Alabama Shipyard: On the Mobile waterfront, a sleeping giant has awakened
Mobile’s largest shipyard had thousands of employees in the 1940s, as it cranked out liberty ships and tankers for the war effort. When new owners took possession in 2018, it had less than a dozen.
“At that point there was, I believe, nine employees total at the yard,” said Greg Wagner, who was working for the new owners at the time, and who recently became CEO of what’s now known as Alabama Shipyard. “No activities. Everything had been dormant, the last ship that had been built here was, I think, in the first quarter of 2018.”
Even a casual glance shows that a lot more is going on at Alabama Shipyard nowadays. The USNS Comfort, one of two 894-foot-long hospital ships operated by the U.S. Navy, is docked there as the yard carries out a $26 million contract for its dry-docking and overhaul. Next to it sits the USNS Gordon, a 954-foot long cargo and logistics vessel, also undergoing a major overhaul.
Nearby, up on dry land, sits a blocky, industrial-looking thing about 270 feet long and more than 100 feet tall. It looks like it could be a power plant for a small city. In reality it is a decommissioned Surface Ship Support Barge formerly used for dockside refueling of nuclear-powered Navy vessels and disassembly of spent fuel components. One end of it is close to a monster 275-ton crane. On the other side of the crane stands a huge tent-like enclosure, where sections of the hull and its superstructure are broken down after being sliced off. That contract, won by APTIM Federal Services LLC, is a three-year, $129 million job.
“We’re proud of what we’ve been doing here for years, for the last three years, seeing this organization thrive with the management we’ve brought in in 2018 and 2019,” said Wagner. “We started out with nine people. We got our first job in February of 2019. And we’ve been building the team since. Strategically bringing in the right people at the right time.”
The shipyard now was a steady workforce of around 250 and can easily surge to 600 as jobs require it, Wagner said.
And yet, that’s still a small piece of the business the 42-year-old CEO would like to bring to Mobile. He wants more, and not just more of the same. Alabama Shipyard’s sprawling campus has well over 200 acres of unused land, all served by abundant deepwater access, 1,000-foot-long piers and easy interstate access.
“We’re looking at all the opportunities,” he said.
The Alabama Dry Dock & Shipbuilding Company was founded in 1916 via the consolidation of several smaller drydock companies, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama. The entry by historian Scotty Kirkland notes some highlights over the next few decades: The ADDSCO work force swelled during WWI and again during WWII, with around 30,000 people employed at peak war effort. ADDSCO workers also built the sections of the Bankhead Tunnel (and, later, the Wallace Tunnel). There also were lows, as WWII integration efforts led to a race riot and the yard’s fortunes diminished over the decades.
ADDSCO finally closed in the late 1980s. Atlantic Marine bought the site in 1992 and ran it until a 2010 sale.
By that point, Wagner was familiar with the yard. After graduating from the State University of New York Maritime College with dual certification for deck and engine work, he worked for tugboat companies in the northeast, then for companies doing contract work for the Navy in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. From there he jumped to the oil and gas industry, including time on a massive derrick barge called the DB50 that was doing work in the Gulf of Mexico.
“My first interaction with the shipyard was in 2004-2005. We were here for an eight-month period replacing a significant amount of steel on the vessel,” Wagner said. “We were here for quite a few months. That was my first exposure to shipyards and to this yard.”
He visited again with the DB50 and other vessels and he continued to work his way up and across the maritime industry. He captained large pipe-laying and dive support vessels, but in 2011 he decided to move to shoreside work. That took him to Houston, which eventually became his long-term home — but not before stints elsewhere, including London.
With the offshore oil and gas field booming, there was no shortage of work. “It was all about marine assurance, making sure the vessels were safe and fit for the operations,” he said. “We were in a huge growth cycle in the oil and gas industry, bringing in thousands of people, new boats, new operations.”
It couldn’t last. “I left London in 2015, reading the writing on the wall that major projects globally were going to slow down,” Wagner said. “Which is exactly what happened.”
In 2010 BAE Systems had bought Atlantic Marine’s Mobile yard. In 2018 the company announced its pending closure. Wagner was with Epic, which bought it; in a financial shakeout the next year, Epic would spin off the yard and other assets. 2018-19 was a busy time.
“I remember the day we closed on, it was a Friday afternoon, everybody in the company was over here, there were probably like 14 of us,” said Wagner. “And on Monday I showed up, it was myself and Tom Godfrey [now vice president of sales and marketing] going all right, let’s build a shipyard. What do we do first? We need a job. Let’s go find some work.”
The yard had abundant history, but it was dead. There were “no systems, no procedures,” Wagner said. He seized on the fact that the next page in the company’s story was a clean sheet.
“The first thing I did was say, let’s do it the right way. Let’s not take the old way just because that’s the way we’ve done it for 25 years,” he said. “If there’s something we need to change and why and how, let’s change it.”
“I spent four months here,” he said. “During that time, ironically, I was sleeping on our ship that we had here. I would literally go from the quayside, walk up here to this conference room where we’d work from 6 a.m. to midnight. We had whiteboards, we were building a business from scratch. How do you build your cost structure, how many people do you need, when do you need them, what do you need for safety, what do we need for permitting, what do you need for regulatory, licensing. We’ve got to get the water turned back on, we’ve got to get the light bill back on, we’ve got to get Internet. It’s almost like renting an apartment that’s been abandoned however many years. You’ve got to get furniture and you’ve got to get a tenant, you’ve got to do all of these things. So it was an absolute pleasure to do that, during that time.”
The reputation of captains is that they enjoy being captains. Wagner agrees that it’s relatively rare to find one who wants to be an executive.
