Fraser Shipyards, Inc.

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Building on the Past

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Duluth News Tribune
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Keeping Boats Afloat

January 14, 2008

Fraser Shipyards is investing in new equipment and offering new services as it heads into the busy winter layup season

By Peter Passi
Duluth News Tribune Staff Writer
January 14, 2008

Fraser Shipyards has been more than a century in the making, but there’s nothing staid about the attitude of this Superior company’s newly installed management as they enter 2008.

“We want to become more active, and to do that, we need to start looking harder at how to meet the needs of our customers on a day-to-day basis,” said James Korthals, who was named Fraser’s new president and chief operating officer several weeks ago.

Among other things, the shipyard is looking to expand the range of services it offers.

“In the past, we’ve had to turn down a lot of work because of aging facilities, but our ownership has made it clear that, if the business demand is there in the future, we will upgrade accordingly,” said John Boutin, a project engineer for Fraser.

Boutin see opportunities for the business to become more involved in custom metal fabrication work, including bending and forming jobs. He also believes Fraser can make more extensive use of its dry dock facilities in the future.

Gene Walroos, the shipyard’s general manager, said Fraser will pursue work helping lake carriers tackle large jobs, such as repowering lakers, replacing worn cargo holds or converting vessels to new configurations. The shipyard may even try building new barges or ships from scratch, Walroos said.

The shipyard is owned by Reuben Johnson & Son Inc., a company perhaps best well-known as the operator of a Superior-based construction firm.

Todd Johnson, who joined the family business in 1981, becoming its third-generation leader, said shipyard staff has rededicated itself to boosting Fraser’s activity. Johnson has personally called on lake carriers, both American and Canadian, to let them know of Fraser’s interest in taking on more work.

This winter, for the first time in Johnson’s memory, a Canadian vessel – the Frontenac – will go into dry dock at Fraser for inspection and maintenance.

“We think we have a unique opportunity to serve Canadian carriers,” said Johnson, noting: “With the dollar weaker than the loonie, it’s now economical for them to do business with us.”

Johnson confirmed that he’s willing to invest in new facilities and equipment, as needed, to increase business. As evidence of that commitment, he pointed to the shipyard’s recent purchase of four new 75-ton rough-terrain cranes.

Winter Layup

Fraser is now entering the busiest time of the year – the winter layup. The shipyard employs about 120 people during this period.

In all, 12 ships are expected to tie up in the Twin Ports this winter, and Fraser expects to perform work on all of them. It’s quite common for carriers to invest anywhere from $500,000 to $800,000 in a single vessel during the brief winter layup.

“The economic impact extends beyond Fraser and its employees. A number of other vendors also benefit, such as Benson Electric and Central Sheet Metal,” said Andy Lisak, executive director of the Superior-Douglas County Development Association.

“The great thing is that this is all money coming into the community from outside – from places like New York, Buffalo or where-have-you,” Lisak added.

“We’re not just retreading a local dollar,” Korthals interjected.

Davis Helberg, a local historian and former director of the Duluth Superior Seaway Authority, said Fraser deserves much of the credit for bringing so many vessels to the Twin Ports during the winter layup.

“The fact that we’ve had this shipyard plus its experienced crew in place has been a primary reason why we’ve had so many lakers come here,” he said.

Helberg likened the fleet of winter vessels to “a floating community” in need of all manner of equipment, gear and services. Come the fit-out for a new season in late March, ships also will lay on supplies for their crews.

“Economically, it’s a good shot in the arm,” Helberg observed.

Doing Double Duty

After the layup, Fraser’s personnel needs diminish considerably, typically falling to about 35 people post-April in recent years. Korthals acknowledged that the peaks and valleys of the business and the specialized nature of the skills involved can make staffing a challenge.

“We need to look at what we can do to carry the peak further into the year,” Korthals said, stressing the need for more prolonged employment opportunities.

In this respect, Fraser also benefits from its relationship with a construction firm.

Todd Johnson said some seasonal workers at Fraser are offered the opportunity to cross-train for jobs in construction with Reuben Johnson & Son.

“We have done that for years with varying degrees of success,” he said, adding: “We want to utilize the skills and talents of our workers to the best of our abilities.”

Johnson noted that his construction company also is able to make use of some of Fraser’s equipment, such as its portable cranes during the off-season.

“In many ways, the shipyard really is a nice complement to our construction services business,” he said.

Staffing Challenge

Going forward, Korthals said that recruiting and keeping skilled workers will be critical to Fraser’s success.

“We live and die by the quality of our work force,” he said.

Korthals also observed that staffing is likely to become an even greater challenge in the coming years, with the potential expansion of Murphy Oil’s refinery in Superior and several planned mine expansion projects on the Iron Range all competing for skilled workers.

Still, Fraser’s staffing issues may appear modest compared to those it faced in the past. In the early 1980s, the shipyard employed about 600 people.

Helberg said Fraser played an instrumental role in helping modify lakers for the changing needs of the industry, lengthening vessels after the opening of the Poe Lock during the 1968-69 season, repowering vessels and equipping former straight deckers with self-unloading equipment.

Adolph Ojard, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, believes Fraser could play a similar role, helping Great Lakes fleets adapt for the future.

“The Canadians are going through a modernizing program right now, and there’s no reason Fraser can’t be a player in that market,” he said.

Ojard also sees opportunities for Fraser to prolong the lives of ships that have been in service for years.

“Fraser has always been very strong in maintenance, and with all the old ships that are still in service, there’s going to be more and more maintenance to do,” he said.