Builders of High Speed Aluminum Fire, Rescue, Patrol and Work Boats
Kingston Whig-Standard, July 10, 2007
Blazing boat builders; Company puts mettle to the metal
Local News - Tuesday, July 10, 2007 @ 00:00
The waters of Lake Michigan were eerily quiet as the Milwaukee Fire Department's latest acquisition glided southwest through the lake and towards home.
As the sun shone on the 36-foot fire and rescue boat, the passengers on board went silent as they heard a cry for help over the radio. A boat with three adults, three children and a dog was going down fast.
They plotted the co-ordinates on their GPS tracking system and found they were about 10 kilometres away from the sinking vessel.
"The [United States] Coast Guard was talking to them, but they weren't in range," said Milwaukee deputy fire chief Darrell Moore.
Moore and his colleagues turned the boat around. They arrived 15 minutes after responding to the call. The Coast Guard arrived about 20 minutes later.
The FireStorm 36 rescued all the souls aboard the sinking ship that day, and saved the boat itself from the bottom of the lake.
"We would have been able to remove all the occupants [with the department's other boat], but it wouldn't have been as easy as with this boat," Moore said. "That company you have up there built us one awesome vehicle."
That company would be Kingston's MetalCraft Marine, which has built ships that are on the water in Canada, the United States, Nigeria and soon in Dubai.
This year, MetalCraft Marine will celebrate its 20th anniversary and could build boat number 500. Each boat carries the same label: Made in Canada. Or, more importantly, made in Kingston.
"We're tickled to death with the boat," said Jacksonville fire chief Larry Peterson of the FireStorm 50 boat it received about three months ago. "We'd look back to them in a heartbeat. As a matter of fact, we've recommended them [to other fire departments], Peterson added.
Before it was called MetalCraft Marine, the boat builder was known as Kingston Aluminum Yachts. From 1978 to 1987, the company built what its name suggested until one of its two owners took sole control of the ship.
The market for yachts wasn't then as lucrative as it once was, so owner Montgomery Smith and his employees looked at two options. One would have had the company build fishing boats, the other specialize in rescue vessels.
Smith and then master boat builder Tom Wroe went with the latter and MetalCraft Marine was born. Since 1987, MetalCraft has only built one sailboat and Wroe is now president.
But the change in name and direction didn't pay immediate dividends. "The company didn't miss the window, they were ahead of the window," said Bob Clark, now the contracts manager and a partner at MetalCraft.
About three years later, the company moved from its Hagerman Street location in the city's old industrial park to its current home off Wellington Street on Anglin Bay. When Clark joined the company in 1991, it had only four employees and was on the verge of going under. Clark said he and other workers were never sure if the company would survive from job to job.
In 1994, the company had a breakthrough.
MetalCraft was among the 15 companies that bid for the right to build the aluminum-hull boat to be used in Biscayne National Park in Florida. It survived cuts and then found itself in the final four vying for the contract.
Clark and Wroe decided it would be wise to send Clark down to see if there was anything he could do to help the company win the contract.
After arriving in Florida, Clark meandered by a marina. He struck up a conversation with one man who was working on his boat and the American invited Clark out for a drink.
At the bar, Clark explained he had come down south to help his company in the bidding process. The American said he was on the committee deciding who would win the contract.
"I've got some bad news for you," the American told Clark. "My boss says we're not buying a Canadian boat."
The next day, the American's boss didn't even show up for the meeting with Clark.
When he got back, Clark called Georgia to speak with the man in charge of awarding the contract - the contract officer. He sympathized with Clark and made him a deal: if Clark took out any reference to Canada in MetalCraft's bid, he would take out references to location in all the other bids so the committee wouldn't know where the bids were coming from.
MetalCraft landed the contract for the $250,000, 45-foot-high speed barge and delivered the boat to Florida into the hands of the U.S. National Parks Service the next year.
"Our very first American contract we bid on, we won," Clark said.
Since then, the company has sold plenty of boats south of the border and few in Canada. Just last week, MetalCraft sold a boat in Canada for the first time in two years.
After that, the company started garnering more and more of the market place and making a name for itself in the boat-building world. From 1991 to 1995, annual sales went from $250,000 to $1.4 million and the workforce grew from four to 27.
Today, the company has a core labour force of 50 and up to 10 additional seasonal workers. The majority work in production (35), but there are a small group of four that comprise the company's research department.
Its largest government contract has netted $13.6 million, according to company documents.
"The company has never been so flush," Clark said. "We can compete [for] the most difficult contracts."
Clark said had the company not gone in the direction it did 20 years ago, it might not have survived.
Even still, the company has had to overcome some adversity to build its business into a success.
In 1998, MetalCraft found itself in the start of a financial spiral downward when a joint-venture agreement with a Quebec company and the federal government broke down. MIL Systems Engineering Division of Davie Industries Inc. went into receivership in September 1998 while the two companies were in the midst of building 11 Coast Guard search-and-rescue vessels.
While this might not have been a problem - MIL and MetalCraft had a joint account into which cheques were to be deposited - it became one when the federal government directed payments for the $14-million contract to MIL instead of the joint account. MetalCraft said the Crown withheld more than $630,000 in payments.
