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Tugboat biz still offering challenges, opportunities after decades of success

Colle family on the water, in business for 125 years

PASCAGOULA — When the Colle family bought its first tugboat in New York 125 years ago, the steam boiler that ran the engines was fired by wood. During the trip back down the East Coast, around Florida and back along the Gulf Coast to Pascagoula, the crew had to stop along the way to cut firewood for fuel.

“They didn’t have chain saws back then,” says John Colle Jr., whose great-grandfather started the family tugboat business. “They had to use axes. You think how much work that was.”

The boat with a charcoal iron steel riveted hull was the first tugboat brought in to the Port of Pascagoula. At that time, Pascagoula was a major lumber port. The schooner sailboats couldn’t navigate the shallow waters in the river without assistance. That early Colle tugboat helped the schooners get into and out of the river.

In the years since, the Colles have carved out a valuable niche in the tugboat business. Today, they have a fleet of eight boats, a staff of 62, and are involved in vessel construction and repairs in addition to providing tugboat services. The fleet includes three push boats for large barges and cargo. Their five harbor boats are used to assist ships coming into and out of the harbor and with docking.

Through the years technology in the shipping industry has changed considerably. Wooden hull boats have been replaced by modern steel vessels. Modern communications and navigation technology have made the work easier and safer. But, in some ways, the technology hasn’t changed as much as you might think.

“Basically, tugboats over the past 125 years haven’t changed a lot,” Colle said. “They are still driven by a propeller going through the water.”

In 1984 Colle Towing built its first Z-drive tug, a very innovative and maneuverable vessel that can make 360-degree turns.

“It was the first tug in the South of that style,” Colle said. “Now all the other ship docking companies are going to that style. These are some of the best tugboats on the whole Gulf Coast. We have two of them operating now in the Port of Pascagoula.”

The first Z-drive tug was christened the Mabel Colle, named after John Colle Jr.’s 94-year-old mother. All other tugs in the fleet are also named for members of the family.

Through the years as Colle Towing has moved pulpwood, coal, chicken, steel and oil products, the company has weathered many hurricanes and smaller storms. As with any maritime business, there are risks involved.

“It is dangerous work,” Colle said. “We are very conscious of safety all the time, especially with the recent marine history of the tug that ran into the bridge in Mobile, resulting in fatalities after the bridge collapsed and a train ran into the river. Since that time there has been a real nationwide push for safety. We have been at the forefront of that keeping up with safety. Over the years we have had a very good record. We have not lost any lives in 125 years, and have had a minimal numbers of injuries. It can be a very dangerous business if you are not super conscious of safety.”

The threat of terrorism is a concern for businesses like Colle Towing. Charles McVea, vice president of operations, is currently working with the Coast Guard to help develop more security for the port to combat the terrorist threat

“The Coast Guard told us before 9/11, 4% of their budget was allocated to fight terrorism,” Colle said. “Now 60% of their budget is allocated to fight the terrorist threat.”

Through the decades, the company has seen its share of competition. But Colle Towing is currently the only tugboat company in the Port of Pascagoula. The company’s strategy is to keep customers happy so they don’t look elsewhere.

“It is tough in a small port to go nose-to-nose with someone else for business,” Colle said. “So we always have that in mind. We put our best foot forward so customers are always happy with our service, and don’t need anyone else. We are always aware that complacency leads to competition.”

In addition to doing their own repairs, the Colles do vessel repair for other companies, and build their own tugboats. Colle’s brother, Jimmy Colle, is vice president of computer technology. He handles the design and layout of new construction, which is done on the computer. Currently the company is in the process of building their third tugboat, a $4-million project.

John Colle’s two daughters, Natalie and Kimberly, also work for the family business. Natalie believes the quality of their employees has been a key ingredient in their success.

“An example is Liz Wells, our office manager, who will be here for 39 years this year,” she said. “Another person is Charlie McVea, my dad’s right hand man. This year he will be here 23 years. He is a big part of our operation. These are two people who have done so much for us. It originally started as a family business, and family members have stayed involved. But it wouldn’t be a family business still if we didn’t have those types of people working for us. Truly the answer to why we have been successful is the people, and not just people with the last name Colle, but over time all the people who have been a part of it. We don’t have enough Colles to fill all their spots. Really, we consider the majority of people here as family.”

Another employee, Charles Jackson, has been with the company for 36 years. Earlie Wright, chief engineer, just retired after 46 years of service. Wright, who started when the company had just two wooden hull boats, once went 10 years without a vacation.

“I came to work because I wanted to,” said Wright, who worked for both John Colle Jr. and his father. “I can’t say enough about this company. I couldn’t have asked for any better men to work for than both Captain Johnnys.”

A majority of the employees have been there 15 years or more.

Fifth generation looks to the future

As a fifth generation member involved in the business, Natalie is looking ahead to more opportunities for the company. The recent demolition of a grain elevator at the port has opened up 60 acres of industrial waterfront property for redevelopment. And the completion of the U.S. 90 high-rise bridge is expected to open areas north of the highway to industrial development.

She gives credit to her father for taking chances that helped grow the company.

“For example, when my dad came on board, we had one boat in operation,” Natalie said. “He bought a dry dock, and moved the business to another side of the river. That expanded our operation and shipyard capabilities, allowing us to build our own vessels. He took a chance in making the investment in different equipment and boats. Not knowing how the industry is going to go all the time, it is not cheap to expand.”

Natalie now works with people who remember when she was just a little girl coming to visit her father. She said a background playing sports helped her in the business.

“I’m just part of the team — that’s the way I see it,” she said. “You can’t demand respect. You have to earn it. That takes time. I didn’t come here expecting to be treated differently. I knew I had to pay my dues and prove to the people who have been here for so long that I could do the work. I’m learning still from everyone.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com</a.

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