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Thunder Bay shipyard beefs up personnel for federal icebreaker contract work

Heddle Shipyards acquires Thunder Bay's Fabmar Metals

A Thunder Bay shipyard looks to be getting a piece of the action in the construction of a new Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker for the Arctic.

To bolster its presence in northwestern Ontario, Heddle Shipyards, a Hamilton-headquartered ship repairer, announced Aug. 10 that it is acquiring Fabmar Metals, a Thunder Bay fabrication, machine and marine repair specialist for more than 30 years in the city.

Heddle is making the deal in preparation to distribute work around its Ontario facilities to assist a Vancouver shipyard in building a new polar icebreaker over the next ten years.

Heddle is partnering with Vancouver's Seaspan which was awarded the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada contract this past May.

"Our strategy was to secure decades' worth of fabrication work for Thunder Bay, and the acquisition of Fabmar brings us one step closer to realizing our goal," said Heddle president Shawn Padulo in a statement.

Heddle is Canada's largest ship repair and construction company on the Great Lakes with facilities in Hamilton and Port Weller in the Welland Canal, along with facilities on the East Coast of Canada.

Heddle's director of business development Ted Kirkpatrick said it's too early to tell how much fabrication work for the icebreaker will be shifted to Thunder Bay since the ship remains in the design phase.

His company previously signed a master service agreement with Seaspan to build ladders, handrails, grating assemblies and some larger engine room modules for the Canadian navy's new supply ships (known as Joint Support Ships) and other build programs currently going on Seaspan's shipyard in Vancouver.

This component work is spread out among a network of shipyards across Canada with the final assembly done on the West Coast.

Some of those tertiary components, Kirkpatrick said, Heddle is building now at its southern Ontario facilities but as discussions unfold over the next six months to a year it will become more clear how much work will move to Thunder Bay, said Kirkpatrick.

"This is all very fresh, there's still a transition period that needs to take place in terms of moving equipment down to the shipyard and getting set up."

But acquiring Fabmar provides them with the foundation in Thunder Bay to do more of that exciting work, he said.

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Fabmar will remain under its own brand and Dale Ryynanen will remain as its president.

Since acquiring the former Lakehead Marine shipyard in 2016, Heddle has worked closely with Fabmar on various jobs.

Kirkpatrick said, in the past, when they secured a project for the Thunder Bay yard they would subcontract Fabmar. For bigger jobs, they would send their own Hamilton tradespeople up to northwestern Ontario to support them.

Fabmar will shift its personnel, equipment and inventory from its Pacific Avenue shop in the middle of Thunder Bay to Heddle's expansive waterfront facility in the city's north end.

"I am proud of what Fabmar has accomplished for over 35 years," said Ryynanen in a statement. "By joining Heddle Shipyards, Fabmar will now become part of the history and legacy of the Thunder Bay Shipyard. I am excited to be a part of the revitalization of the facility and to lead the team that will bring shipbuilding back to Northern Ontario."

Heddle's Chief Operating Officer Rick Heddle said he has "tremendous respect" for Ryynanen and his team.

"Heddle and Fabmar are two complementary companies. Between now and the end of the year, we will focus on renovating the shipyard and transitioning Fabmar's personnel, equipment and inventory to the Thunder Bay Shipyard so that we can build a solid foundation for the future."

In his statement, Padulo expressed excitement in finalizing the Fabmar deal, clearing the way to execute on a number of projects by year's end.

"We plan on dry docking the MV Chi-Cheemaun for the Owen Sound Transportation Company, docking multiple tugs for a local operator, and preparing the fabrication hall to support work on the National Shipbuilding Strategy from Seaspan Shipyards," said Padulo in the release.

Kirkpatrick elaborated that Heddle has not secured the contract to dock the Manitoulin Island ferry but will be bidding on it this fall in what is expected to be an active time to generate work for the Thunder Bay yard as they look to secure some winter layup maintenance and repair work from shipping companies.

"We got a lotta irons in the fire," said Kirkpatrick.

Fabmar will also be putting out the 'Help Wanted' sign in recruiting for general labourers, carpenters, millwrights, machinists, electricians, crane operators, masons and a human resources/health, safety, security and environment coordinator.

Three to five years out, Kirkpatrick said their intent is to simply increase the volume of ship repair work up there, the core part of their business activities.

"We see an expansion of those activities and a ramping up of fabrication work in support of the National Shipbuilding Strategy and also with the work that Dale has done in the past for the mining companies. We expect that there will be some of that work as well.

"It really sets us up well for the future in terms of what Dale brings to the table with his group and some of the things we're working on at Heddle and putting those two things together."

Heddle wouldn't mind attracting some work to Thunder Bay from American shipping companies.

The U.S. Jones Act, a protectionist piece of legislature designed to safeguard American shipping interests, does pose some challenges, said Kirkpatrick, "but it doesn't make it impossible."

Some American-flagged ships on the lakes are too large to fit in the Thunder Bay dry dock but that doesn't rule out some dockside work.

Heddle can perform regular five-year marine survey and a small percentage of steel replacement work that allows American shippers to be Jones Act-compliant.

"We'll be making it known to the American carriers that we're open for business and are eager to support them should they require it," Kirkpatrick said.