For Lance Bracewell, owner of Bracewell Marine Group, relationships are the cornerstone of good business. Throughout this 30-plus-year career, Bracewell has earned the reputation of being a fair businessman whose biggest priority is to see his customers “float away on their boat happy.” With one of the few yards on the B.C. coast with the ability to do all of their own custom manufacturing, including its own winches, shafts, and bearings, the Bracewell name is one that carries a great deal of respect in the industry.
BCSN: I usually ask first for career steps and then for company background but in your case, the two are too intertwined. So tell me about Bracewell — the man and the company.
LB: My career in boat building started with Cooper Yachts in 1980. I was the production manager with 135 staff for eight years there before starting out with my own personal businesses — Bracewell Enterprises, Bracewell Woodcrafts and then Bracewell Boatworks which was a small repair and custom-build facility. Vessels built during that time included two 56-foot vessels, one with aluminum and another with fibreglass; a 65-foot fibreglass catamaran; a number of fibreglass vessels ranging in size from 22 feet to 86 feet including two 54-foot, one 75-foot custom Pacesetters and a custom 86-foot offshore vessel.
In 2003, I purchased Sea-Tec Fabricators which came with a fully outfitted machine shop and a 150-ton travelift. Up to that point, my main focus had been on pleasure craft but this allowed me to offer repair services for commercial fishing vessels and tugs as well as build new steel and aluminum vessels.
Over the following eight years, I expanded further with Bracewell Yacht Sales, Camano Yachts and Poplar Island Marine Holdings. In addition to representing the Pacesetter line produced by Bracewell Boatworks, we produced 31 and 41-foot fibreglass vessels under Camano Yachts and sold the 41-foot molds to Bracewell Shanghai Yachts. When I acquired Poplar Island Marine Services in 2008, it allowed me to expand even further into the commercial side of repairs.
In 2011, I brought all companies together and created Bracewell Marine Group. One of our first jobs under the new structure was a catamaran for Marine Harvest Canada, built to DNV (now DNV GL) specifications. We have also built two 48-foot tugs for Ledcor and have a labour agreement with ITB Marine to provide welding on their two new pusher tugs. All of the work on those is being built to Lloyd’s Register specifications and all of the trades are LR-approved as well. And of course, we continue to be quite busy with ongoing boat repair and construction projects.
More recently, we’ve started offering our own winches, shafts and bearings — a part of the business that has seen good growth.
BCSN: What made you expand beyond the pleasure craft industry and into the commercial sector?
LB: I saw an opportunity to provide services for both and felt it was good to have the diversity of business. In fact, it was the commercial side that kept us going when the pleasure craft market fell apart in 2008. The recession had a significant impact on the industry. Today, all of the other pleasure boat builders — save perhaps for Coastal Craft and Campion — only do refits and repairs.
BCSN: Tell me more about now offering winches, shafts and bearings?
LB: We started designing winches a few years ago with Greg Williams from Mercury Launch. They are custom built and superior to anything else on the market.
We started the shaft business in the fall of 2016. It was a bit of a struggle at the start but we’re seeing growth now. Everything is stocked here — we have shafts stocked here from three-quarters to six inches. We also keep complete Michigan bearing supplies in stock.
BCSN: I understand you’ve also decided to be more active and manage operations yourself.
LB: Yes, that’s correct. Chris Christiansen, our General Manager, retired on June 7. Rather than find a replacement, I decided to step back into the position. I’ll be working with Jason Evans, our Yard Foreman, and Matt Lyth, who runs the machine shop, and my daughter Kristina who is the Office Manager. While she’s been here for 16 years now, she’s grown up around shipyards so really knows the business.
I’ve missed being directly involved, especially when it comes to dealing with our customers. They are the foundation of our business and I love to see a boat float away from the dock with a happy customer. I do whatever it takes to accomplish that.
Now that I’m back in the management position, I’m more in control. I know what’s going on in the yard — I can walk around, talk to the employees and engage the customers. If something comes up, I have the knowledge and experience to deal with it on the spot — perhaps find a more efficient way to solve a problem that saves time and money or make a decision right away to avoid delays.
BCSN: I’d like to turn now to some of the trends we’re seeing in the shipyard industry in B.C. First, let’s talk about labour.
LB: There used to be over 5,000 people employed in shipyards in B.C. and today it’s a fraction of that. Trying to find skilled labour can be an issue. The demographic in this industry is aging and there’s a gap between experienced tradespeople and apprentices. It’s difficult to find, for example, machinists who have been trained on more than just CNC machines.
There are shortages in other areas — painting crew, sandblasters and woodworkers, for example. One of the ways we’re tackling this is to train from within. We’re fortunate to have a number of young welders and mechanics who are eager to upgrade their skills and we’re able to train them to our standards.
At Bracewell, employees are like family. Over the years that I’ve had my own business, I have had as many as 15 or 20 staff (and still have two) that used to be with me at Cooper Yachts. The experience we bring to the table allows us to find solutions that can be more efficient or more cost-effective for the customer but it’s just as important to encourage younger people to enter the industry.
BCSN: How has the safety regime for yards changed over the years?
LB: There are more regulations now, of course, which has led to a greater focus on safety practices. Everyone must be trained on working within confined spaces or on fire safety; and they must be certified to operate a forklift and work with cranes. There are also procedures and practices that must be followed to ensure safer workplaces.
While safety is of utmost importance in the yard and we follow all of the regulations regarding safety gear, hearing tests, insurance, etc., there is an associated cost that ultimately has to be passed on to clients.
BCSN: I imagine environmental regulations have increased costs as well.
