Saving the World, 300 to 500 Truckloads at a Time

McKeil Marine

Our society is heavily reliant on a substance that is not renewable; it comes from the ground and can take thousands of years for the earth to create. We burn oil in several forms for myriad purposes; if there is something out there that doesn’t burn oil, we can be assured that it took oil to produce or transport. There is no getting around it; we use it for everything and anything, and our lives depend on it.
Another element the subject of oil consumption brings to mind is the matter of emissions. Everyone knows about global warming and yet there isn’t much going on to help. Luckily, however, we needn’t cut out oil use altogether; we simply need to apply better solutions.

McKeil Marine Ltd. is one company who can help with this struggle, and has been doing so for the past 55 years. The company started in 1956 when the grandfather of current owner Blair McKeil helped his son to build the first boat out of wood. Back then, the boat’s purpose was to bring new workers and supplies out to dredges working on the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. From there the company grew organically, with the addition of new tugboats and barges used to transport large components from one end of the St. Lawrence Seaway to the other, as well as help with ship docking.

Blair McKeil, who is now the company’s Chairman and CEO, has been involved with the family business since he was 23, and went on to acquire half the business at age 26. By the time he was 32, Blair owned the entire company. “The business is probably 50 times the size it was when it started with my father as far as revenues, the services that we provide and the areas that we service,” he explains.

The company isn’t your typical marine transportation business; along with straight transportation McKeil also maintains a division called Project Services, a sort of problem solving team that works on out of the box solutions for tough challenges – for example, transporting wind turbine parts for large scale wind farms or decommissioned submarines for museums that couldn’t possibly be transported any other way. This work ranges from figuring out how to transport the goods to installing temporary docks in the exact location that they are needed.

Presently, the business is in the final stages of a project for which it is employing tug boats and barges to transport gigantic modules between the Gulf of Mexico and Newfoundland for the construction of a new Vale smelter in Newfoundland.

Currently, we have tugs finishing tows coming down from the northern arctic, from Pangnirtung. We have jack-up barges out on projects drilling. We have larger transportation barges that operate more like our steady day to day business; they operate on the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River and the east coast. We transport a good number of commodities as well, from coal to scrap to steel slabs and coils, just to name a few.”

One barge can carry between 10 and 12 thousand tonnes on a trip from the east coast to the Great Lakes. The largest barge owned by McKeil is an ocean-going barge that is too large for the seaway, at 100 feet wide and 400 feet long. This barge can carry 20 thousand tonnes of anything that can be wheeled, carried or dumped onto it. The company boasts a fleet in excess of 20 tugboats and over 30 barges, with new assets joining the fleet every year.

McKeil Marine transports cargo for Aluminerie Alouette and interestingly enough according to Blair, “One of our barges can take up to 300 trucks off the road every day; they save tremendously on fuel, handling, and just think of the carbon footprint on emissions, 300 trucks or one tugboat pushing a barge.”

A barge like the one mentioned, at 400 feet long, can cross any of the Great Lakes and even the ocean. Even when bad weather strikes, there is no problem because the integrated tug and barges are attached with a custom designed pinning system. The tug pushes from behind the barge where it is protected from the weather. Within the 55 years that McKeil has been operating, the company has never lost a barge. “You have to watch your weather windows and make sure that the cargo is properly secured onto the deck of the barge before you leave with it. That’s all there is to it, really.”

The company also performs ship assist work on some of the ports on the Great Lakes, as well as towage and salvage work. “We’re just bidding on a project right now,” says Blair. “There’s a ship that’s run aground and they are looking for service providers that can go out and take three or four thousand tonnes of cargo off the ship in order to make it light enough to float again.”

McKeil has even gone so far as moving three gigantic submarines that had been decommissioned by the Navy. From Nova Scotia to Ontario, by using a large submersible dry dock, the team was able to sink the docks under the subs and then tow them. One of the subs will be repaired at a shipyard in Hamilton and then moved to its final resting place in Port Burwell where it will be on permanent display as a museum.

The business has about 300 employees, from sailing and support crew to naval architects and engineers who come from the Eastern shores all the way to Ontario. The company has offices in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, as well as shipyards in the Maritimes and on the Great Lakes. “We have an incredible group of people, whether it be our captains on board our vessels or engineers, mates and deck hands, through to our Naval engineers who work in our offices dealing with problem solving. Everyone is committed to our customers’ success and to finding better ways to do things.

Since its inception, the company has never halted on its steady journey of growth. For the past 55 years McKeil has had nothing but pure organic growth that has made it what it is today. Blair explains that the company would not be what it is today if there wasn’t such a passion for the job – the very idea of finding new ways to move what might as well be mountains holds great appeal for the team.

The company’s efforts have garnered it environmental awards, supplier awards, and a prestigious award called the Medal of Merit which one receives in recognition of outstanding works or service, preferably of national impact, by an individual, institution or organization in the port, shipping and maritime transportation fields. “I believe that ours is a culture of sharing, caring, and certainly giving back to the community where our people live and where we operate, and that has a very significant and meaningful impact on our people and their communities. We are very, very active in terms of supporting community initiatives,” says Kathy McKeil, Director, Corporate Communications.

To this end, McKeil established a program called McKeil Cares, a program which will match any contribution that an employee makes to a charity or local community cause. McKeil has also made a sizeable donation to Mohawk College in Hamilton, and was honoured with the naming of the business school, ‘The McKeil School of Business.’ There are also many other causes that the company is proud to support on a daily basis.

These contributions, of course, are in addition to the good the company is doing for the environment on a daily basis. A single barge can transport the same amount of cargo as 300 to 500 truckloads of goods, or as much as 100 to 150 rail cars. A McKeil barge is pushed by a single tugboat and with the innovative marine solutions the company provides, the team can get the cargo to exactly where it needs to be – in a safe, timely, and environmentally friendly fashion.

September 25, 2017, 4:41 PM EDT

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