When a Pacific Northwest boatbuilder landed its biggest contract to date in perhaps the toughest economy the industry has seen, market diversity was the operable term.
"Monetarily wise, it's the single largest contract our company has received," says Scott Clanton, government sales/field support manager for Aluminum Chambered Boats. Under the five-year contract, the 12-year-old privately held manufacturer will build up to 80 Transportable Port Security Boats for the Coast Guard. "Especially in this economy, if you can earn a $37 million contract, you're doing pretty good," he says.
The Bellingham, Wash., company builds high-end aluminum boats for recreational, commercial, government/military and law enforcement markets worldwide. Keeping a "good mix in all segments" has been part of the company philosophy from the beginning. At any given time in ACB's 60,000-square-foot manufacturing space, there might be a 34-foot pilothouse law enforcement patrol boat, 29-foot oil industry workboat, and a 26-foot full-cabin sportfishing boat under construction.
"We make some very nice recreational fishing boats, which are especially popular up in Alaska," says Clanton, who oversees government contract sales efforts. "But it's been a nice balance between our recreational and commercial lines. Government work is a nice portion, but it's not a dominant portion."
The company declined to offer the breakdown of its government-commercial-recreational mix, but it is just finishing up a 108-vessel contract with the Marine Corps for bridge erection boats and has contracted with the Navy, Air Force, Border Patrol, Forest Service, NOAA, and fire, rescue and environmental enforcement agencies, as well as multinational oil companies.
Manufacturing for the new Coast Guard contract is expected to begin this summer, with a finished boat produced every 20 days. The award won't mean immediate additions to the current work force of about 60 people, according to ACB, but that could change once production begins.
The 32-foot, 9-inch Transportable Port Security Boats, powered by twin 315-hp Yanmar diesels coupled to Bravo X-1 outdrives, are designed to replace the Coast Guard's aging inventory of open patrol boats with more heavily armored cabin models. The boats feature foam-collared chamber hulls ACB developed about four years ago, a hybrid version of the aluminum chambered hulls the company built its name on.
Clanton, who served 25 years in the Marine Corps, says most of ACB's proposal writers are retired military personnel. "We take the approach of, 'What would we like to operate in the military today - what would our friends still serving want,' and we've taken that mentality to the floor to make sure we build the boat with that same attitude."
As part of the competitive process toward winning the contract, ACB was among two vendors selected to build one-off vessels per Coast Guard specifications. The vessels were sea-trialed by Coast Guard personnel, and ACB's design won out.
While the contract should give ACB a degree of stability as the industry emerges from the recession, Clanton says government work is far from guaranteed. The general economy inevitably affects military budgets, and like nearly every boatbuilder, ACB pared back where it could in the last two years, mostly by not renewing expiring contracts for workers on government jobs.
"When the economy turns down, the military budget follows, so there is never a certainty with the government work," he says. "That's the only certainty."
This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue.