Kingston-based MetalCraft Marine is poised to grow, serve U.S. Coast Guard
By Kyle R. Hayes
Twenty five years ago, MetalCraft Marine began producing aluminum boats with five employees in Kingston, Ontario. Today, the company has more than 100 employees and production facilities on both sides of the American-Canadian border. We sat down with Robert C. Clark, the company’s contracts manager, who talks about how important a talented work force and quality product is to a company’s success; that philosophy seems to be paying off, since MetalCraft most recently received a multi-million dollar contract with the U.S. Coast Guard to produce state-of-the-art aluminum boats bound for American waters.
NNYB: Last year, 2011, was a record-breaking year for MetalCraft, with a 15 percent growth in sales over 2010. You had predicted in February that sales for 2012 would jump 20 percent. Will the trend continue?
CLARK: For sure. This year will be another record-breaking year and so will 2013. Our bookings are very solid looking forward into 2013. We’re always waiting on word for a few more contracts in the works.
NNYB: With the $10 million federal contract for high-speed patrol boats for the U.S. Coast Guard, is there potential for job growth between MetalCraft’s Kingston and Cape Vincent facilities?
CLARK: Certainly. This is not just us saying this, companies are saying this across the U.S. and Canada this: No one wants to be a welder. No one wants to be a car mechanic, no one wants to be a boat mechanic. And then there’s no funding for training. I pointed out to Congressman Owens that the economic development officers of Jefferson County promised us an aluminum welder training program at the BOCES facility in Watertown. That hasn’t happened; it doesn’t exist.
NNYB: Is the shortage of skilled labor, independent of having to train employees, an issue when you have the ability to increase hiring?
CLARK: All kinds of companies need welders and electricians. All these kids grow up and unfortunately we don’t try to introduce them to trades until high school. We need to introduce them from the early days. Kids growing up think that if you want to make money you have to be a computer programmer or game designer. They have no concept that the trades get paid well. Our starting wage is $14 an hour for someone with no training, just a laborer. Our highest paid welder made $80,000 last year. If you couple talent and welding or any of those trades, you have a powerhouse of a guy.
NNYB: In 2007, American MetalCraft merged with MetalCraft Marine, the parent company, and it was said that the Clayton, now Cape Vincent, outpost had the potential to outgrow its Canadian predecessor. Is that still a possibility?
CLARK: That’s our objective. We can’t grow space here in Kingston. In building space on this property in Kingston we could add maybe 7,000 square feet; but that hurts our marina business. We are trying to broker a deal with the city of Kingston to do boat storage where our docks are. If we could free up space here in the yard, that deal with the city would add space here. Right now in Cape Vincent there is a 10,000 square-foot space that we can take. We have first right of refusal on that building that we didn’t initially take. We are now saying that we should have taken that 10,000 square-foot space first. In the future I’m sure we will encompass both buildings.
NNYB: In September, MetalCraft signed a five year lease to use some of Cape Vincent’s Anchor Marina’s buildings, but the search for a new home wasn’t always easy finding the space and location. Has there been any talk of building your own home along the St. Lawrence waterfront when that lease is up?
CLARK: The cost to build is prohibitive now. An existing building is presumably paid for or largely paid for so the cost is much lower. These guys go and build a new building and oh, it’s beautiful, oh, it’s fantastic, but does it make your boats any better? It doesn’t make your product better at all. Will it give you better workflow? Yes. Are the gains in workflow enough to pay that mortgage? If not, it doesn’t make sense.
NNYB: What is the breakdown of work handled between Kingston and Cape Vincent? What tasks are generally handled in what facility?
CLARK: Right now the level of training in Cape Vincent is up to our level [in Kingston] on metal work; it’s probably a third of our level on mechanical and about the same in electrical. So if a boat has a simple mechanical installation it’s no problem to do it in Cape Vincent. Right now we’re doing our most difficult outfit of a boat in that facility, which is a boat for Key West. We keep training and training. We’re to the point, size-wise, where we used to send people to the American Boat and Yachting Council, where they move trainers to different locales, and now we have them come to us. We’ll have 20 people in a training session at a time and invite other builders to join in.
NNYB: You once called your company to the ‘Google of the boat world,’ as the benchmark for other companies. How much of MetalCraft time and money is spent in research and development?
CLARK: We spend a lot. We spend a considerable amount on research and development. The strange thing is that the research and development laws between Canada and the U.S. are balanced under NAFTA. Canada can’t offer more in research and development grants or tax credits than the U.S. or vice versa. We don’t qualify for any grants in the U.S. Zero. Congressman Owens did a complete investigation of that. I’m impressed by American politicians, I can tell you that. What they do is they run into stone walls all the time. There are so many walls and rules and it should be more open.
NNYB: What kinds of things are you primarily doing research on?
CLARK: We just did a welding research study looking for new welding techniques. Welding machines have taken a quantum leap in the last five years. We wanted to make sure we were getting the best use out of the machines. We only have the latest technology. When we investigated, we found things we didn’t know. We saw a $100,000 grant available but it had to be done through a school. We interviewed Queens University and St. Lawrence College. St. Lawrence College had a steel welding program, not aluminum, but their main welder was experienced in aluminum welding. We don’t have all the results yet, since we’re doing destructive testing. But we took our competitors welds and replicated them and analyzed them for strength based on new procedures we developed for these other machines. We are always trying to stay ahead of everyone else on things like electrical and corrosion prevention. We’re way ahead of our competitors. We want to be ahead in welding as well.
NNYB: Was it a conscious decision to begin building boats used in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense?
CLARK: We are by far the leader in that. We’ve been doing it since 2004. It was a conscious decision. What happened was a contract with the city of Seattle came up for one of the first vessels like that and we said we had to get that contract. We said we have to be the leaders there. There are more aluminum boat builders in Seattle than anywhere else in the country. We initially thought there was no way we could win it. We found in our investigation that the city would only buy locally, it was a decision made by the city council. [The fire department] came to us and wanted us to apply. We said we couldn’t. We wanted to and said we would like to. They said, ‘If we can get the resolution changed with city council would you bid on it?’ They went to city council and told them that the resolution to only buy local, using federal money, couldn’t be done, it was illegal. We bid the job; we won. It was a successful boat and they’re coming back to buy another shortly. We’ve built 13 or 14 of those boats now.
NNYB: One thing that continues to pop up in stories about MetalCraft are green initiatives, with hybrid diesel engines, electric engines, like the Environmental Protection Agency boat you built for Annapolis, Md. Is that an area of growth for your company, and your industry?
CLARK: [MetalCraft] is definitely going that way. We can see where the market is. We believe in our electric initiative, but not just electric, everything in alternative fuels. We now have an Industrial Research Assistance Program grant for $180,000 to build the next level electric boat, a 40-foot-long boat with 30 kilowatt electric motors. In the future we will have the ability to run on waste vegetable oil, which has zero emissions and is carbon neutral. We’re going to do a study on JP-5 for the U.S. military. By 2020, the U.S. military wants to be using JP-5 jet fuel. It’s less refined, but it burns hotter. In jet engines, that’s a good thing. The JP-5 is hard on the engines. In order to do that, we have asked the U.S. Coast Guard to work on that with us. They have a whole division of the Coast Guard doing research on JP-5. They can share findings with companies that are doing similar studies with the fuel.