Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jensen Maritime Consultants Celebrates 50 Years

Seattle Naval Architecture firm Jensen Maritime Consultants is an example of the benefits of talent, hard work and customer loyalty. Although the firm started small, Jensen Maritime Consultants has risen to national prominence in naval architecture and marine engineering. Along the way it molded the careers of several renowned naval architects and engineers, many of whom are still with the firm today. Jensen Maritime Consultants, now part of the venerable Crowley Marine Services group, is preparing for its next successful 50 years.

In 1961, Benjamin F. Jensen left his job as Vice President of a successful Seattle shipyard to start a one-man firm, designing work and fishing boats for the emerging West Coast marine industry. Ben Jensen had earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington, and had served his country as a Chief Engineer on a Navy destroyer escort during World War II. When the war ended he was ready to start his career. After receiving his professional engineer’s license he helped establish Marine Construction & Design (MARCO), where he designed a series of popular and beautiful fishing vessels. In 1961 he left MARCO, and opened his firm in downtown Seattle to continue designing fishing boats for the local fleet.

Jensen had met fellow naval architect Lawrence Glosten, and the two formed a friendship and an alliance, with the two men sharing an office in Seattle’s Polson building. The alliance worked well for the men, says Sue Williams, who recently retired after 30 years with the firm.

“Ben’s sharing offices with Larry Glosten took a natural turn of events,” says Williams. “They weren’t partners- just sharing office space, but it seemed like Ben had the majority of workboat and fishing clients, while Larry’s clients were more often research vessels and feasibility studies for the University.”

Jensen and Glosten continued this arrangement until 1972, when Jensen outgrew the space and moved his firm to Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal. By that time Jensen’s firm had grown to include a staff of 10, with almost all of the firm’s work centered on fishing vessels, with tugs and workboats filling in the gaps.

During the 1970s, Bristol Bay became the center of the biggest boom in the history of American fisheries, and the Bristol Bay king crab fishery went from a catch of nearly nothing to 13 million pounds in 1971. By 1980 the total catch was 130 million pounds, accounting for 80 percent of the king crab catch in Alaska and the largest king crab harvest ever seen.

From the mid 1960s to the early 1980s, more than 200 crabbers were built in Seattle, many of them to Ben Jensen’s designs.

Sue Williams joined Jensen in 1980.At that time, the firm was a partnership, with Ben Jensen owning most of the firm, and partner naval architects Gil Nilsson and Tom Breiwick each owning 5 or 10 percent. Williams was hired to run the office from the front desk. She had previously worked in the accounting department of a marine equipment supplier, and was a natural for the job. When Williams joined the firm, Jensen was already thinking about selling part of the company to a group of Norwegian investors. In 1981, a majority interest in B.F. Jensen & Associates was purchased by Maritime Technical Consultants Corporation, a Norwegian-owned firm, and the name of the company was changed to Jensen Maritime Consultants, Inc. (JMC).

The Norwegian partners bought Jensen’s stake in the company after his death in 1983, and gave Sue Williams a 5 percent stake in the company to persuade her to stay on and manage the financial affairs of the successful firm.

“No one in the house was keeping the books,” says Williams. “We were sending the accounting information back to Norway every month, and it wasn’t working very well,” she says. Williams was quickly promoted to VP of finance for the firm. “The owners had me interviewing people for the position,” she says. “I knew I could do the job, and I told them so, and they agreed.”

Williams and others in the company gradually bought out the Norwegian owners, and by 1993, Sue Williams had become the president and majority owner of JMC.

“It was the right place at the right time,” she says. Williams held the position for 10 years, before stepping aside. “For ten years it was a great place to be,” she says, “but as time went on it became difficult to be President of an engineering corporation without an engineering background.”

Longtime Jensen partner Jonathan Parrot assumed the position in 2003 after a gradual transition, and Williams stayed on as director of finance for the company. She is “semi-retired” but continues to perform financial and marketing duties on a part time basis.

In 2008, Jensen Maritime Consultants was acquired by Crowley Maritime Corporation. Crowley saw the acquisition as a way to provide its technical services group with a marine engineering and naval architecture resource to enhance the company’s existing capabilities, and Jensen saw the opportunity to have access to different areas of the marine field that wouldn’t have been available to the company on its own, while still serving its existing clients.

“The day to day financial responsibilities, like payables and receivables transferred to Crowley,” says Williams, “and we gained access to human resources as well as training resources that hadn’t been available to us. It was a pretty big deal, and a good thing for us.”

