Shipbuilding Resurfaces in Region with Campbell Transportation’s
25 June 2013
By Timothy Puko
Campbell Transportation Co. has relied on coal delivery as its
bread and butter for years, but two names — Renee Lynn and Alice
Jean — are about to help it carve out a new path.
Pushing to diversify beyond a market hurt by cheap natural gas and
rising costs, the company has turned to boat building. The Renee
Lynn and the Alice Jean are symbolic. They are the first tugboats
built locally in a generation and mark the public debut of a
totally new Campbell.
Campbell officials plan to show of the tugboats at a big party on
the North Shore on Tuesday. The christening of the boats, an
invitation-only event for political and business partners, will be
a culmination for a company that's now nearly doubled revenue in
seven years, according to Pete Stephaich, chairman and CEO.
“We're actually very different,” Stephaich said, adding the
company has changed management, and its accounting and operational
systems. “In hard times you've got to work harder and
differentiate yourself as a service provider. You try to do what
you do better in hard times. Not that you don't in good times, but
you have to try to differentiate yourself somehow.”
As coal declined, the Houston, Washington County-based company
started to look for ways to transform its business. It bought an
environmental services company two years ago. And it expanded its
geographical footprint, shipping coal all the way to the
Mississippi River. Now, instead of just running a fleet of
towboats, it is building them.
Stephaich said the company is profitable but declined to cite any
specific figures. Campbell is privately held, owned by his family
for 40 years.
Others in the industry view the Renee Lynn and the Alice Jean as
hopeful symbols. The recession hurt, but work has been steady
since, said Michael Somales, a general manager for operations and
logistics at Consol Energy Inc., Campbell's biggest competitor.
Some power plants are closing or using less coal, but others are
spending hundreds of millions for environmental upgrades, meaning
there could be more work for more boats, said James McCarville,
executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission.
“We look at Campbell getting aback in the boat building business
as a very good sign for the health of our industry,” he said.
Competition is stiff, but nearly all of the river shippers work
together, they said. Consol's towboat, Mathies, is sitting in
Campbell's dock in Dunlevy, Washington County, right now, amidst a
complete overhaul that should last eight to nine months, said Dan
Lacek, Campbell's director of operations on the Monongahela. They
often swap overflow work, too, common among most of the local tow
companies, Somales said.
“It's a small industry and everybody knows everybody,” he said.
“They have to meet a very high standard to work with Consol.”
One of their joint projects is working through the commission and
other groups to push for a $1.7 billion federal upgrade for the
region's struggling lock-and-dam system. That work is stalled,
hampering deliveries all over Western Pennsylvania, but it's
allowed Campbell and Consol to excel working a system often too
small for national carriers to bother with, McCarville said.
Campbell's expansion and diversification would put it in line with
many of the national companies that work the rivers, Somales said.
It is an exciting time to work for the company, said Lacek, who
left the Gateway Clipper Fleet after 26 years to work for a
The company now has eight to 10 boats running every day between
Pittsburgh and Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio River ends, Stephaich
said. Two years ago, it bought an environmental services company,
and it does barge and tank cleaning and glycol recycling near
Newell at the tip of West Virginia's Northern Panhandle. The
company had low debt, and PNC and other lenders were willing to
help fund the growth, Stephaich said.
The federal government has, too, with economic stimulus money
providing a $600,000 matching grant for equipment the company used
to build the new boats, he added. They added 30 workers to help in
Dunlevy, where they used the new equipment to laser-cut steel and
assemble the boats piece-by-piece in an 11,000-square-foot garage,
complete with hanging cranes.
The boats each probably cost nearly $3 million to build, though
Campbell officials are still calculating the final costs, Lacek
said. The next step is to find a buyer — or someone to order a new
boat — and the company has several potential customers invited to
the North Shore christening.
“When you're spending these types of dollars, people want what
they want. You're trying to guess personalities and what will
sell,” he added. “It's exciting. It's a whole new area of
opportunity for us.”
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be
reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.