Bollinger Shipyards’ history of resilience was put to the test in the aftermath of the 2014-15 oil market plunge. Declining prices and the market changes that ensued were among the worst to hit the area in a lifetime, says President and CEO Ben Bordelon.
And it’s not over yet.
Bordelon spoke last week at the Bayou Industrial Group’s monthly luncheon, attended by more than 130 at the Wellness Center of Thibodaux Regional Medical Center. “The market has been tough,” he says. “We went through a lot, there’s no question, and we’re still living in a tough market.”
That has meant layoffs, pay cuts and bankruptcies for many area companies over the last five years. The subsequent trade war with China didn’t help matters. Lockport-based Bollinger had just entered into a sizable contract when the steel tariffs hit. “We signed a contract and the tariffs kicked in three months later,” Bordelon says. “We had a fixed price contract, and all of a sudden the price for steel goes up and I’m stuck. At the end of the day, we ended up taking a $2.1 million hit before we even got started.”
Nonetheless, some positive outcomes have sprung from those dark days. For one, Bollinger has become a much leaner, more resilient organization. “Down markets make you look internally and become more efficient,” he adds. “I sat down with my team and we looked at every single thing, literally.” He found efficiencies not only on the production side, but in other aspects of the business, such as a much-improved health care plan.
Diversification has also been key for the 1,500- to 2,000-employee company. “I like to say we are a three-legged stool,” Bordelon says. “We build for the government; we do commercial builds, including supply vessels, tank barges, etc.; and we also do repair and conversion work, where we fix vessels in our machine and electric shops.”
A huge part of Bollinger’s recent business has been through contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense. The company has also fabricated vessels for the U.S. Coast Guard since the early 1980s. “We deliver the ships to the government on time and on budget with no screw ups,” Bordelon says. “The only way we can keep building boats is to keep doing our job.”
To strengthen those ties, Bordelon has been heavily engaged in federal and local politics. He encourages others to do likewise—particularly in regard to city, parish and state offices. “It’s important,” he says, “for local government to have some strategic business vision in order to attract more businesses and keep the ones you have.”
“I’m not going to sugar coat it—we get recruited a lot,” he adds. “Mississippi wants us, Alabama wants us, Florida etc.,” He says the support of local institutions such as Nicholls State University—through its maritime management curriculum—is critical, as Bollinger employs and recruits students directly from the program.