MetalCraft missed payments to suppliers, slipped in its credit rating and found itself in the worst financial situation it had been in since 1987.
"We were pretty impressive, we looked good to everyone, and now we're broke," Smith told the Whig-Standard in 2002. "If the cheques had been made out properly, there wouldn't have been any problem at all."
The company laid off 15 employees - the first time it had done so in its history - and lost up to $1 million. The company wrote to then Public Works and Government Services minister Alfonso Gagliano for help, but couldn't get anywhere.
In 2002, Smith sold two-thirds of the company to keep it going.
Three years later, the company found itself in the spotlight for a different reason. Anglin Bay became the preferred site for what was to become Kingston's new sports and entertainment centre. As part of that development, MetalCraft's one-acre portion of the site would have had to go to the city so the arena could be built.
"Because we weren't well-known, [the city] considered us a backyard builder," Clark said.
The firm asked the city for fair market value for the property and to cover relocation costs. The whole situation put a damper on the firm's ability to expand its facilities and its business.
Eventually, public outcry forced the city to turn to a new site on the North Block where the arena is currently under construction.
Last summer, a state-of-the-art boat sold for US$1.7 million to the fire department in Seattle had a major issue on its first call.
MetalCraft had beaten out a Seattle company for the right to build the boat that could battle flames, rescue sailors and keep its occupants safe in the event of a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive attack.
Yet, when the boat was called to fight a fire on the water, it fizzled. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that when the 50-foot boat arrived to put out a fire on hydroplane, nothing came out of its water cannons. Instead, the police boat on the water put out the fire.
A mechanical error was blamed.
Earlier this year, a new boat delivered to the fire department in Newport News, Va., sank mysteriously while it was docked in the city's marina.
The 10-metre fire boat was found shortly before 8 a.m. with its stern on the bottom of the river and bow in the air.
Security at the marina in the town on the eastern seaboard of the United States reported seeing the boat afloat at 6 a.m. Less than two hours later, half the boat was underwater, but bilge pumps designed to keep the boat afloat were working.
Although the incident has been chalked up to the weather, MetalCraft says it wasn't able to find any issues with the boat after bringing it back to Kingston for repairs. The boat is to be delivered back to Virginia in July.
Still, the company is seen as the top in its field in Canada and among the top in the world. At its site, crews can work on about 12 boats at once, building them from scratch and doing everything except the paint jobs.
The story is the same with many departments that had bought boats: the requirements for the boat was put out in a tender and each time MetalCraft met nearly all the requirements and came in with the lowest price.
The fact that the company resides in Canada wasn't a problem.
"We're dealing with a global market, so I don't think the boundaries of a city, state or country apply," said battalion chief Michael E. Cox Jr. of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department in Maryland.
The boat is "handling and holding up well" after about five years in service and being in the water all the time, Cox said. The department has four other boats, but the MetalCraft vessel "is the pride of our fleet," he said.
Other companies aren't exclusively building fire boats like MetalCraft, said Jack Garcia, a fireboat pilot with the Miami-Dade County fire department.
"That's one of the things that I thought was an edge," Garcia said. He said the 50-foot boat is on the water 24 hours a day and has gone on 75 missions - some in international waters - since it went into service on March 17. MetalCraft has been quick to act on minor repairs and issues that have arisen, Garcia said.
MetalCraft builds boats ranging in length from 20 to 100 feet, all with aluminum hulls that last for 25 years and cost less than fiberglass boats. And unlike fiberglass, aluminum doesn't catch on fire.
"The boat performs superbly," said Capt. Doogie Earhart from the fire department in Hampton, Va. The department has been recognized twice for rescues made with the FireBoat 28, which saved 10 lives last year, Earhart said. He said if finances work out, the Kingston company would be looked at for another boat.
The fire department in Seward, Alaska, found that after some initial disagreements with the company about cabin design - MetalCraft hadn't given enough space for the type of stretcher needed - things have worked out, said fire chief David Squires. Two weeks after it went into service, rescuers used it to save three lives.
Squires said when the department bought the FireStorm 30 two years ago, it had never heard of MetalCraft.
"It's paid for itself already. We've saved three people who were swamped ... we've picked up people off the shore with broken bones and one heart attack [35 kilometres] from shore," he said. "And everybody survived, which is great."
"The boat has been a very good asset for us," he added later.
Squires said the only issue with the product is that the positioning of some of the panels sometimes gets in the way of sight lines, but it was something they didn't anticipate.
The Jacksonville fire department had heard good things about MetalCraft and wanted to get one of their boats knowing the department next door in Miami was going to have one, Peterson said. Within a month of its arrival, it made a rescue in what Peterson described as a phenomenal response time. "I actually had one of my fireman giving me a play-by-play," Peterson said.
He said the company has responded quickly to maintenance questions, which has been an issue with other companies in the past.
Moore said Milwaukee will need another boat in the future and he's hoping to take another trip up to Kingston for the purchase. He might even come back to visit for a vacation. "I can't say enough good things about your community," he said.
For now, the Milwaukee boat is going through tests before it is officially commissioned. But boaters have been streaming by to catch a peak at the newest ship on the waters.
"It's drawing quite a bit of attention," Moore said.
And remember, made by MetalCraft and made in Canada.