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updated 8/19/2004 8:58:49 AM ET 2004-08-19T12:58:49

If the Mississippi River is a humming highway of commerce — and it most certainly is — what better way to get a feel for its economic might than to talk to the people who build the vessels that ply its waters and keep the traffic flowing day and night. We did just that on Day 13 of our two-week journey the length of the river, sitting down with shipbuilder Donald “Boysie” Bollinger and visiting one of his company’s  maritime repair shops for a quick lesson in dockside diagnostics.

Bollinger, 54, is the chairman and CEO of Bollinger Shipyards Inc., a company that has been growing like a gator in a pool full of perch in recent years.

Founded in 1946 by his father, Donald, the Lockport, La.,-based company now employs about 3,000 workers and operates 14 shipyards — 11 devoted to repairing the ships that ply the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico and three specializing in the construction of new vessels.

Thanks to a series of acquisitions through the 1990s – a time when many shipbuilders were struggling or going under -- Bollinger Shipyards is now the no. 1 commercial shipbuilder and repair company in the nation.

Bollinger describes his company’s position in the industry as in the “second tier” behind shipbuilding giants Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics, which build nearly all of the Navy’s big vessels. But that’s apparently not a bad neighborhood. The Marine Log, a shipping industry publication, reported in August 2003 that the privately held Bollinger Shipyards racked up roughly $300 million in revenue the previous year.

Along with his company’s financial success, Bollinger – who has his mother, a big Tarzan fan, to thank for the nickname “Boysie” — is making a name for himself in political circles.

Jim Seida  /  MSNBC.com
Donald "Boysie" Bollinger is the chairman and CEO of Bollinger Shipyards Inc, the no. 1 commercial shipbuilder and repair company in the nation.
“Boysie was a derivative of Boy that she picked up somewhere along the way when I was about 2-years-old,” he said. “… When I see George Bush, he calls me Boysie, so I guess it stuck.”

Bollinger sees Bush with some frequency, as is considered a “king maker” in Louisiana’s GOP circles (he predicts a “comfortable” victory for the incumbent in the state in November). He also was recently designated a “super ranger” by the Republican National Committee for having raised more than $300,000 for the party, all from individuals in amounts of $25,000 or less to comply with the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

Though Bollinger is by all accounts a hard-driving businessman who regularly puts in 16-hour days managing his company and participating in a variety of civic organizations, he credits much of his company’s success to location.

“Small shipyards are scattered up and down the river and along both coasts, but primarily the Gulf Coast because you have a huge amount of activity with the Mississippi River and its tributaries (and) with the offshore oil in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

The concentration of shipyards in the area makes even more sense when you consider that there are five major ports on the Mississippi south of Baton Rouge, including two – New Orleans and South Louisiana at La Place – that are regularly among the top five ports in the nation, he said.

“If you think about adding … those five together, you definitely have the biggest port system in America right here,” Bollinger said. “… It’s a tremendous maritime community.”

Standing on the New Orleans waterfront, directly across from the Bollinger Algiers shipyard, Bollinger ticked off the major components of his company’s current business, providing a snapshot of south Louisiana’s thriving shipping industry:

  • New-construction shipyards in Gretna and Morgan City are largely occupied with refitting and replacing oil tankers to comply with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which mandates that shippers use vessels with double hulls by 2005. Congress passed the law in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.
  • Bollinger’s other new construction shipyard, at its company headquarters in Lockport, is focused on building patrol boats for the Coast Guard and Navy. Since 1984, the company has built more than 100 patrol boats for the Coast Guard, all of them either 100-foot Island class cutters or 87-foot Marine Protector class cutters.
  • The company manufactures a wide variety of boats to support the offshore oil industry, including tugs, barges, supply and utility vessels and an odd-looking creation called a lift boat – a barge-looking vessel that has 250-foot legs that allow it to stand on the ocean floor and jack itself up off the water, much as the movable oil platforms do.
  • Its repair shipyards cater to almost every type of vessel. “A big part of our business has always been the repair operations,” Bollinger said. “We have 45 dry docks … at 11 different locations that cater strictly to repair work. Nobody (else) is even close to 45 dry docks in this business.”

It’s not surprising, given his profession, that Bollinger sees the river from a different perspective than your typical waterfront watcher.

“When you look at the majesty of this river, the Big Muddy as we call it, … it continues to fascinate me,” he said. “… I love to just watch equipment running on it. I love to watch a ship unloading cargo from some foreign land. … I love to watch the farmers of America export their products through this waterway.”

While Bollinger is undeniably pro-river commerce, he also takes an active interest in environmental issues. In addition to serving as the Board of Directors of the Louisiana Nature Conservancy, he is focusing attention on Louisiana’s coastal erosion problem and pushing the idea of “diverting part of the (Mississippi) to rebuild the marshlands.”

“I fish in that area, I know it,” he said. “I can see it disappearing almost daily. … We lose a football field of land every hour. … If we do nothing, in 2075 the whole area I lived in and grew up in will be gone.”

After our visit with Bollinger, we drove a few miles downriver to the Bollinger Quick Repair shipyard in the industrial suburb of Harvey to see the company’s repair operations first hand.

Dave Marmillion, vice president for inland river operations, said that “quick is the key word” at the facility.

“We give our customers quick access from the river and work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to get them back off the dry dock as quickly as possible,” he said, speaking loudly to be heard over the cacophony of power tools and a crane engine operating nearby.

The facility was jumping on the day of our visit, with all six dry docks either in use or being readied for occupation.

Among the patients were the state ferry Louis B. Portrerie, in for a Coast Guard inspection; the liquefied propane barge Puerto La Cruz, having a leak in its hull repaired; the harbor boat Wendy C., which was having its starboard rudder removed; and the Motor Vessel Martin Commodore, which was having its propeller adjusted in an effort to solve a vibration problem.

Elvin Cheramie, a project coordinator, then took us on a tour of the shipyard’s suite of propeller, electrical and machine shops and detailed the host of services and repairs that can be performed on-site, often saving customers critical hours or days

One of the most interesting stops was in the propeller shop, where workers were checking the giant steel or bronze blades for cracks and making adjustments to the pitch of the blades for improved performance.

The shop also uses giant presses to repair propellers – or “wheels” as they are usually called by industry insiders – as big as 12 ½-feet in diameter that, despite being an inch or more thick, had been twisted like tinfoil by impacts with logs or other underwater detritus.

“There’s all kind of things under the water,” Cheramie said, showing us around a back lot filled with propellers too badly damaged to be repaired. “... You can get broken blades, anything.”

Our shipyard tour completed, we returned to our hotel in New Orleans to prepare for the final leg of our journey – a visit to the odd burg of Pilottown, home of the bar pilots who guide ships in and out of the river’s mouth, and a culminating trip through the mouth of the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Reporter Mike Brunker and media producer Jim Seida are traveling the length of the Mississippi in August and will be filing daily dispatches along the way. If you have a question or comment, mail us at mississippi@msnbc.com.

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