“It is unusual,” he said. “I worked on lots of vessels with lots of people. I kept on seeing repeats of lessons learned [that were] not being learned. I knew when I was captain of a ship at 29, this was a big pipe-laying ship with 100 to 300 people on board, that my capabilities in the industry would be much better suited shoreside.”
“I then became the project manager, the vessel operations manager, then teaching the next generation: Hey, when this happens, look at this way. When you’re in this country, you need to look at this, you need to understand that about this. And that’s what has progressed my career. I love to mentor, I love to look at past situations, past events, and see how we can improve. Looking out of the box.”
With the yard off and running, he returned to Houston. He’s still based there, where his family includes his wife, Christina, two daughters and a son. “I’ll do the commute,” he said. “I’ve commuted around the world, I can handle [Houston to] Mobile.”
He reckons the shipyard’s owners have invested $17 million over the last few years, with $24 million more coming over the next 15 months or so. Bringing the shipyard fully back to life and putting it on a footing where it can capitalize on its potential is a big lift. It means establishing everything from IT to drainage. It means rebuilding or removing piers, paving roads.
“We’re spending a lot of time and money making this facility ready for the 21st century,” he said. “Even though we’re already 20% into it.”
Perhaps most of all, for Wagner, it means figuring out just what the potential is.
“We had big plans for it at the time we purchased it. It was heaving focused on supporting the oil and gas market and recycling and focusing on that side of it,” said Wagner. After the corporate reshuffle in 2019, “at that point the business model changed to focus on commercial and MSC [Navy Marine Sealift Command] vessels. At which we’ve been extremely successful for the last three years.”
The work in hand is significant, he said. It doesn’t just show what Alabama Shipyard can do. It shows what the Mobile region can do. The Comfort brings a fresh level of attention because the public knows what it is.
“We’re accustomed to doing this work. There’s certainly a higher profile associated to this because it’s a hospital ship and there’s only two of them in the world,” he said. “This is what we do, day-in day out, is repair very large vessels.”
Likewise, showing that you can heave a 4,800-ton barge onto dry land for disassembly is a way of making a statement.
“It’s something that shows the capabilities of what we can do as a market, being in Mobile,” Wagner said. “We’re able to provide a service that very few other places are able to provide, around the U.S. … And the benefit of that is, anytime you take anything out of the water and put it on land, for environmental safety it’s just a better long-term solution.”
“For us to do that as a facility and a region it’s great. We’re able to bring money into the region, we’ll be able to bring jobs, whether they’re direct or indirect.”
Side note: the steel from that fueling barge isn’t going overseas. It’ll go into an American arc furnace, probably one not too far up the road. “All our steel that we produce here is being used domestically,” said Wagner.
The benefits go beyond the jobs created at the shipyard. When big ships are docked for major work, “we fill hotels,” said Wagner.
A major project under way at Alabama Shipyard in spring 2022 is the disassembly of a Surface Ship Support Barge used by the U.S. Navy to refuel nuclear-powered vessels. The barge, at left is positioned on land at a large crane used to lower sections as they are cut off. Inside the white enclosure at right, the large sections are broken down for recycling or disposal. Lawrence Specker | [email protected]
All of that work occupies the active portions of the yard. But what about the 200-plus acres that aren’t being used?
“That’s one of the questions I’ve been digging into the last five weeks,” Wagner said. “A lot of people are moving to Mobile. The numbers, the real estate market, we’re talking to both commercial and residential brokers, and I’m driving into the question now of why are they moving in here, where are they coming from, what businesses are they coming from? Is it tech businesses, is it from Chicago, what’s the driver? So that we can then support them with the facilities that we have on the river.”
The shipyard’s deepwater access will get even better as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proceeds with a project to deepen the Mobile Ship Channel. No bridge limits the height of vessels coming in. And every inch of the acreage doesn’t have to be occupied by shipbuilding or ship repair. It could be used by, for example, warehousing.
“There are, I’m not going to say endless possibilities, but there’s opportunities for this facility because of its geographic location, water depth, proximity to the Gulf of Mexico as well as interstate connectivity,” said Wagner.
“As we grow as Mobile, we’re going to be able to add on additional capacity,” he said. “We want to make sure that whatever we develop here is the right thing for Mobile.”
“Getting ourselves on the map, both in Washington and regionally, is important,” he said. “Getting Mobile the presence that it deserves is really important to us.”
“I’m very bullish for the area,” he said. “After seeing what I’ve seen of this area since 2004, the amount of progress that has happened in the last 4-5 years. It’s great. The reinvestment in the whole area, I like to see it.”
“We have the resources, the people. We’ve proven that time and time again on projects. We have the waterfront, we have the acreage, so what’s the other piece that these industries need to come?” he said. “I don’t have an answer for that right now, what it is, but we know that it’s there, and we need to look at markets outside of this region to start bringing those companies here.”
In the meantime, he said, the sense of untapped potential makes the job enjoyable.
“I know the team. I’ve worked with them for years. I know the directions of what we’re trying to do, from the ownership. And it’s a fun place to come. It’s an enjoyable environment,” he said.
So does the history.
“My favorite part about this is that Jimmy Buffett and his father worked here,” Wagner said. “That’s the reason I came. I’m a huge parrothead.”
He wants more people to know it.
“There’s too many employees in this organization who have to explain to local people, who’ve been here their whole lives, who we are,” Wagner said. “I want people to know who Alabama Shipyard is, and what our history is. We’ve been here a hundred years, and we’re going to be here another hundred years.”
Original article written by Lawrence Specker, AL.Com and featured on AL.COM.