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VT Halter Marine one of nation’s largest commercial ship builders

If you think “shipyard” on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, often the first thing that comes to mind is the defense giant Northrop Grumman Ship Systems in Pascagoula. But another ship builder on the Coast has the distinction of being the largest medium and small commercial ship builder in the U.S.
VT Halter Marine Inc.’s (VTHM’s) contracts and options for 2004 were valued at $250 million. The company that is a subsidiary of Vision Technology Systems is one of the largest employers in Jackson County, with about 750 people on staff at present.

Boyd “Butch” King, CEO of VTHM, a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General, said perhaps the scope and size of VTHM isn’t recognized locally because they produce in three separate yards.

“When you go by Northrop Grumman, you see the big cranes,” King said. “They are more visible. We are producing vessels at Moss Point Marine, Halter Moss Point and Pascagoula. If I were able to pull my entire operation into my place, everyone would go by and say, ‘Wow, Look at the size of that shipyard.’”

VTHM streamlined operations in 2004 by relocating its corporate and engineering offices to the Pascagoula facility.

“Each facility has unique features, but works in concert to maximize efficiency,” King said. “The focus of Pascagoula Operations is steel prep and large vessels; VT Halter Moss Point Marine Operations — commercial vessels; and VT Halter Moss Point Operations — government products.”

To produce the necessary amount of cut steel and panels to supply the two Moss Point shipyard facilities, VTHM is currently working two shifts a day at the large fabrication facility in Pascagoula. And the company is hiring in all three of its yards.

The company currently has about 50 open positions for engineers, pipefitters, shipfitters, welders, machinists, electricians and helpers.

Hiring enough workers, especially for some of the higher-skilled jobs, is a challenge. The company works with Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College that offers workforce development training programs to continually grow its workforce.

Part of the reason for the increase in the number of workers is the large amount of work currently going on at the yards.

“But it is also because I am trying to increase this year’s production by increasing the hours we are working and the number of employees because I’m looking forward at some very large projects on the horizon,” King said. “In order to position this company to take those on, we need to move these items we now have and get the backlog in a position where we can accept more orders.”

The company invested about $2 million in 2004 capital improvements. Projects included expanding the side launch ways to accommodate vessels up to 600 feet in length, and information technology upgrades.

Currently, there is concern over the impact to the nation’s largest shipyards because the U.S. Navy is suffering from budget cuts. “Budget cuts will have the greatest negative impact on large-tier U.S. shipbuilders,” King said. “As the U.S. government searches for alternatives, mid-tier shipyards could benefit by offering smaller vessels with smaller price tags.”

King said VTHM currently competes well on U.S. programs that are for medium to large specialty design vessels (one-offs) of relative high complexity. “Additionally, VT Halter Marine competes well on programs that involve construction of standard or multiple vessels when the base vessel is a VTHM standard design,” he said. “Presently, the U.S. environment is very competitive as most medium tier yards have worked off their backlog and are aggressively pursuing the same projects. We expect this situation to continue until the U.S. develops a definitive energy policy aimed at increasing U.S. oil exploration and production that will increase demand for Jones Act equipment.”

King added that the company does not compete price wise in the foreign market as foreign government subsidies and lower operating costs result in a price that is not competitive.

“We aggressively market our standard products such as patrol craft, articulated tug/barge units, large ocean going tank barges, large offshore supply vessels and anchor handling tug/supply vessels, etc.,” King said. “We continue to refine our designs and production processes to make our standard products more efficient and cost competitive.”

In the works

Current projects include building two tugs for Lockheed Martin. Work began about a year ago on the $18-million contract to design and build two 30-meter Voith Tractor Tugs designed to manage and respond to maritime distress. The tugs are scheduled to be competed in the fourth quarter of 2005.
On June 21, VTHM announced that it had signed a $16.3 million contract to build a catamaran lift barge for Washington Group International (WGI) and WGI’s joint venture partner, Alberici Group. The vessel will be fitted with special lift equipment that will be used to transport and place precast concrete segments in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Olmsted Dam construction project.

On July 8, VTHM launched and christened its second National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Survey Vessel (FSV), the Henry B. Bigelow. King said VTHM designed the 208’ FSVs in accordance with strict guidelines for acoustic quieting set by the International Council for Exploration of the Seas.

“The first ship in the class — Oscar Dyson — was delivered to NOAA on January 5, 2005 and is one of the most technologically advanced fisheries ships in the world,” King said. “These NOAA sister ships, with a cutting-edge low acoustic signature, have the ability to perform hydro-acoustic surveys of fish. They are able to conduct bottom and mid-water trawls while running physical and biological-oceanographic sampling during a single deployment—a combined capability unavailable in the private sector.”

VTHM will start work later this year on its third FSV for the NOAA. The vessel is valued at about $38 million. Delivery is planned during the second half of 2007.

Another current project at the VTHM is a $31-million double ended passenger ferry vehicle being constructed for the Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Steamship Authority (NSA). The 254-foot ferry is scheduled to be delivered in the second quarter of 2006.

King said it will replace the 54-year-old ferry ‘Islander’ in NSA’s fleet, serving the Wood Hole to Martha’s Vineyard route. The ferry will be able to accommodate approximately 1,200 passengers and 76 vehicles (cars and semi-trailers).
VTHM is also constructing two articulated tug barge units for Vessel Management Services, a subsidiary of Crowley Maritime Corporation, at a cost of about $85 million.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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