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Evolution of a Ship Rigger

From the rough hustle of a ship chandler, Marine and Industrial has morphed into a specialist in making and testing rigging — and training crews worldwide to use it.

ABOVE Chris Gossett puts a load on the overhead crane.
 

Adapting to changing markets has kept Marine and Industrial Supply of Mobile in business since 1975. What the family-owned business did then and what it does now are very different.

When founder Roy Benton first went into business with his wife’s uncle, it was as a ship chandler, meeting ships as they came into the Port of Mobile and cleared customs. The chandlers competed for the right to bring groceries, prescriptions, soap, paint and so on to each ship or tugboat so they could turn around and get back on the water as quickly as possible. It was a sometimes chaotic atmosphere, where success depended on personal relationships and being on the spot when a ship arrived.

Today Marine and Industrial supplies wire rope, slings and associated rigging parts, tests the riggings for load capacity certifications and offers training and servicing of equipment. It does business in West Africa and in Central and South America. Roy’s son, Thomas, is president, and Thomas’ sister, Aurelia McMahon, works in government sales. The company is solution-oriented, Thomas says.

“We went through a kind of transformation from old marine-world thinking to modern business-to-business transaction,” Thomas says. Once the company had to have someone available 24/7 to race to meet an incoming ship; today someone has to be ready to answer a phone call from another continent and deal with a problem half a dozen time zones away.

Inside a warehouse behind Marine and Industrial’s office on Virginia Street off Interstate 10, company employees braid wire rope together to increase the amount of weight it can lift and sew custom slings that hold cargo to be lifted onto ships or other structures. A variety of metal gadgets are stacked on shelves with coiled rope and pre-made slings.

“We fabricate lifting slings to fit the end-user’s specific requirements,” Thomas says. “We also sell a wide variety of hardware, shackles, master links, connection fittings to be able to hook up the slings, whether they’re wire or they’re synthetic, to the connection points of whatever the object is that’s being picked up. So, part of the rigging is also hardware.”

ABOVE Roy and Thomas Benton with a 250-metric-ton shackle capable of lifting 551,000 pounds
 

The completed rigging is tested in a hydraulic tension bed at the warehouse. Testing can also be done on site, even if the site is overseas.

Marine and Industrial’s markets are the oilfield, local marine businesses, heavy industrial, heavy construction and the energy sector, including power and nuclear facilities. There is enough diversity that a downturn in one sector, like the oilfield, isn’t catastrophic. The local marine and port division is now the smallest in the company, Thomas says.

It’s a long way from grocery shopping for a ship.

As Roy tells it, ship chandlers in the 1970s had to be on the spot at the gangway when a ship tied up to compete for the right to fill the supply list. It was a cash business, he says. One had to sell not just the captain, but also several underlings on doing business with a specific company. He described competing on site for business as “a dogfight.”

Says Thomas: “You had to be at the barroom where they were, or the lunchroom where they were, or on the vessels. And you had to have those contacts on the waterfront personally.”

Thomas recalls his father changing clothes more than once during the day and coming home dirty if he had to get out of his business suit and help load supplies onto a ship. Communications were via radio and Western Union when a ship came in range, long before cell phones, satellite phones or internet.

Into the mid-1980s, Marine and Industrial gradually shifted from groceries and such to general supplies, such as ice chests, hand tools, welding supplies and life rafts. Alabama Dry Dock and Harrison Brothers Dry Dock were paint customers.

“He was the largest Igloo dealer before Wal-Mart,” Thomas says of his father. “I just remember seeing pallets and pallets of Gatorade.”

But the Wal-Marts and the Sam’s Clubs came along while local shipping, shipbuilding and marine businesses were bought out, Roy says. The old business practices had to change.

“Where we used to have supplies here and take them to the tugs, they’d take a man and send him out to Sam’s and get what they needed rather than paying us to deliver for them,” Roy says.

Again gradually, Marine and Industrial shifted to wire rope and rigging, purchasing a wire rope press and expanding beyond general supplies. By the late 1990s, the company was building a new warehouse and installing larger machinery to focus on rope and rigging.

In the early 2000s, it became clear that the company had to change direction again, Thomas says. “The local market was not going to be able to sustain the business as we wanted it to be.”

ABOVE Jarvis Moore fabricates a wire rope sling.
 

Marine and Industrial moved into offshore oil and global markets. Developing countries aren’t capable of manufacturing items like rigging to meet quality and lifting requirements, Thomas says. They have to order it, and shipping from Mobile is no different than shipping from somewhere like New Orleans or Houston.

The family considered relocation but decided against leaving their hometown. The company does have a facility in Prairieville, Louisiana, to be closer to petrochemical businesses and the Mississippi River.

In 2011, the company expanded into the service sector.

“We broadened our portfolio based on common observations in the working environment,” Thomas says. “We didn’t invent a new widget. We just took existing processes that were already happening in our lifting world and brought them under one umbrella to where the customer base could deal with one supplier that could do multiple different products and services.”

Today Marine and Industrial offers rental equipment and technical training. It services the oilfield, marine transportation companies and industrial lifting applications. The company has trucks on the road and tries to solve problems on site before they occur, Thomas says.

Roy has retired, though he still comes to the office. Marine and Industrial employs about 40 people. Thomas says there’s a greater emphasis these days on employee input and workplace safety. Roy calls it “an influx of young thought.”

Says Thomas, “We want to help the customer solve a problem; we don’t want to supply a customer a product. Or we want to be there to train them, so problems don’t happen.”

Jane Nicholes and Dan Anderson are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Daphne and he in Mobile.

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