time our business used a computer in the office was 1985 for accounting, and 1986 for bidding purposes.

Our first several years, the only affordable copy machine was one you sandwiched the original between 2 other sheets, one a film of sorts, the other was the sheet that would become the copy. It was a system developed by 3M. It was really slow and costly, but at least a small office could afford to have one to use occasionally. Many times the copy would fad away within a short while.

It was in the late 70’s before we had a plain paper copier.

The first fax machines didn’t get used in a regular office until the last half of the 80’s. Then you were limited to who you could send a fax to, because it took a while before every office had one. Many people would have you send a fax to another nearby business, such as an office supply. It took a few years before faxes began to use plain paper. Early on the fax paper was on rolls that was slick where you could barely write on it and it tried to roll up when you laid a sheet out to look at it. But it was progress.

Of course the Internet didn’t come into play until the mid 90’s, so every office had yellow page books for every city you did business in. Austin was only one book, maybe 1 1/2″ think, but Houston and Dallas each was 2 books, each being 2″ think. If you didn’t know a number or couldn’t look it up, you would call 411 and an operator would assist you. But at a fee.

Back in the early days, no one carried a cell phone. Cell phones didn’t arrive on the scene until the 90’s. Some people had car phones, but they were expensive. In the 70’s and 80’s, when things were prosperous I would have a mobile phone in my car. Many times my phone bill would exceed $1,000 per month. For a single phone. But it saved a lot of miles. In less prosperous times I’d have to go back to using a pager and stop at a pay phone. But there was a pay phone on every corner. The cost was a dime, then suddenly took a jump all the way to a quarter.

We had Motorola 2 way radios that we used for in company communication, but they had their limitations. In order to afford one, you’d be on with several other companies, so it was like a being on a party line. Plus you had to be careful of what you said because those were public transmissions that could and many times were blasted out over loudspeakers all over the city.

Austin wasn’t such a big place in the beginning, but it seemed big. In the late 70’s, our office was in southeast Austin, no so far from the current airport. When we were building Jester Estates out on RR 2222, past where Loop 360 is now, there were really only 2 ways to get there. We would pick a course across downtown using city streets and cross Mt. Bonnell and connect with RR 2222. The other way was to generally travel I-35 or US 183 to 290/Koenig Lane and go across to RR 2222 which was traveling city streets much of the way.

There was no MOPAC or Loop 360. It was like the city that forgot that traffic needed to travel east and west as well as north and south. That trip in those days could take an hour. While things change but remain the same in a lot of ways, that trip can still take an hour. Now it’s because you’re sitting in traffic.

The signs at the city limits in the early 70’s of Austin was around 186,000. Now what is it, 10 million or does it just seem that way.

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