Right next door to the mega-sized Newport News Shipyard (NNS) on an apron of land at historic Small Boat Harbor (SBH) is the city’s second largest shipyard, Fairlead Boatworks (FBW). Serving regional and east coast workboats, they’re a vital resource to maritime and seafood economies, plus essential services like fire & rescue. They’re known as brown water boats working the harbors, bays and coast as opposed to blue water boats which traverse oceans. For example, Hampton Roads ranks 6th nationally in seafood landings (pounds). That’s a lot of fishing vessels, including 60 scallop boats at SBH and more working the Atlantic.
FBW’s Main Yard covering 18 acres handles 40-120 foot boats (trawlers, tugs, landing craft) while their Small Boat Shop services boats under 40 feet (Zodiac, Navy escort boats, Coast Guard patrol). Smaller vessels especially are subjected to intense natural elements and can encounter fierce conditions to do their job, which is why they must be extra well maintained. There are more dangerous jobs in the world, but no area of industrial craftsmanship besides ship repair has as many challenges or pressure.
FBW’s roots extend back to Earl Industries (est. 1984) in Portsmouth founded by legendary ship repair entrepreneur and visionary Jerry Miller. He began cleaning out sewage tanks on Navy ships, then ballast tanks, then fuel tanks until he built a stand-out, $250m ship repair company with 1,200 employees. Taking on tough, risky jobs, he took care of his men, empowered them and made a profit. In turn, he’s been an influential mentor to many who later had very successful careers. Miller also started the Integrated Precision Control and Manufacturing divisions (1991) which remain part of Fairlead today, of which FBW is a division In 2015, he targeted Davis Boat Works (est. 1958), a leading boatyard for decades and one of the first turn-key service providers, as a good strategic fit. Seeing the small vessel repair market contracting and knowing NNS would needsubcontracting support, he sensed opportunity.
An apt metaphor for FBW’s expertise, “fairlead” refers to a critical piece of marine deck equipment through which a ship’s mooring line is rove (threaded) efficiently to fairly lead away from obstructions and chaffing the force andstrain on the line from the ship to the mooring line.
The Main Yard features a new 500-ton travel lift along with a 250-ton lift, repair facilities and offices. The North Yard expansion five blocks away will have a 10k sq. ft. blasting & paint facility, a 12k sq. ft. repair structure and create 25 new jobs. The centerpiece will be a 17k sq. ft. platen, a
steel-reinforced, engineered concrete platform to fabricate large structures floated by barge to places like NNS. FBW
also has a Down River group for remote ship repairs and is a certified Zodiac and Safe Boat service dealer.
Leading FBW’s operations is Vice President and formerNavy commanding officer Bob Bodvake, a natural leader and protégé of Jerry Miller. Under his watch, he’s put together an effective mix of employees – proud, veteran shipyard workers and technical experts, accomplished Navy veterans and young, talented craftsmen and managers. Among all, he has instilled a unique sense of esprit de corps to help the boatyard succeed. In the words of one manager, “He inspires you to earn his respect.” Wisely, the former Navy Captain knows he needs a strong team around him he can trust. Even so, the average shipyard worker today is over 50 and fewer are entering the ranks. This means FBW has to be the best to attract the best young talent. Here are profiles of three top managers who personify the future of the company and the industry.