Tidewater barges ahead water transportation firm focuses on growth

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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It's a chilly and unrelentingly gray Tuesday, but the belly of the tugboat Chief is warm as the crew prepares to feast on a pork roast.

The five-member crew's captain, Mark Cline, who's spent 23 years employed by Tidewater Barge Lines -- the Chief's owner -- stood inside the tug's kitchen, his mind on Mother Nature.

Although the Columbia River looked fairly affable and calm that day, Mother Nature often ensures the river is neither of those things. His top priorities, Cline said, are "just keeping everybody safe and keeping the tow in one piece." On the water, he added, "we don't go in a straight line."

Cline is one of Tidewater's 243 employees, people who form the backbone of an 80-year-old company that has gotten tremendously good at avoiding getting blown off course, straight lines or no.

"Avoiding," however, seems reactive -- the opposite of proactive. And Tidewater is proactive in its drive to grow. These are promising times for the Vancouver-based company -- the largest inland marine transportation business west of the Mississippi River.

The privately held company doesn't divulge financial information. But its revenue is somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million. It's a profitable company -- "yes, absolutely," said its president and CEO, Dennis McVicker. It is diversified and dominant in its market, too, positions that enabled it to weather the Great Recession.

The company recently took on a new New York-based equity partner with growth squarely on its mind. And it has its eyes on new business: A global energy company wants to join others in exporting coal to Asia from the Pacific Northwest, and Tidewater stands to profit -- and to create jobs in Clark County -- from the venture by transporting the coal past the metropolitan area to a downstream export terminal.

But that venture, if it happens, won't come without controversy. Critics of coal exports point to the overwhelming scientific evidence of global climate change and press to stop burning coal to avoid exacerbating the problem.

McVicker understands the opposition. But he said Tidewater "has really decided not to get involved in the debate over coal." If the company's would-be partner -- Ambre Energy -- secures the permits to ship coal, McVicker said, "there's no one better to move it than Tidewater," which has decades of experience "moving commodities on this river system safely."

Helping others

Tidewater Barge Lines is one of two subsidiaries of Tidewater Holdings. The other is Tidewater Terminal Company.

It's a business that can trumpet both its bottom-line success, as well as its long-lasting contributions to numerous charities and other community-building causes.

Indeed, Tidewater's history is as rich as a marine food web, and there is perhaps no better evidence of that than Ray Hickey,

who started as a deck hand on a Tidewater tugboat. He became president of Tidewater Barge Lines in 1977 and then its owner in 1983. Hickey sold the company in 1996.

Hickey died in 2010 but his legacy of philanthropy lives on.

He plowed the wealth he built into millions of dollars of support for a variety of projects and causes, including the Waterfront Renaissance Trail along the Columbia River shoreline; the Ray Hickey Hospice House, a joint project with the Southwest Washington Medical Center Foundation (now under PeaceHealth's umbrella); and large contributions to the YWCA Clark County, the Columbia Land Trust and Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland.

Today, Tidewater's rudder remains planted in the direction of strengthening the county's social fabric. And it's still equally as serious about bolstering its business.

To take in the company's Vancouver site, with its sturdy docks and its jaunty tugs and its self-possessed barges, is to get wrapped up in the romance of the river, to forget that Tidewater is, at its core, a transportation company whose highway is made of water.

Its operating area envelops 465 miles on the Columbia and Snake rivers system, extending from the Port of Astoria, Ore., to Lewiston, Idaho.

With its 16 tugboats and 172 barges, Tidewater hauls everything from refined petroleum products, ethanol and grain to fertilizer, paper products, solid waste and special cargo, including barging juvenile fish from the Snake River to a release site below the Bonneville Dam.

Tidewater's competitors include the rail and trucking industries. They're not pushovers. For example, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who owns BNSF Railway, is bullish on the future of hauling industrial and consumer goods by rail.

McVicker, of course, recognizes the competition. But he sees room for every line of transportation, and he sees transportation playing an enduring role in global growth.

"You can't export transportation to India, you can't put it on the Internet," he said. "As populations grow, demand for commodities grow, and (for) goods and services, and there just has to be transportation … every form of transportation is needed."

Focus on environment

Curt Hart, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Ecology, which enforces state environmental laws, including protection of water quality, said Tidewater "does a lot of business on the Columbia River," transporting millions and millions of gallons of fuel annually on the river.

