Barge Builder's Orders Pick Up; More Workers to be Hired in '12

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
13 December 2011
By Joe Napsha

On a 33-acre strip of land stretching about a mile along the Monongahela River in Fayette County, a boatyard is building one river barge every two workdays and expects to expand and add more workers next year.

Brownsville Marine Products LLC expects to build 143 barges this year and 165 next year and to top out at 180 barges in 2013, said CEO and President Timothy Scheib. The boatyard, once known as Hillman Barge Co., built only 86 barges in 2009 and 113 last year before a pickup in orders kicked in.

"Most of our capacity is already booked for the next three years," said Scheib, a Leetsdale native and Quaker Valley graduate. "The barge business is very good. All the yards are working,"

The company is 86 percent booked, and its remaining build capacity is being held for customers in the region looking for new barges next year and in 2013, he added.

The business of building barges for use on American inland waterways is doing well in part because barges were retired faster than they were being replaced about a decade ago, said James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission. When the recession hit in 2008, more barges were retired.

Since then, new economics have entered the inland shipping business. Barges that used to ship coal and other products from Pittsburgh to Kentucky now are shipping coal as far away as New Orleans. Instead of a barge's being in service on a five-day trip, it's now five weeks, McCarville said.

"We need more barges, and we need more towboats," McCarville said. River traffic is not back to pre-recession levels but continues to grow every year, he noted.

"The industry is doing pretty well as a whole" as it benefits from moving oil, gas and grain, said David A. Murray, a former seaman who covers the river transportation business for The Waterways Journal, a trade publication. Demand in Asia for U.S. grain has created more business for inland shipping companies, he said.

Brownsville Marine, a subsidiary of barge management firm Heartland Transportation LLC of Columbia, Ill., is a "small guy" in the barge-building business, Scheib said. It competes against the industry's "big guys" -- Jeffboat LLC in Jeffersonville, Ind., and Trinity Marine Products Inc., which has four boatyards the size of Brownsville Marine and is part of Dallas-based Trinity Industries Inc.

"We have to build the best barge in the industry," Scheib said, speaking with the confidence of a Naval Academy graduate and former naval shipyard commander.

There are an estimated 19,000 barges used nationwide, and about 1,000 barges are built annually, he said. About 3,000 of the current stock is about 30 years old, said John Johnson, vice president of barge operations for Heartland Transportation.

Brownsville Marine is helping replenish the fleet by building barges on two lines in its sprawling boatyard: one inside cavernous buildings and the other on an outside line. The boatyard has seven barges under construction at all times and launches about three a week, Scheib said.

The workers take the huge pieces of structural and plate steel from a storage yard, laser cut the steel to precise measurements, bend it to form the hull and other sections, weld it with machine and hand welders, assemble it like giant pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, then move it to an adjacent paint shop that's heated in the winter. When they are done, a 330-ton barge, about 35 feet wide and about 200 feet in length with a 14-foot hull, is perched above the riverbank, ready to be sent down five steel launch rails.

Barges have the capacity to carry 1,800 tons of cargo, including fertilizer, chemicals, grain, coal and stone, Scheib said.

Heartland Transportation bought the boatyard out of bankruptcy in 2005 after Brownsville's barge-building business struggled for about 20 years, falling in and out of bankruptcy.

The old Hillman Barge Co., which operated since 1939, closed in the 1980s when the steel industry collapsed. Trinity Marine Products, a competitor, bought the business in 1989 and operated it until the barge business plunged in 1995.

Wilhelm & Kruse, a steel fabricator in Rankin, acquired the property in 1998, along with the former Hiller Barge repair shop.After Wilhelm & Kruse filed for bankruptcy in 2001, a group of investors bought the dormant boatyard in 2002. It was resurrected as HBC Barge LLC, but that reincarnation filed for bankruptcy in 2004.

Then Heartland principals Joseph Rose and Brian Mueller bought the business to ensure a steady supply for their barge management company, Scheib said.

Their new Brownsville Marine launched its first barge in April 2006.

When he took over in 2009, Scheib said, he cut production costs $100,000 per barge, reduced time needed to build each barge by 1,000 man-hours, improved steel purchasing and inventory practices.

The company is undergoing a $1.9 million expansion that will create 50 jobs in early 2012, adding to the workforce of about 310 employees.

A 44,100-square-foot building is being built by General Industries Inc. of Charleroi to upgrade a steel preparation shop, which will be completed in March.

The biggest problem facing the company is the difficulty in attracting quality workers locally, Scheib said. About 27 temporary workers from the Gulf Coast are working now, Scheib said.

"We struggle hiring folks here. My biggest worry is where are we going to find 40 to 50 folks ... to do this kind of work," Scheib said. "There is a shortage of quality welders across the country."

Joe Napsha can be reached at or 724-836-5252.