Business News

SEE WORTHY The massive vessel-assembly buildings and buzz of activity at Metal Shark’s Franklin shipyard are a sight to behold. But the way the company has diversified into military and major commercial contracts is the real story of its success.

by Walter Pierce

Photos by Robin May

As you drive across the wide crest of the Hwy. 90 bridge traversing the Charenton Canal in west St. Mary Parish, the enormity of the operation at Metal Shark Boats just below — packed into a tight 25-acre waterfront site at the end of the service road skirting the bridge — is striking. Hulking, arched, vinyl-covered hangars glisten in the spring sun. An even larger metal vessel-assembly building — 200 by 80 feet of floor space and about five stories high — is well into construction nearby.

Scores of workers in hard hats — welders, pipe fitters, laborers, engineers — tend to the myriad aspects of meeting a tight deadline for manufacturing commuter ferries bound for New York City and, in infant stages of manufacture, ferries that will churn the Potomac River in our nation’s capital. The company will soon begin building ferries for New Orleans to transport Yats and Whodats across the Mississippi River.

The controlled chaos of industry here in the heart of the Cajun oil patch could fool you into believing a barrel is headed back toward $100. But diversification over the last decade-plus has made Metal Shark immune to the vagaries of oil prices. The company hired 50 new workers this year, beefing up its workforce to about 325 with more new hires to come.

“We’re actively and eagerly looking to recruit and bring on somewhere between 35 to 50 new employees,” says Josh Stickles, the company’s vice president of marketing. “It runs the spectrum: We’re looking to employ everyone from naval architects, drafters, designers, an IT manager, and then skilled positions like welders and pipe fitters as well.”

Photo by Robin May

Privately held, Metal Shark keeps its revenue figures close to the vest. Stickles declined to say what revenue is, but certainly Metal Shark would fall within ABiz’s annual list of the Top 50 Private Companies in Acadiana. Yet the company had humble beginnings as Gravois Aluminum Boats in the mid 1980s. Its founder, Jimmy Gravois, produced recreational boats that caught on among Gulf Coast fishermen for their durability. In 2003 Gravois was approached by American Marine Holdings to produce aluminum boats for AMH’s government sales division. Metal Shark was the name selected for the joint venture. Two years later, Gravois partnered with Chris Allard, the former engineering director for AMH, and the pair purchased Metal Shark outright. They remain its owners.

“Metal Shark as it’s become really began around 2006 when we began to focus on aluminum military and commercial vessels,” Stickles notes. “We’re a key small boat supplier for the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy. The mainstay of our Jeanerette facility was when we landed a $192 million contract to build the RBS — the Response Boat Small — for the U.S. Coast Guard. We’re still producing those weekly.”

Metal Shark operates two assembly facilities: the original facility in Jeanerette — 50,000 square feet on 15 acres — where smaller vessels up to 50 feet in length including the RBS are manufactured, and the 50,000-square-foot, 25-acre waterfront shipyard in Franklin on the Charenton Canal where larger vessels are manufactured.

The company opened the Franklin shipyard in 2014 with an eye toward diversification.

“If you look at the last two years, this facility has built fire boats, combination port security-fire boats, a bunch of passenger ferries, boats for foreign militaries and U.S. military patrol boats and also a couple of commercial fishing boats,” Stickles explains. “So, it’s a diverse spectrum of markets that we serve to kind of help keep us on stable footing.”

Photo by Robin May

If You Can Make It There

Metal Shark has completed four of six ferries in its contract for New York City. When each is completed, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey flies down a captain who takes command of the vessel and brings it home — a more than 2,000-mile journey that takes the ferry from the yard-side canal through the Intracoastal Waterway and into the Gulf of Mexico, around the Florida peninsula and up the East Coast.

“The timeline was tight,” Stickles adds. “In New York City this was a big deal — that they needed to have them on the water and running. From the time we were awarded the contract to the time that the first two boats were operational in New York City was 10 months. That’s something that many critics said there’s no way that can happen, no way that can be done, and we did it.”

Metal Shark is a one-stop shop that focuses on precision. Everything on a vessel — from the hull to the wiring, plumbing, seats and sundries — is either manufactured or installed in these large vessel-assembly buildings.

For the ferries, the final 10 percent of production, when systems need to be tested, is done dockside on the water. The company’s team of 25 naval architects and marine engineers designs vessels by computer, and the aluminum for the boats is cut by a computer-controlled router, reducing waste. The result is meticulously produced aluminum-magnesium alloy pieces that are numbered and coded and snap into place like a toy model as they’re welded together.

“Our ability to design the boats down to the threads on the plumbing really eliminates shop-floor engineering,” Stickles says.

Photo by Robin May

Metal Shark manufactures sea vessels for companies and foreign governments — U.S. allies, Stickles is quick to note, although he wouldn’t disclose who those foreign customers are — in 25 countries spanning Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and of course North America. Sometimes the U.S. Department of Defense acts as a middle man, helping foreign ally nations acquire Metal Shark vessels; other times the foreign entities deal directly with the company.

This city boy assumes an industrial fabricating company located in the heart of rural South Louisiana would have difficulty recruiting the highly trained engineers and other pedigreed professionals it needs to run the operation. The sushi and arugula crowd.

“It was initially,” Stickles confesses, “but we have some really strong internship programs with some of the major universities that specialize in naval architecture. And the interns like it because they can become actively involved and engaged.”

The company focuses its recruiting efforts at the University of New Orleans, University of Michigan and the Webb Institute — all schools with strong maritime engineering and design programs.

“And now that we’ve grown and people see us — we’re a known brand — we’re getting more traction with naval architects from other companies,” Stickles adds.

But, Stickles notes with evident pride, the core of the company’s success is the craftsmanship, attention to detail and work ethic exemplified in its founding: “If you just look at the bead of the weld and the pride that people take in their work, that’s something that we try to convey to our customers, and it’s evident when they come here to see their boats being built.”