Surrounded by Giants, Horizon Shipbuilding Shines
Dust doesn’t sit still for long at Horizon Shipbuilding.
With 185 employees constructing nine vessels, in addition to a $4 million facility renovation, there isn’t much down time at the company’s 8-acre shipyard. A quick walking tour of the facility is all that’s needed to leave shoes and pants covered in a thin layer of dirt.
“We’re continuing down the same path, trying to become bigger and better. Our reputation is expanding,” said Travis Short, the company’s owner and president. “We want to create a full-service shipyard.”
Shipbuilding is the largest manufacturing industry in coastal Alabama and Mississippi, anchored by the 10,500-employee military behemoth Huntington Ingalls Industries in Pascagoula and rising star Austal USA in Mobile, which is set to double its workforce to nearly 4,000 in the next few years.
Surrounded by those giants, Horizon, which has annual revenue of about $25 million, has been able to carve out a name for itself as a company that can build good ships on schedule for just about any customer, anywhere.
Horizon has built ships for the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and for commercial transportation and oil service companies in America, Nigeria, Colombia, Iraq and Mexico.
The company was named Alabama’s Exporter of the Year in 2008 by the U.S. Small Business Administration, and received the Governor’s Trade Excellence Award from then-Alabama Gov. Bob Riley in 2010.
In July, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill shuttered nearby seafood processors, Horizon won a contract to build 10 oil barges, each with 10,000-gallon capacity, to be used in the clean-up effort.
It had a month to deliver them.
“We worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 30 days,” Short said. “There weren’t many parties that month.”
Horizon Shipbuilding’s Bayou La Batre shipyard employs 185 people and generates revenue of about $25 million a year.
While that month was obviously an anomaly, Short said the shipyard has had a strong five-year run following Hurricane Katrina, and has a 20-month backlog of new work.
The shipyard’s productivity was helped two years ago by the purchase of a $6 million mobile boat hoist that can carry about 1,000 tons of material around the yard.
Horizon uses the hoist to move ship parts and modules around the yard, and to launch boats into the water when they’re ready, Short said. Before buying the hoist, Horizon had to launch boats using a rail system, and could only construct three at a time, Short said. Now employees can work on 10 or more at a time around the yard, and the hoist can pick them up and drop them in the water.
Short, who founded the company in 1997, said that while the recent run has been nice, shipbuilding is too cyclical a market to expect that run to continue forever. That’s why he launched a $4 million infrastructure project last year with the aid of a $3 million grant from the U.S. Navy.
Workers are upgrading 1,000 feet of bulkhead at the shipyard, and will eventually install service stations every 75 feet along the wall. Short envisions boats using the stations to get fuel and air and unload sewage while using his yard for engine service and other maintenance issues.
“Those will sustain us in the future when the market turns down again,” he said.
Short, who hails from the Seattle area, moved to Mobile to attend the University of South Alabama. He said he chose to locate his company in Bayou La Batre for a number of reasons, including the support he received from the city government and industrial development board.
But he said the area’s history of shipbuilding also played a large role. In addition to Horizon, there are about a half-dozen more shipyards nearby, including Steiner Shipyard, Master Boat Builders and Rodriguez Boat Builders.
“People down here know how to make boats,” Short said. “You don’t have to go looking for employees.”