Jonathan Parrott joined the firm in 1979, after getting his degree from renowned naval architecture school Webb Institute. “I was fresh out of school, looking for a position,” he says. “I had been looking all summer. There was a slump on the East Coast, and it wasn’t much better here,” Parrott says. The crab boat boom had started to recede, and Jensen had seven staff at the time. Parrott went in to see about a job.

“One of the Jensen naval architects had decided to become a fisherman,” he says. “He bought a boat and wandered off to do some seining.” Parrott took the job.

The firm was finishing up some crab boats from the boom times, and Parrott came onboard to see the completion of the last two Jensen-designed crabbers, including the 125-foot Vitus Bering.

“I did a lot of stability stuff and grunt work,” he says. “I was doing 30 incline tests a year.”

After Ben Jensen’s death, Parrott got involved in designing seiners and gillnetters. “We got a contract to work with Bender Shipbuilding on the first big 200-foot factory trawler,” he says. “On that project we had increased our staff to 15 people, and then the Japanese client came back to Bender and said they could only pay half of what they had promised.” The project was cancelled, along with the firm’s engineering contract. “We had to lay off eight people,” says Parrott. “That was a hard thing to do. It made us very conservative in hiring practices and financial matters going forward.”

The firm had enough small boat work to keep the remaining staff busy, and the firm produced designs for their first big factory trawler, the Northern Glacier, delivered by Tacoma’s J.M. Martinac in 1984, and the smaller factory trawler Rebecca Irene built at Eastern Shipbuilding in 1985.

“We started doing pretty well,” he says. “We did lots of factory trawlers and a lot of little gillnetters, and converted a lot of crabbers into trawlers.” The company also began designing more tugboats and passenger vessels, and eventually moved into the workboat market, becoming a leader in tugboat design.

Parrott sees a lot of growth on the horizon. “Were bringing in some new people with different experiences, and being part of Crowley opens a lot of doors.” Parrott says Jensen is now working with oil and, heavy-lift companies, and has jobs coming up in Sakhalin and Alaska.

The company’s line of tugboats is getting more exposure as well. Crowley operates two of Jensen’s latest tugs on long term charter from Bay Delta Towing, and Jensen has participated with the in-house Crowley designers in the design of several new boats. The firm is also exploring international business. “We’re getting a lot more interest from overseas people who want a choice of designs,” says Parrott. “A yard in the Far East is interested in building a couple of our tugs- a series tug and a small purpose-designed boat.”

Jensen’s new affiliation with Crowley brings a new series of engineering opportunities. Most of them find their way to the desk of John Hveding, Jensen’s Chief Marine Engineer. John is a longtime Jensen employee and partner who came to the US from Norway in 1985, after having worked as a Marine Engineer in shipyards and marine construction in Norway and in the North Sea

“I was ready for a change, and I had friends in Seattle, so I came for a while and took the position at Jensen,” he says. “That was 25 years ago, and I’m still here.”

Hveding’s expertise in piping and hydraulic system design, as well as the mechanical and engineering aspects of the business, has kept him busy over the past 25 years, as the firm has grown and expanded. His shipboard and shipyard experience are being put to use in a whole new way with projects that include moving massive oilfield modules to the North Slope of Alaska on Crowley’s heavylift 455-series barges.

“It’s a new challenge, but it’s very interesting work,” he says. Challenges include securing the massive modules to the barges to withstand brutal North Pacific conditions, and positioning the modules in such a way that the point loads don’t crush the deck plates of the floating equipment.

The sealift-related engineering is a new field for the company, and Hveding is kept pretty busy managing a staff of five in his department while approving and stamping engineering drawings. “We have a new naval architect coming on that will be able to help me with some of that work,” he says.

One of the biggest issues facing the North Pacific fishing fleet is stability, and one of the industry’s most knowledgeable stability experts is Eric Blumhagen, Manager of Naval Architecture for Jensen.

Blumhagen started working for Jensen in 1988, right out of school- the school of civil engineering at the University of Washington. Blumhagen was pursuing a career in civil engineering, and took a few classes on naval architecture on a lark. “Acquaintances told me at the time that there was no future in the marine industry,” he says.

On joining the firm, Blumhagen started on stability issues and worked his way up through the company. “One of the secrets of engineering,” says Eric, “is the way you do things in college is only tangentially related to how you do things in practice.” He notes that practical experience is often the best teacher.

Fishing vessels are particularly prone to stability issues, says Blumhagen, because they are fundamentally opposite of other marine vessels, including cargo and passenger vessels. “For every other boat, you load up in port and go to another port and offload your cargo,” he says. “In fishing you start empty, go out and load, then come back in. The loading takes place in a much less-controlled environment, and it’s bound to lead to problems.”

Blumhagen says fishing is the last bastion of the unregulated marine industry, but has come a long way since he started in the field.

