SEATTLE — Workers welded sections of hull at Foss Maritime Co.’s shipyard last month, assembling a new state-of-the-art fire boat for the Port of Long Beach, Calif.
The boat’s midsection and stern already were joined inside a temporary enclosure. The bow, upside down, sat outside, waiting to be attached.
Elsewhere in the yard, a well-traveled 95-foot fishing boat sat in dry dock for paint prep, covered by a giant tarp. A deafening whoosh filled the inside, where crews used equipment to dry the hull.
Nearby on the Ship Canal, Foss harbor tugs waited to be dispatched to towing jobs. An aluminum-hulled Alaska state ferry and a yacht were undergoing repairs.
“We have a great mix of the work we’re hoping to be able to perform up in Everett,” Foss Chief Operating Officer Steve Scalzo said.
Much of the activity now taking place at Foss’ Seattle shipyard and terminal could shift to Everett within three years or so, if a deal to buy the site of Kimberly-Clark’s former mill goes through.
Principals from Foss’ parent company, Saltchuk, on Oct. 2 announced they were negotiating to buy the vacant industrial property, where Dallas-based Kimberly-Clark Corp. finished demolition work this summer.
Everett city leaders completed a rezoning process early this year and opted to reserve much of the mill site for marine industrial use. The city might require Kimberly-Clark or Saltchuk to provide a park somewhere else along the shoreline, since Saltchuk’s plans are incompatible with public access.
Provided there are no sticking points, the real estate sale is expected to close during the second quarter of 2014. Between now and then, Saltchuk has time to size up environmental cleanup at the 66-acre property and perform other due diligence. The purchase price isn’t being disclosed.
Saltchuk’s corporate leaders see the move to Everett as a chance to grow its business of building and repairing smaller vessels.
The former mill also would become the home port for parts of the company’s 200-strong fleet of tugs, barges and other specialty vessels. That includes harbor and ocean tugs, as well as vessels supporting mining and oil drilling in Alaska.
When fully running, the new Everett shipyard and home port could employ about 250 people. The expansion is likely to unfold in stages, and the timeline is subject to change.
Foss’ current Seattle facility sits between the Fremont and Ballard bridges, on the Queen Anne Hill side of the Ship Canal. There are three floating dry docks and 2,600 feet of wet berth.
On a foggy October morning, the yard rumbled with forklifts and whirred with power equipment. The scene was busy yet surprisingly tidy.
“It’s something we take pride and care in,” said Gene Henley, shipyard director for facilities and administration. “It promotes our safety program and prevents injuries.”
Inside one machine shop, enormous crates held new diesel engines for the Alaska ferry. In another, propeller shafts turned on lathes, looking like rolling steel logs.
In a steel shop, workers can bend, punch, form or cut pieces of metal. “The modern equivalent of a blacksmith shop,” shipyard operations director Jon Hie called it.
Foss was founded in Tacoma’s Commencement Bay in 1889 and will mark its 125th anniversary next year. The Foss family owned the company for generations before selling it in the late 1960s.
Today, the company also owns a smaller shipyard in Rainier, Ore., across the Columbia River from Longview. Foss tugs now operate in all U.S. coastal waters. The company’s ocean tugs ply the globe.
Saltchuk, a private, family-owned company based in Seattle, bought Foss in 1987. Saltchuk’s other holdings include shipping, trucking, marine-transport, air-cargo and petroleum-distribution companies. Altogether, Saltchuk employs about 6,500 people nationwide, about 800 of them around the Puget Sound area.
Foss built out its Seattle facility in the early 1970s, around the time that Scalzo began working as an operations assistant.
“I came when we were building the shipyard,” Scalzo said. “It was almost done.”
Since then, the site has been the birthplace of innovations such as tractor tugs Foss built in the early 1980s using the Voith propulsion system of vertical propellers near the bow, which makes the tugs easier to maneuver.
Scalzo pointed out an example tied up at a dock: the Andrew Foss, a tug named after the husband of the company’s 19th-century founder, Thea Foss.
“One of the things that Foss is known for is innovation and creativity,” Scalzo said. “This boat is a good example of that.”
The tug’s name also reflects a corporate culture that places a high value on tradition.
Foss continues to make technological breakthroughs, including the world’s first hybrid tugs, which augment the main engines with batteries and generators. Built at the Rainier shipyard, the first one went into service in 2009.
The company touts two fire boats it’s building for the Port of Long Beach, Calif., as among the most advanced in the world, capable of spraying 40,000 gallons of water per minute. The vessels are about the size of large tugboats.
Walk through Foss’ Seattle facility and it’s easy to see the benefits a move to Everett could bring. To get there, boats must pass through the Ballard Locks that connect Puget Sound with the Ship Canal and freshwater lakes Union and Washington. Trucks must travel industrial side streets, where former rail lines no longer operate. At 25 acres, the Seattle site also is less than half the size of the Kimberly-Clark property.
“We make it work but are limited in some things we do,” said Hie, the shipyard operations director.
The Everett site would give Foss almost immediate access to a deep, saltwater harbor — without the hassle of navigating the locks. A deeper draft would allow the company to compete for work on larger vessels.
To make the Everett site work, though, Foss will have to dredge the adjacent waterway, Scalzo said.
It’s no stretch to call the Kimberly-Clark property unique for the region, and perhaps the West Coast, said Dave Speers, of the commercial real estate firm Kidder Mathews, which marketed the property.
“I’m not aware of any privately owned sites, such as the Kimberly-Clark site in Everett, that combine the three major elements that site has,” Speers said. “Number one is size. Number two is the 2,700 feet-plus of lineal saltwater frontage. And then thirdly is the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line to the site. Those are all very rare, and when you do find them, you find them at port properties like the Port of Tacoma, which by definition means they’re usually not for sale.”
Before settling on Everett, Saltchuk “studied every ice-free port from Dutch Harbor (Alaska) to Olympia,” Chairman Mark Tabbutt said last month.
At full steam, the Seattle shipyard employs up to 225 people, and at slow times as few as 75. In October there were roughly 160 working in the yard. The number typically peaks in winter and dips during summer.
“Our busy season is October to May,” said Mike Magill, Foss’ vice president of technical services.
Workers are represented by myriad unions: pipefitters, boilermakers, carpenters, shipyards, machinists, electricians and more. Among them, initial reaction to the move has been positive.
“There’s a potential for a lot more work,” said Brian Self, assistant business manager for Boilermakers Local 104. “They have told us that they’re moving, and it’s a lot bigger space and it’s a deep-water port, so they’re hoping to get a lot more work.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; email@example.com.
Foss Maritime Co. at a glance
•Founded in 1889 by Thea Foss at Tacoma’s Commencement Bay
•Maintains a fleet of harbor and ocean tugs, barges and other specialty vessels
•Active in shipbuilding and repairs
•Runs two shipyards, in Seattle and in Rainier, Ore.
•Touts technological innovations such as the world’s first hybrid-powered tugboat
•Employs about 1,500 people worldwide
•Bought in 1987 by Saltchuk, a private, family-owned holding company with interests in shipping, trucking, freight, air cargo and petroleum distribution. Saltchuk reports yearly revenues of about $435 million.