WARREN, R.I. — Gov. Lincoln Chafee is squatting like a catcher beneath the low ceiling in the engine room of a brand new passenger vessel made by Blount Boats Inc., a family business that has been around since the end of World War II.
The governor is chatting with one of the Blounts about family tradition, the maritime industry and the company’s latest creation for the Army.
Unlike many companies that are watching their defense contracts go away, Blount Boats is venturing into the military sector for the first time. The company has made four 75-foot vessels for the Army to use on the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. The service will use them to ferry workers back and forth between the Ronald Reagan Test Site and the Marshall Islands of Kwajalein, Rio-Namur and Ennubirr Island.
“We never even heard of the Kwajalein Atoll,” says Blount Boats president and CFO Marcia L. Blount, who runs the company along with her sisters Nancy and Julie.
The Army had to replace deteriorating ferry boats, and a young service member from the Northeast told his superiors about the company. He said he had been on one of their boats and it was perfect for what the Army needed. The service reached out to the Blounts, who put in an aggressive bid and won the contract.
The boats themselves are simple and are based on a previous design the company used to ferry passengers between Bay Shore and Fire Island near Long Island. Inside, below deck, the four gray Army vessels look like modest churches with little rows of white benches going from front to back. The steel and aluminum boats can hold 150 passengers each.
The Blounts’ first foray into military work is a world away from the business carved out by their father, Luther H. Blount, who died a few years ago at the age of 90.
Luther, whom the sisters simply refer to as ‘Dad’ even in mixed company, built his first hull in 1949. It was a catamaran made with 55-gallon drums that helped carry mahogany logs down the waterways of Belize. Over the ensuing decades, he went on to build tankers, ferries, dinner boats, water taxis and mini-cruise vessels. One of the company’s boats was used by scientists studying diseased animals. Another has taken passengers across San Juan Bay to the Bacardi Rum Factory in Puerto Rico. Some of the boats made 50 or so years ago are still in service somewhere. The Blounts can list off the names of families like the Nolans and the McCalisters that the boats have been passed to over the years.
The family takes Chafee on a tour of their six-acre operation on the Narragansett Bay, introducing him to an employee who has been with the company for 39 years and showing him the next boat being built inside one of the bays. It will be delivered to a customer in July. Another boat will have to be completed by September 2013. Next month, the Army will come to take its four vessels away.
This is the kind of cycle a company like Blount Boats must sustain to remain viable, Marcia explains.
“In the construction industry, you need to get contracts sequentially. You want it staggered,” she tells the governor. “It’s a challenge, but right now we have it.”
This is partly due to their first contract with the military, which she hopes is the beginning of a trend for the company. Credit issues in the commercial sector have made it difficult for clients to obtain financing, so Blount Boats would like to attract more government customers. The defense dollars are more than welcome, the family says.
Chafee agrees. He and other politicians from the state have been going around talking about strengthening the local defense labor force and promoting critical projects for Rhode Island, such as General Dynamics Electric Boat’s Virginia-class submarine program. The governor acknowledges the difficulties that could result from reduced budgets. He says he understands that defense spending has to be cut if the country is to get back on stable financial footing.
“But we still want our subs, and we want our Marshall Island ferries,” he says standing in the receding fog on Blount Boats dock. “Rhode Island is being aggressive about this shrinking piece of the pie and getting our work here.”
The Blounts are pushing ahead with small chip cruises and a partnership with England’s South Boats to make wind farm service vessels. The project, along with other efforts in the state, could open the door for Rhode Island to become a trailblazer for wind farm technology in the United States, business leaders here say.
And just maybe some the armed services will want some more boats, Marcia says.
“We’re just over here waving our hands saying, ‘Hey, we can build the boats!’”