“We are light years ahead, especially on this coast, of where we were 13 years ago, as far as education and caring about stability,” he says. The Coast Guard has helped, sending out teams to educate the crab fleets about overloading their vessels. “I haven’t had to tell a crabber to take pots off the boat in 5 years,” he says. “You see everyone, from little boats to leaders in the industry like American Seafoods and Trident, caring about stability, and safety in general, and realizing that safety saves them money.”

Blumhagen is very happy with the recent acquisition by Crowley. “As a small company we might have had to turn down opportunities to upgrade software or purchase new equipment, because the cash simply wasn’t there,” he says. “Now with Crowley we can put a model together to show that the purchase will pay off in three years and be profitable, and we can get a check signed. That makes a huge difference in how we run our business.”

Another bonus from the Crowley purchase is the fact that Crowley brought Jensen in-house, installing the firm in the Crowley main offices at Pier 17 on Seattle’s Harbor Island.

“With the resources at pier 17 we’re right at the water to see tugs and captains and crews,” says Blumhagen. “There’s a lot of operational experience only a 2-minute walk away.” Blumhagen says this allows the Jensen staff to talk to crews. “As engineers we tend to not get much feedback from users,” he says. “We’ll hear from the owners, but not the deckhands. Now we can get perspective from the ‘boots on the deck plates’ and use operational experience to help improve our designs.”

Eric Blumhagen says the shift gives the company the opportunity to make a lot of changes and overcome some inertia. “Having Johan (Sperling) and Jonathan (Parrott) in their new positions just lays the groundwork to become a bigger company and sets us up to plan ahead for growth,” he says. “We can be as big as anyone else on the waterfront- we have the same resources they have now.”

Johan Sperling, Vice President of Jensen Maritime, will have been with the company for 10 years this May. Sperling, a native of Sweden, came to the US to attend the University of New Orleans on a tennis scholarship. “My father was a psychologist in Sweden, and I kind of rebelled against following in his footsteps. I felt the opposite of psychology was engineering, and the best engineering program at UNO was the naval architecture program, so I picked that.”

Before joining the firm, Sperling worked for the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) in New Orleans, where he was hired while still in school earning his degree. “When I was at ABS I wanted out of New Orleans,” he says. “My Swedish blood couldn’t take the warm weather.”

Sperling came to Seattle, and set up interviews with the top three naval architecture firms. “Sue (Williams) interviewed me and offered me the job,” he says. He accepted the position without even interviewing with the other firms.

“I worked as a naval architect and became part owner after four years or so,” he says. “I started going to trade shows and representing the firm, and discovered that I had a knack for the business end.” In 2007 Sperling went to business school to sharpen his skills, then approached the leadership with a proposal to expand his day-to-day business role. He was given the company’s business development operations, working under Jonathan Parrott.

Parrott became President of the company after a slight reorganization of the company. “We had a situation a few years ago where we had some leadership changes, and Sue Williams took over in the interim.” The company explored its options, and determined that Parrott should step in and take over. “It was OK, but I’m a naval architect- I like drawing boats,” he says. “I was a decent administrator, but I wasn’t suited for it.”

In January of this year, Jensen announced a leadership reorganization. “The changes play to the current staff’s strengths,” says Sperling. “As of the first of the year, I officially became Vice President responsible for profit and loss, operations and personnel, and Jonathan Parrott became Vice President, New Design Development.”

Parrott’s new position will allow him to do the work he loves, which is designing vessels of all types. He is no longer involved in the day-to-day administrative tasks he has handled over the past 5 years, and instead is taking a more active role in Project Development and New Designs. This will include more travel to visit clients and shows world-wide, and the elimination of his administrative tasks will give him time to do that without negatively impacting how Jensen runs internally.

“He’s unique,” says Sperling, about Parrott. “He loves his design and engineering work, and wasn’t really happy dealing with the administrative side of the business.” Sperling is much happier with the business side, and sees nothing but opportunity for the company.

The company now has 26 employees, up from 12 when Sperling joined almost a decade ago.

“Our association with Crowley has given us the ability to approach big shipyards to discuss big projects,” says Sperling. “It took a while, but the yards are taking note that we can help them work with Crowley.”

Sperling says the Jensen family is adapting to the new situation as well- with a bit of help. “I have a list of things we’re not allowed to say anymore,” he says. These include, “We have always done it this way,” and “you are too young to know,” as well as “we tried that before.”

Sperling says the firm is working well in the new environment, and sees great things in Jensen’s future.

“We’re much more than we were before,” says Sperling. “There are no limits to what we can do with the backing Crowley has given us. If we haven’t at least doubled in size in a few years, we’re doing something wrong.”