Working in Alaska as a marine constructor of piers and docks and a provider of offshore crane and barge support along with a host of other services can be quite the challenge. The weather, competition and finding the right people with appropriate skill sets can truly test the competencies of a construction company in this northern state. Construction in Focus spoke with Operations Manager Julian Koerner about its prospects for the future.
Turnagain Marine Construction was born out of the need to do things better and start fresh using the experiences that were acquired by President Jason Davis. With the support of Triton Marine Construction Corp., Jason has taken Turnagain and vaulted it into the industry becoming a force with which to be reckoned.
Jason had worked for Triton earlier in his career and came to the conclusion that business could be done differently. He reached out to the company after parting ways, spoke with his former employer, and they came to an agreement, before working on a plan to develop what turned out to be Turnagain Marine Construction.
“Through that process, we continued to grow, put assets in place, found work and moved toward the implementation of a new way of doing business. The goal was to become the new go-to Alaskan marine contractor,” says Julian.
There is a lot of opportunity in Alaska, but a company that wants to succeed has to be willing to be a partner and put in the effort by working with smaller communities and local businesses here.
“By developing relationships, we are getting more negotiated work or work that is put out under a model that’s not solely dependent on low bid, design-build, or other opportunities to get your foot in the door, to provide value and not just the lowest price,” says Julian.
Turnagain is a heavy civil and marine general contractor with a primary focus on marine construction. Its multitude of marine assets includes crane barges, tugs, pile driving equipment, drilling equipment and welding tools that are used to build and construct water piers, ferry terminals and related work. It also performs deep foundation and civil work on land. Most of the land work is done in a subcontractor role.
Turnagain has a vast experience with large marine construction projects like the Hoonah Berthing Facility in Hoonah, Alaska. The equipment necessary for this design build project had not even been built. It became a true example of overcoming adversity.
“It was given to us based on Jason’s resume and a desire to provide value to the client. We worked pre-proposal with an engineer, developed a concept, locked in a price, went forth, won the assignment and developed the design-build,” says Julian.
At the same time that the equipment was being built, the project was designed and all of the permanent materials were fabricated. As Turnagain got into construction, the undertaking became quite difficult. Julian says that it was by far the hardest job of which he had ever been a part. There were varying conditions, the weather did not cooperate and production markers were not hit. It was a very challenging project, but the company endured and worked through the issues with the owner.
“Eventually, we overcame all issues, mainly getting enough work through the schedule. We delivered – on time – a very high quality, high-class facility that they are extremely happy and proud of,” says Julian.
The Hoonah project ended up winning several Associated General Contractors of America awards in the winter of 2016, for project of the year and for heavy civil work in Alaska. It was a statement project that set the tone for what people can expect from Turnagain. The marine building company has grown from there with other opportunities.
Currently, Turnagain is busy with the Unalaska Marine Centre replacement project. It is about forty percent complete and was a project that Turnagain really wanted to work on. A proposal was put forward and deemed the best value by the owner. It also came in as the best low bid, so Turnagain scored for overall value by a significant margin.
“We have a great relationship with the city; they have been a good client. We have done some work with them in the past, so they are extremely happy to have us on board working and producing that project ahead of schedule,” says Julian.
Client satisfaction and the design build process separate Turnagain from the competition. Turnagain works to take care of its clients and truly be a partner on these projects. In Alaska, reputation goes a long way.
One of the ways that Turnagain has shown value is through the design-build process. On projects that are design-build, some planning is accomplished upfront. The owner’s needs are evaluated, and Turnagain works with them to develop a scope. The company will include some engineering costs and develop it far enough to be able to commit to a lump sum price.
“We put the proposal out there with a plan, a concept and a scope. Then we lock in a price upfront, provide the value and get the customer what they want,” says Julian.
Turnagain is very cost efficient because it cuts out some of the engineering effort and unnecessary effort on projects. In the end, it provides the owner what they are looking for in a very high-quality facility, at a price that would not have been realistic if performed in another way. Turnagain is involved in two projects that are good examples of this.
The first one that was just completed is a pier for Kloofterboer in Dutch Harbour. “They had been told by several engineering firms previously that it wasn’t going to happen. Part of the reason was that they wanted a big fee for services and did not optimize the design aspects like we were able to do to get a price down into a range that both they were happy with and we were comfortable with in performing the work,” says Julian.
Another project that is ready for construction is in the City of Sitka, and its permitting is almost completed. The city had grant money with a very limited budget. This project was put to a competitive design build proposal process. There were three other proposals, and Turnagain was selected to perform the work on that facility. Turnagain is in the final stages of pre-construction off site work, and in three weeks, it will begin in earnest.
Turnagain is growing, but strategically because it knows that flexibility within the Alaskan market is important. Even the marine industry in Alaska comes in waves sometimes. “We have made it a very strategic process when we take on a new, bigger project. It is done in a matter that assures the ability to size back down reasonably if needed. We can do that and still not have it take us out of business,” says Julian.
Staffing is one of the hardest aspects of this work. The job, in general, is difficult, as is finding qualified people who are willing to work hard. “It’s a very difficult process, especially for a small company like us. We don’t just choose personnel for key positions based on a resume. It’s based as much on personality in an interview process and how they approach things. If people are willing to work toward obtaining a skill set, we have that experience to teach them,” says Julian.
As for hiring management, Turnagain is open to looking further afield as there are a limited number of people with that type of expertise in Alaska. There is also a limited pool of field craft personnel, so going outside of the state is required. However, only ten percent of the crews are from out of state.
“With bigger jobs coming up, we are looking right now for qualified individuals. There are only a few more to gain in Alaska, so we are going to have to start broadening our horizons to find more people that can perform the work,” says Julian.
Turnagain’s ultimate goal is to truly be the best value contractor and not concentrate solely on the low bid contract work. It is about taking care of the needs of its clients and working toward showing value on every project.