Tres Palacios Marine
- Written by: Matt Dodge
- Produced by: April Reeves
- Estimated reading time: 6 mins
Tres Palacios Marine has been building barges and push boats since 2006. Located on the Gulf of Mexico in Palacios, Texas, Tres Palacios specializes in 30,000-barrel, double-skin, inland tank barges used to haul petrochemicals and other materials through the country’s inland waterway system.
Founded as an offshoot of two established boatyards — West Gulf Marine and Galveston Shipbuilding Company — Tres Palacios is a family-owned shipbuilder run by brothers Bryan and Keith Fiegel. The shipbuilding business is a proud tradition in the Fiegel family; Bryan and Keith’s father Harry Fiegel started Galveston Shipbuilding Company over 40 years ago and the boys were practically raised at the shipyard.
“They learned every aspect of the business and when they had the opportunity to open their own yard in 1998, their dad partnered with them,” says JoAnne Estopinal, president of Tres Palacios, just as he did to open Tres Palacios in 2006.
After Harry’s untimely death in 2009, the brothers assumed control of Tres Palacios and continue to operate it along with West Gulf Marine. Bryan, as president of West Gulf, heads up the sales side of the business, writing contracts for new vessels and overseeing the office, while Keith manages the production side of West Gulf and oversees production in Palacios. Lisa, Bryan’s wife, serves as the chief financial officer.
“What really sets this company apart is the family, the knowledge and the years of experience,” says Estopinal.
Staying afloat and leaving it to luck
Tres Palacios specializes in tank barges used to transport petrochemicals, liquid fertilizer and other refined products throughout the country’s 26,000-mile network of inland waterways, including the Gulf Intercostal Waterway and the Mississippi River.
West Gulf Marine started out building barges almost solely for Kirby Inland Marine, the nation’s third largest inland tank barge fleet. When Kirby requested a 10,000-barrel, 200-foot barge instead of West Marine’s standard 300-foot model, the Fiegels spun off Tres Palacios to meet the demand. “We’ve now diversified out and have built barges for Enterprise Marine, Stone Oil, Chem Carriers and Cenac Towing, just to name a few,” says Estopinal.
Tres Palacios now produces an average of six barges per year, but just five years ago, the company was one coin flip away from closing its doors. The company had established its niche in building 100-foot push boats and 200-foot barges, but as the industry began to move almost exclusively toward the use of 300-foot barges, the contracts started to dry up.
“This was also the time in 2009 when the market went way down, so the owners basically had to flip a coin to decide whether to shut down the yard or expand it so it could build 300-foot barges,” says Estopinal. “With the expansion for production of larger barges, they would no longer have a place to continue building push boats.”
The coin flip led to a $750,000 investment, allowing the Palacios facility to shift production over to 300-foot barges. The coin flip method was employed again in 2012 when it came time to decide whether to build an on-site fabrication shop, which led to another investment that now allows Tres Palacios to do all its own metalwork in-house, which has saved the company thousands of dollars.
The shipbuilding business as a whole has hit a rough patch over the last couple of years as falling oil prices meant less demand for tankers and barges. “As the price of gas at the pumps goes down, it correlates to barge contracts not being written,” explains Estopinal.
The Tres Palacios team has managed to steady the ship over the last year, but Estopinal admits, “It’s been a roller coaster.” Back when the company worked exclusively with Kirby, Tres Palacios “just built the same vessel over and over,” says Estopinal. As the company expanded its customer base, it had to diversify its offerings, taking on new challenges to meet industry demand.
One recent contract for an oceangoing barge that would be fitted with a crane for repairing offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico took Tres Palacios almost twice as many man-hours as a typical project. Another project required the company to install a 12,000-gallon tank to store caustic urea that had to be completely constructed out of stainless steel.
A vessel built in 2015 required over 30 changes from the time the agreement was signed until the time it was delivered, but it’s just that sort of responsiveness to customer demands that has made Tres Palacios a trusted name within the industry. “They are a returning customer because of that — we are hoping to get even more business from them because they seem to be happy with what we’re doing,” she says.
From junior high school to high steel
While the Fiegel family grew up in the shipbuilding business, Estopinal is a relative newcomer to the industry. A junior high school teacher for much of her career, Estopinal moved to the Palacios area but could not find a teaching position in her certified field of science within a 50-mile radius. Therefore she applied for work at the office of Tres Palacios, but Harry Fiegel insisted she was overqualified for the position, listed in the paper as office help. “I told him, ‘I may be, but I’ll give you 100 percent, I need a job.’ Harry called me the next day with an offer of CFO for Tres Palacios, which I accepted and within eight months, I was promoted to general manager,” she says.
Another eight months later, Estopinal stepped in as president of Tres Palacios — a position she has now been serving in for seven years. “It’s definitely a Cinderella story as far as I’m concerned and I’m still excited to come into work every day,” Estopinal says.
Working in a male-dominated industry like shipbuilding has not always been easy, but Estopinal says her previous career helped prepare her. “After you’ve been a junior high school teacher for 17 years, it’s pretty easy,” she jokes. Estopinal says she didn’t realize just how rare a woman holding her position was until she was contacted by a shipbuilding industry headhunter several months ago. “Out of the 200 names on his list, he said I was the only female,” she says.
Tres Palacios now employs a team of 48, including three women. The figure is down slightly from the company’s more bullish days when Tres Palacios employed as many as 75, however turnover is very low at the shipyard: over 25 percent of the current employees have been with the company since the start and 69 percent of the workforce has been with the company over five years.
While Tres Palacios’ plans for growth have been hampered by falling oil prices, Estopinal is confident that strong relationships with industry partners and superior customer service will keep the company afloat for the foreseeable future. “I think our rapport with the customers and the customers coming back just shows that we’re doing something right,” she says.
Those strong relationships can be credited directly to the management team between West Gulf and Tres Palacios. “Keith goes out and talks to customers, not a sales rep, so the owner of the company is there to shake your hand and make the deal and promise you that you’ll have the perfect barge,” says Estopinal. “Then it is our job to follow through with that promise. Here in Palacios, we have an amazing management team that is dedicated to producing quality vessels. That would not be possible without my production manager, Oscar Garcia.”
With strong family ownership, longstanding industry ties and dedicated teams on both the labor and management sides of the business, Tres Palacios Marine and West Gulf Marine will continue to serve inland marine fleet customers with custom barges for years to come.
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