Ted Smith is the kind of guy who, if he finds a fork in the road, he takes it. In other words, when opportunity knocks, he opens the door. Silly puns aside, Smith has made a career out of making the right decisions at the right time. His latest? To retire and dismantle his 20-year old company, Marine Tech. For Smith, it’s a clean sweep – take down the sign, auction off all the company equipment, lock up the building on Garfield Avenue and simply walk away. At first glance, it’s seems an odd decision for the relatively young 65-year-old businessman, but there’s a method to his madness.
Like its owner, Marine Tech is a relative young business when compared with the company from which it evolved, Zenith Dredge, which was formed in 1905 at the foot of Thirteenth Avenue West as a harbor construction company. Later, it converted to shipbuilding and produced eight tankers and 13 cutters. After 95 years as a mainstay Twin Ports business, most of Zenith’s assets were sold off to local businessman Jim Holmgren, who launched Marine Tech. Not long after, Smith came onto the scene. Years before, Smith had been involved in what he described as “vertical construction.” In layman’s terms, buildings. Smith said the transition to land-locked construction to marine was fairly easy.
“Opportunity,” Smith said. “Yup, opportunity. A friend of mine owned a company, Ryba Marine Construction, out of Cheboygan, Mich., and he needed help bad, so he recruited me and I went to work for him.”
Not long after, Marine Tech came calling, and Smith joined it in 1998, eventually buying the company in 2001, another opportunity that resulted in expanding its operations, which Smith said, were “great.” Then he ticked off the various types of projects in which they’ve participated over the decades: marine construction, dock construction, repair and design, dredging of all types, pile driving, stone placement, salvage and ship-to-ship cargo transfers, contaminated sediment remediation and wetlands restoration. While the company has worked on projects throughout most of the Great Lakes, Smith said it’s rare they venture much outside of Lake Superior. There’s enough work there to keep them busy.
“Marine construction is rarely repetitious, except for, perhaps, navigation dredging, where we’re moving stuff from point A to point B,” said Smith. “We have a saying that once you’re proficient at a job, the job is finished. Then we move on to next one that has its own twists and turns. That’s the pleasure of the industry; there’s seldom two jobs alike.”
Given the region’s unpredictable four seasons, Marine Tech employs, on average, 18-25 people, during its peak between Spring and November, and around a half dozen during Winter. Sometimes the work is done quickly, like repairing a dock that got in the way of an errant ship or placing sheet piles along Tischer Creek. Other jobs are more complex, large and time consuming. Smith said the biggest project they tackled was the three-year cleanup of Stryker Bay.
Still, after 20 years, Smith can recall some projects that were enjoyable, regardless of size. One was at the Apostle Islands for the National Park Service. That involved three years of infrastructure work on Outer Island and Raspberry Island, mainly building stone abatements to offset erosion that was threatening the lighthouses. Another was for the National Forest Service, far away from the Great Lakes, on an inland lake near Cable.
“The National Forest Service was willed some property along the lake and given an endowment to maintain its property, one of which was an old, turn-of-the-century boathouse, and the foundation on it was failing,” Smith said. “So, we brought in some portable barges, lifted up the boathouse, which was beautiful inside, replaced the foundation and set the boathouse back on it, where it sits today. It was a fun job.”
While the company has had to rent equipment from other businesses on occasion for some projects, it generally has relied on its own assets, which are now all being auctioned off through Ritchie Brothers, a global auctioning company that specializes in heavy equipment (https://www.rbauction.com). Smith said word of mouth has gotten people stopping by Marine Tech to look at the equipment personally, but everything being auctioned is on the Ritchie Brothers’ website and bidding will begin June 15. It’s been an easy transition for the once busy company, and that includes for most of its employees.
“Good people are hard to find, but we’ve had other companies calling us about our key personnel, because they need them,” said Smith. “We’ve found good homes for them.”
And what about Smith himself? Why retire? Why now? It’s not for lack of projects, he said. He cited the Obama Administration dedicating $300 billion toward the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, with a large chunk of that funding, including matching funds from Minnesota, going toward a number of projects in and around the Twin Ports and other harbors within a 60-mile radius. Enough work to keep the industry busy for the next few years. But not Marine Tech.
“We had some buyers look at us, but it’s a niche industry, and most of our competitors, with the knowledge and expertise, would just as soon see us go away,” said Smith. “They get the market without having to spend any money. It’s an opportunity for all of us.”
It’s not that Marine Tech won’t be missed, or it’s accomplishments forgotten.
“Through the years, Marine Tech has built a solid reputation as the premier dredging firm here in the Twin Ports and across the western end of Lake Superior,” said Adele Yorde, public relations director at the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. “The company’s contributions to the development of this region’s maritime industry include a wide range of projects well beyond dredging shipping lanes – everything from the mitigation of contaminated sediments by hydraulic capping to habitat restoration plus steel corrosion remediation work at several docks in the Duluth-Superior harbor including, among others: CHS, Duluth Storage, Hallett 8 and Graymont. Most recently, Marine Tech crews conducted emergency dredging at Northshore Mining and delivered dredged material via barge to the Sky Harbor Airport realignment project. When you talk about ‘digging deep’ into this port’s history, the name Marine Tech will hold a special place in the hearts and minds of maritime industry stakeholders for years to come.”
Smith appreciates what he and his employees have done for the region, but, as usual, he’s not looking back, but forward, to other opportunities.
“I plan on spending more time sailing in the summer and more time skiing in the winter,” he said. And these activities will take place in between time spent consulting to industry.”