Bayou Shipbuilder Booming
Horizon Shipbuilding is bustling with orders of all kinds, all around the world. Most recently: a fleet of New York commuter ferries.
Travis Short looks out the picture window in his Bayou La Batre office and points out the diversity of Horizon Shipbuilding’s clientele.
To the far right is an escort tug for a New York client. Next to it is the 20th tow boat being built for Florida Marine Transporters, capable of pushing a ton of cargo up and down the Mississippi River.
Beside the tow boat is a Coast Guard buoy tender undergoing routine maintenance. Next to the tender is an old U.S. Army Corps of Engineers barge that Horizon is refurbishing.
A bunker vessel is being built for a Virginia client. A yacht is being refurbished. A shrimp boat is in for maintenance and a push boat company has a vessel in for repair.
And then there are the New York City ferries, 10 of them, under construction across the bayou. No wonder Horizon’s owner and president calls his operation “the most diverse shipyard on the Gulf Coast.”
Horizon’s participation in the New York Citywide Ferry project has drawn quite a bit of attention lately, both in marine circles and in NYC, where skeptics question whether an entirely new ferry service proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio can be up and running by this summer. In November, The New York Times came to town to see how things were going at Horizon.
Two companies are actually building the ferries, Horizon and Metal Shark in Franklin, Louisiana, but Horizon is building more of them.
Initially, Horizon was awarded eight boats — at $4 million apiece — and Metal Shark was hired to build four. Hornblower, the company that will run the ferry service, subsequently gave each company two more boats to build. The last three have gone to Horizon, so the Alabama shipbuilder will end up doing 13 boats, while its Louisiana competitor will have six.
Horizon is building the ferries assembly-line style, and, while Short admits the timetable is challenging, he’s overcome bigger ones.
ABOVE Travis Short, president and general manager of Horizon Shipbuilding, oversees a flurry of activity at the company’s yard in Bayou La Batre, and a mindboggling variety of ships — including escort tugs, offshore crew ships and those silver hulls that are part of a fleet of ferry boats on rush order for the mayor of New York City.
Working through setbacks
Travis E. Short, the father of Travis R. Short, got the family into the shipbuilding business. After serving aboard a Navy supply ship during the Vietnam War, the father went to work at a shipyard. With a partner, he eventually re-opened an old shipyard in Pascagoula.
The operation lasted from 1978 until the oil business collapsed in 1984. Following his parents’ divorce, Travis R. lived in Port Orchard, Washington. “From ’79 to ’84, every summer when I visited my Dad I worked in the shipyard,” he recalls.
“When I graduated high school, he said, ‘Son, what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m really not sure.’ He said, ‘Well, get your butt back down here. You can work the shipyard, live in the attic apartment and go to school.’”
When the shipyard went under, Travis R. went to work as a security guard at a paper mill and finished his college education at the University of South Alabama. His father was part owner of a fabrication shop.
“When I graduated college he said, ‘Son, what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘Well, I got this accounting degree. I’m not sure exactly.’ He said, ‘Well, go keep the books up at the shop.’”
His father went to Nebraska to help a failing business avoid bankruptcy and ended up talking the owner, a man named Owen, into investing in the current shipyard site. That company, then called Owen-Short Marine, lasted from 1995 to 1997, then closed. The two Shorts obtained a small amount of financing, held on to one previous client and began making railcar covers for the railroad industry until they could work their way back to shipbuilding.
Sales grew from $1 million to $2 million for a few years and then to $4 million annually. They received an international shipbuilding job from Nigeria for crew boats and a large offshore supply boat, but the owner didn’t have enough financing and that led — again — to reorganization in bankruptcy court. Once out of bankruptcy, the senior Travis went into semi-retirement and turned Horizon Shipbuilding over to his son.
ABOVE The silver hull of one of 13 ferries Horizon Shipbuilding is contracted to build for New York City, at $4 million each, is one of the jobs that has 350 workers — including Doran Webb, above left — buzzing on the bayou.
Savings through innovation
Through those ups and downs, Short learned to value diverse markets. Horizon has done defense work, fulfilled multi-boat contracts, fixed up shrimp boats and expanded into international markets.
The contract that turned Horizon’s fortunes for the better was Florida Marine Transporters, which started at nine tow boats for several million dollars each and has now reached 20.
International clients, Short learned, prefer to use American shipbuilders. “The reason we compete is because most foreigners want an American-built boat,” he says. “They want one that is certified by the American Bureau of Shipping.”
More recently, Horizon has been able to withstand a downturn in the industry, in no small part by landing the ferry contract. He said 2016 revenues would be “in the 40s” in millions of dollars.
It was the ability to handle multiple jobs and build multiple boats at once that helped win the New York ferries job. In the fall of 2016, Horizon was working on 19 different boats at once and employing 350 workers.
Short designed his own software program, called Gordhead, to keep a tight rein on each job and each task assigned to that job.
Basically, any task, problem, question or event is entered into the same computer system. Departments or individuals can discuss issues. For example, the crew assigned to one ferry may have solved a problem being faced by another crew. That level of communication saves time, and if a boat can be delivered earlier than its deadline, the savings are substantial.
Gordhead won a 2016 Innovation Award from the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama. Short is now beginning to market the software. “What it does is make everybody better,” he says.
The first New York ferry should be delivered during the first quarter of 2017, followed by a new boat every two weeks. Each ferry takes seven months to build.
C.V. Partridge is the project manager for the ferries. He says he moved to Horizon from BAE Systems specifically for the project.
“We have challenges every day, but that’s part of the excitement, getting through the challenges,” Partridge says. “You kind of start every day with a plan. Sometimes the plans adjust.”
Before a ferry is delivered, it will undergo sea trials and docking trials, Partridge says, and the ferry needs to perform well enough on all the tests and procedures to win approval from the client and from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Docking trials will take place before a ferry heads out to the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the obvious difference between New York bodies of water and the Gulf, Horizon will simulate conditions a ferry might encounter. For example, a ferry will be tested in “crash stop” by speeding up and then reversing.
“Just this project in general, bringing this citywide ferry service, this public transportation, to New York City is special to everyone in New York,” Partridge says. “It’s special to the industry because the industry is slow. It’s special to this area. It’s special to me.”
Jane Nicholes and Todd Douglas are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Daphne and he in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.