LB: Yes, absolutely. There are permits, recycling and disposal costs, annual fees and a carbon tax to be able to run some of our machinery. It also increases labour costs because it takes longer — we have to do a lot more now when we’re sandblasting or pressure washing. Dust must be contained and shipped to a disposal site; the cast-off from pressure washings must be contained, processed to meet certain levels and then disposed of through the sewage system; rubber, paint, oil, etc., all must be recycled properly.
All of these add to the bottom-line cost. As long as everyone follows the same set of rules and sees the same costs, then fair enough. It’s also important for the customer to understand how these extra costs factor into their project.
BCSN: What are some of the other trends you’ve seen?
LB: One thing I have noticed is the acquisition of local manufacturing companies. And as larger, often foreign companies assume control, ordering online has become the norm and personal relationships have all but disappeared. In this industry, 90 per cent of the equipment can’t be bought “off the shelf” and it has become really difficult to meet with local representatives to work on specifications. That’s one of the reasons why we do as much as we can in-house.
Related to this — no one is stocking equipment anymore. It has to be ordered in and will usually take a few weeks. For fishermen and tug operators, that means more downtime with less revenue coming in.
BCSN: What about trends in the local tug and fishing fleets?
LB: The tug fleet is old but we are seeing some new ones being built which is lowering the overall average age. For a while, there was a lot of patchwork being done on the older vessels but now, as owners are busier and realizing they need better equipment, we’re seeing more refits. Same with the fishing vessels — that fleet is quite old as well.
One trend I am seeing is more activity from the U.S. The exchange rate works in our favour and we’re getting a lot of return visits from American operators. They benefit from a tax exemption as well if they take the boat directly out of the country. There are also American companies purchasing local fishing boats and modifying them — we’ve changed two vessels into squid boats recently and I know of a third that is being considered.
BCSN: What about new builds? Are owners still going offshore?
LB: Companies were going to China for new builds but it looks like that trend is changing. China is not as cheap as it was once thought — by the time you factor in shipping costs and the 25 per cent duty plus travel and supervision costs, we’re able to meet the price. And we can offer better quality and quality control.
We’re actively looking to build a new vessel and we do know of some potential projects coming up.
BCSN: There is some discussion within the industry that collaboration amongst the shipyards might open the door for building bigger vessels here on the West Coast — for example, BC Ferries. Do you have any insights on that?
LB: I would love to see the industry come together for something like that. This is a very competitive industry and an initiative like that would require very strong leadership that could, among other things, determine how the work gets allocated.
The Association of BC Marine Industries held an information-gathering workshop recently so I know it’s being investigated. I don’t know what stage they’re at or how long that process will take though. It would be nice to see some of the business that goes offshore come back to locally owned businesses so I hope a strategy can be developed.
As it stands now, B.C. yards are limited in their capacity to be able to do the big vessels. In addition to labour costs and availability, yards are challenged for space. The encroachment of residential developments is impacting on the desirability of having a shipyard as a neighbour so expansion on existing footprints is very limited.
BCSN: What does the future look like for Bracewell — both the man and the company?
LB: I’d certainly like to see the business continue to grow. Everything I’ve wanted to do in this business, I’ve basically accomplished and at some point, I’ll want to retire but we’re not there yet. I’m still enjoying myself.
We have a good reputation with a lot of mutual respect and high regard for our services. I think that stems from focusing on, and valuing, the relationships we have with both customers and staff.
About Lance Bracewell
Lance graduated from BCIT after a four-year apprenticeship in Joinery. He spent three years travelling from Vancouver to Alaska on a commercial fishing vessel before coming ashore to work as Production Manager for Cooper Yachts.
In 1989, Lance launched Bracewell Enterprises and constructed two 56-foot vessels, one in aluminum and another in fibreglass as well as molds for the Camano 31. Through Bracewell Woodcrafts, a cabinet shop with high-end product clients throughout B.C. and California, he built a 65-foot fibreglass catamaran before selling the company to focus on Bracewell Boatworks, a small repair and custom-build facility. Under Bracewell Boatworks, Lance built fibreglass vessels ranging in size from 22 to 75 feet. The yard also undertook numerous repairs and refits on a large range of vessels.
In 2003, Lance purchased Sea-Tec Fabricators with a full machine shop and 150-ton travelift. The acquisition allowed him to expand into repair services for commercial fishing vessels as well as construction of new steel and aluminum vessels. He completed a custom 86-foot offshore vessel in 2007 with a steel hull and fibreglass superstructure.
Between 2004 and 2011, Lance created additional companies: Bracewell Yacht Sales to represent the Pacesetter line produced by Bracewell Boatworks; Camano Yachts which, in addition to purchasing the assets of Camano Marine, produced a wider variety of 31 and 41-foot fibreglass vessels; and Poplar Island Marine Holdings which focused on repair for tugboats.
In 2011, Lance created Bracewell Marine Group Ltd. by joining the workforce and assets of Bracewell Boatworks, Poplar Island and Sea-Tec Fabricators. One of their first jobs was to build a working catamaran for Marine Harvest Canada, followed by two 48-foot tugs for Ledcor.
About Bracewell Marine Group
Established in 2011, Bracewell Marine Group offers a wide array of services for owners of commercial and pleasure vessels up to 120 feet. With a 10,000-square-foot machine shop, 15 acres of yard and access to Shelter Island’s 200-metric-tonne travelift, Bracewell is well known for its expertise in the construction of new vessels, fabrication, mechanical and hydraulic repair, electrical and electronics repair, painting and custom woodworking with extraordinary craftsmanship.
In 2016, Bracewell began offering custom-made winches, shafts and bearings. These new in-house products have provided an additional level of service to allow customers convenient, cost-effective and efficient alternatives to off-the-shelf products.
For more information about Bracewell Marine Group: www.bracewellmarinegroup.com.