Building tugboats gives Houston company a push

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Campbell Transportation Co. is giving its business a little tug.


That’s tug as in tugboats, which the Houston-based company is building as part of its blueprint to expand. Delivering coal by barge has been, and continues to be, its specialty, but the decline of that energy source and the increased supply of affordable natural gas forced the firm to venture into other marine-related services.


“Most of our business is still coal-related,” said Peter Stephaich, chairman and chief executive officer. “We’re slowly diversifying and getting involved in other things. We’ve bought a couple of smaller companies and added some businesses that are not coal.”


Campbell, a private firm, has been owned by Stephaich’s family since 1962. He said it has been profitable.


It offers numerous services including construction, barge repairs and cleaning, refurbishing, marine dredging, loading and unloading, environmental servicing and, of course, transportation. Some have been offered for years; others are relatively new.


The tugboats Alice Jean and Renee Lynn added an exclamation point to the diversification. They were unveiled June 25 along the North Shore of Pittsburgh, near Heinz Field.


“We were told they were the first tugboats built around here in the past 30 years, that Dravo was the last to do that,” said Dan Lacek, director of facility and shipyard operations at Campbell’s Dunlevy operation along the Monongahela River.


Dravo’s Neville Island shipyard closed in 1982.


Stephaich said the two new tugboats “were built from scratch” in Dunlevy. The Renee Lynn was named after Renee Lynn Grizzel, Wolfdale native and Trinity High School graduate, whose husband, Steve, is Campbell’s human resources director. Alice Jean Corigliano, mother of reglatory compliance director Ron Corigliano, was the inspiration for the Alice Jean.


Stephaich said it took about a year to build each. “Hopefully, the next ones will go faster. There is a learning curve,” he said, adding that the company goal is to eventually construct three or four a year, even though “our shipyard is relatively small.”


Without specifying, Stephaich said construction of the Renee Lynn and Alice Jean ”cost more than we would have liked. We’d like to get the cost down, hopefully to about $3 million (per tugboat). They will have brand-new everything that’s state-of the art: low emissions, top-of-the-line electronics …”


The tugs are 65 feet long, 24 feet wide, weigh about 125 tons and have a lifespan of about 50 years. Campbell also repairs and refurbishes tugs and owns and operates 30 to 40 of them along the Pittsburgh rivers and down the Ohio to Cairo, Ill., where the Mississippi River converges.


Despite similarities, the tugs will differ. Stephaich said. “They’re like custom homes – everyone wants something different. We’ll build a customer’s boat to his specifications.”


“We’re not set up like a production line. We customize,” said Lacek, a McDonald resident who left the Gateway Clipper Fleet after 26 years to work for Campbell in March 2011.


The tugs – and other things – are constructed in an 11,000-square-foot fabrication shop about 50 yards off the water. “Anything we can fit in and out of the door,” said Ross Landman, general manager at Dunlevy.


Modern technology there eliminates much of the waste that can exist in boat-building. Steel is placed on a plasma table, and the cuts are programmed in.


“The laser outlines cuts, and we’ll cut with minimal waste,” said Landman, a 33-year employee who lives on-site.


Lacek said 35 are employed at Dunlevy and 300 to 400 companywide. Campbell has four other major sites that provide varying services: Clairton; Georgetown, Beaver County; Newell, W.Va.; and Point Pleasant, W.Va.


Campbell’s headquarters were in Dunlevy until 2010, when they moved to Houston.


Neither the Alice Jean nor the Renee Lynn was in Dunlevy last week, but Mathies was – for repairs. That seemed to be an anomaly, as the Mathies is owned by Consol Energy Corp., a coal competitor.


“We compete, but in a sense, we help each other,” Lacek said of river-related businesses. “If there are other (companies’) boats with an issue, we take care of it. I think that’s the way it is with the river industry as a whole.”


The river industry does have a major concern. Locks and dams in the Port of Pittsburgh are in dire need of upgrades, meaning there is a dire need for money. There has been a strong push to secure about $2 billion in federal funding, but budget woes thus far have precluded that.


In the meantime, Campbell Transportation continues to diversify and to hope for a couple of external occurrences to go its way. The passage of certain regulations on the transportation of fracking water could mean more business, as could approval of the ethane cracker plant proposed for Beaver County.


The company, to its advantage, does have a firm foothold.


“Everybody in the river business knows Campbell,” Stephaich said.



For more information, go the the company website, www.barges.us.


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