Hart said a review of the past five years' worth of the Department of Ecology's enforcement-action data shows very few -- and mostly minor -- incidents triggered by Tidewater operations.

The DOE issued two warnings to the company in 2009, one over a small, light coating of oil that spilled onto the water and another involving a small spill of diesel fuel, according to Hart.

In another incident in 2009, Hart said, a Tidewater barge filled with millions of gallons of gasoline ran aground near White Salmon. No spill or environmental contamination resulted. The DOE worked with Tidewater to deal with the situation, Hart said, and received a reimbursement of roughly $14,500 for helping the company.

"All in all," Hart added, Tidewater has a "pretty good compliance history" with the state.

McVicker said Tidewater has long been focused on being a good steward of the environment.

That has included repowering at least five tugboats with more environmentally friendly and efficient engines. The company also has deployed double-hulled petroleum barges -- ahead of a 2015 federal mandate -- to have extra backstops against potential spills.

McVicker, who looks you straight in the eye when he talks, discusses the company he leads with pride.

Tidewater is a union shop, bustling with everybody from boat captains, pilots and deck mechanics to electricians, welders and mechanics.

"These are high-paying jobs," McVicker said, noting average pay at Tidewater is $85,000. "And that's not because I make a gazillion dollars," raising the average, he added. "Take me out of it, and our people make $85,000 a year."

McVicker possesses a deep professional background in the petroleum and transportation industries. He's got a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Oregon State University, with a minor in business.

He said he looks to hire people with character and that Tidewater is more than willing to train people to do a job. "It's hard to train character," McVicker said.

As it looks to maintain a strong workforce, Tidewater also is fresh off a financial changeover that McVicker says will further position the company for long-term growth.

Under the new arrangement, Tidewater Holdings remains the operating partner for its two subsidiaries while Stonepeak Infrastructure Partners -- a New York-based investment firm -- replaces Portland-based Endeavour Capital as the major equity investor in Tidewater.

'Significant growth'

Next up for Tidewater is a project that's freighted with both the opportunity to grow and the potential to prompt a public outcry.

With its "Morrow Pacific" plan, Ambre Energy wants to haul 8 million tons of coal annually from the Port of Morrow to the Port of St. Helens.

The plan calls for hauling coal on covered barges from the Port of Morrow near Boardman, Ore. 190 miles down the Columbia River to the Port of St. Helens, Ore., where it would be loaded onto vessels headed for Asia.

Tidewater expects to be tapped to help make that plan a reality.

If it works out, Tidewater would deploy its tugs to guide coal-filled barges between the Morrow and St. Helens ports.

"We hope to hear soon that we are the preferred transportation provider for (Ambre)," McVicker said. Ambre hopes to secure permits in early 2014.

The work would mean "significant growth for us," McVicker said, leading the company to expand its fleet and to hire dozens of new workers as the Ambre project ramps up.

McVicker said some of the environmental concerns -- coal dust among them -- don't apply in this case, given the covered barges and contained loading facilities.

He said barging the coal is the most environmentally sound way of moving it. "We have lower fuel consumption," he added.

But the coal will end up getting burned in power plants in China and other locations, a major concern as scientists warn of the growing threat of global warming.

"We'll let others decide if Asia is going to burn coal or not," McVicker said. "We're just not going to get engaged in that argument, that debate."

It's important to minimize harmful emissions, McVicker said, and "the more you can put that coal on barges, the better."

Indeed, Tidewater is focused on growth.

And, back aboard the tugboat Chief, the crew was focused on the tasks ahead. Its journey included a stop at Umatilla, Ore., where it would drop off a barge full of biodiesel.

It's flinty work. But Tidewater maintains a strong workplace health and safety record. Since 2004, its workers' compensation claims costs have been "lower than average," a good indication, according to the Washington State Labor & Industries Department.

And, in five safety inspections going back to 2001, Tidewater has had no violations.

The Chief's pilot, Mike Ellsworth, who's been in the business since 1976 -- about four of those years with Tidewater -- said people at the company take pride in their work.

And if you want to work in the tug and barge industry, Ellsworth said, it's generally understood that Tidewater is "the one you want to be at."

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com.