Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding Evolves as Big Employer, Better Neighbor

Made in Door County

Sturgeon Bay’s largest employer keeps expanding the business and doing so in a tidier fashion than it did during the 20th century. Since buying and uniting the 63-acre dry dock, repair and construction facility in January 2009, Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding (FBS) has retained historical lines of business and expanded into new markets. 

“We’ll continue to grow the company here in Sturgeon Bay at least through the end of next year,” said Craig Perciavalle, FBS vice president and general manager. “We’re looking at adding a couple of hundred people, if not more, over the next 12-18 months.”

FBS has invested heavily, not only in manufacturing and capacity upgrades, but also in modernization and tidying up – ranging from replacing old buildings to working with the city on a 3rd Avenue streetscape project.

“Over $70 million has been invested in the facility so far,” Perciavalle said. “I think that’s a great thing, and it’s enabled us to diversify our portfolio and stabilize the workforce and to grow the business.” 

This fall, FBS is replacing the two oldest machine-shop buildings – one of which had a sagging roof and boarded-up windows – with a new one near the company’s iconic crane, Big Blue. FBS also is modernizing pumps and controls at its graving docks, including the one that accommodates freighters in excess of 1,000 feet.

However, paving the outdoor surfaces throughout the site during the past several years ranks as FBS’s biggest step toward becoming a better neighbor in its location near homes, businesses and a park.

Retired FBS vice president Todd Thayse said that having clean, modern facilities helps to meet current standards and expectations for military contracts. And Perciavalle said, in general, “Working on a paved work area is certainly much better than working in a gravel or dirt area.”

Thayse said many shipyards in America – especially those in the South that don’t have military contracts – still have unpaved surfaces and outdoor-based practices. Welding, outfitting and manufacturing vessel components are now done indoors at FBS.

“It’s just the evolution of the industry,” Thayse said. “It’s the evolution of investment. It’s the evolution of new ownership that has a different view of how things should be done.”

Thayse said the European owners, Fincantieri, made changes to facilitate the cleanliness of the work spaces, but it’s still heavy industry. And, providing better conditions and modernized equipment will help the shipyard remain “a cool place to work.”

Aerial photos show the Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding (FBS) facility with new buildings and pavement covering all 63 acres. Submitted photo/FBS.

That’s important. FBS is hiring both skilled and trainable workers for both seasonal and full-time work. This October, prior to the winter freight fleet’s annual return, FBS had about 500 total employees. The shipyard is “fully booked” for this winter, which means plenty of work throughout the season. The 865-foot-long, fire-damaged Roger Blough’s departure this fall will make room for employees to repair, refurbish and shelter ships during the season that begins around December.

“During the winter fleet, we generally ramp up to 900 to a thousand workers,” Perciavalle said. “That goes until March. Concurrent with that, we’ll be ramping up so that we could level out at 800 or a thousand base workforce.”

Perciavalle said FBS is outfitted and prepared for “significant growth,” not only from the contracts to build Navy frigates in the buildings nearest to downtown, but also because of pursuing some new avenues for commercial-vessel construction. In addition to those possible new types of work, FBS is capable of constructing more freighters and has two liquefied natural gas (LNG) barges under construction.

“We believe that market is going to stay strong into the foreseeable future,” Perciavalle said. 

In addition, FBS recently worked on a small cruise ship and receives some odd jobs. (Perciavalle didn’t disclose what the owners of the former Gary, Indiana, casino boats plan to do with the two that docked in Sturgeon Bay in late summer.) In addition to pursuing projects for large ships, FBS is pursuing work constructing vessels for construction and maintenance of the offshore wind-turbine market.

“We’re going to continue to diversify,” Perciavalle said.

He calls shipbuilding, repair and service “a team sport” that extends beyond the boundaries of the shipyard and said he meets with the mayor and city officials every month.

“The big thing right now is new employees and housing,” said Sturgeon Bay Mayor David Ward. 

Some owners of local hotels and lodging agreed to keep facilities open this winter for an expected increase in workers. Ward said two developments providing single-family units in the city and on the outskirts will become available at a good time.

Ward said Fincantieri has “made an enormous investment in Sturgeon Bay,” making the facility the “most modern” yard on the Great Lakes. 

“The yard looked pretty shabby when we got here,” said Ward, who moved to the city 21 years ago. “There was stuff stacked all over, and there was outdoor work. They were sandblasting outdoors, which created dust and a noise problem. I won’t say the yard is noiseless or dustless, but the appearance is much better.”

And Ward said the shipbuilder’s contributions extend beyond economic benefits to unpublicized acts such as fabrication for a park fountain and buying the Fourth of July fireworks.

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