STEVENSVILLE – High-speed cutters, hopping through the waves. Bulletproof inflatable watercraft. A secure phone to discuss secret government operations.
It’s not a spy scene from an exotic foreign capital, but the business of a boat builder housed in a nondescript warehouse on Kent Island.
Now, Zodiac of North America hopes to parlay its success with military boats into a winning bid on a 10-year, $150 million contract for the next generation of U.S. Coast Guard small response boats.
The contract for 700 boats is expected to be awarded in February to one of three companies: Zodiac, SeaArk and SAFE Boat International. Officials at Zodiac are confident their company has a good shot at the job, which would be farmed out to its plants across the country.
“They (Coast Guard officials) surveyed the industry and nobody had what they wanted,” said J.J. Marie, president and CEO of Zodiac of North America.
The 700 new boats will standardize the aging and piecemeal fleet currently in use, said Capt. James Maes, chief of the boat platform division for Coast Guard’s Office of Boat Forces.
Maes said the need for new boats became necessary after Sept. 11, which thrust the Coast Guard to the front lines of the nation’s defense against terrorism.
“After Sept. 11, we realized that we had a need for things our fleet couldn’t provide, simply because we are focused on search and rescue,” Maes said.
Zodiac officials say that 50 percent of the boats and equipment they now produce are destined for military use or drug interdiction operations — qualities that make their boats ideal for the front line in homeland security.
While the Coast Guard has not specifically requested an inflatable boat, Zodiac is sticking with what it knows. But these are not the inflatable rubber rafts that fill swimming pools.
Zodiac’s military boats are 41-foot-long rigged-inflatable boats, sturdy craft that are filled with foam, not air. The company’s defense-oriented boats, outfitted with machine gun stands and other trappings of the military, might be familiar from television news segments that show the military craft hopping the waves.
The prototype for the Coast Guard boat is a little smaller but otherwise outfitted the same way, and just as powerful, said Rick Scriven, vice president of Zodiac’s professional products division.
Scriven said that any doubts about the durability of inflatable boats immediately disappear when people see them. “We quickly can explain that away,” he said.
Zodiac’s North American headquarters are modest, not befitting a $1.5 billion-a-year business. The company has made a wood-shingled building just south of the Bay Bridge its home for 18 of its 25 years in Maryland.
But the plain offices, which look like every other business along the tiny strip of Thompson Road, are deceptive. Attached to the back is a monstrous warehouse, filled with boats and motors, each shrink-wrapped in white plastic. There are pallets of boxes, stamped with the name of a rival company now merged with Zodiac.
What is absent are the sounds of boat making. Three men are working in the warehouse, one fixing an outboard motor, the other two unpacking boats assembled elsewhere.
Scriven said if Zodiac is awarded the Coast Guard contract, almost none of the assembly work will be done in Maryland. The boats, and the hundreds of jobs needed to make them, will be farmed out to Zodiac’s eight factories in America and Canada.
The Stevensville location would add just a few people to its staff of almost 50 if it gets the Coast Guard job, Scriven said. The office, which does nothing but sales, anticipates hiring more people to handle customer service problems. Scriven said that seven employees are assigned to geographic regions and keep pagers so they can be reached 24-hours a day.
That commitment to customer service explains the phone in Scriven’s office, equipped with an encryption device so he can solve problems with Zodiac’s boats involved in secret operations.
“We’re here in Stevensville, Md., and we’re located nationally,” Scriven said. “But lives depend on us around the world.
“I don’t have any sales experience. All I know is how to help people. We have been very successful by just doing that,” Scriven said.