Pulling together Fourth generation takes helm of local maritime towing company

New Stevens Towing Company president W. Johnson Stevens has taken the helm of the 100-year-old family-owned business.

Stevens Towing Inc, is known throughout the Lowcountry for its century-old operation of moving vessels through area waterways and a list of employees who span several generations.

So, it’s only fitting that yet another generation recently took the helm.

W. Johnson Stevens III, 28, was elected president of Stevens Towing, marking the fourth generation of the family to lead the Yonges Island-based business, which is easily recognized by its signature red, white and green tugboats.

Stevens’ father, William J. “Bill” Stevens Jr., 66, who led the company since 1978, recently became chairman of the board and chief executive officer.

The younger Stevens credits his father for instilling the knowledge to take charge of the business, which he says has been a part of his life since birth.

“This is what I really know and what I have grown up around,” he said. “I learned about it and really enjoy it.”

Stevens officially joined the family business in 2007. He’s been assigned to various operations and management positions, and most recently in charge of vessel operations.

The close-knit leadership also includes Stevens’ brother, Robert, 25, who serves as co-owner and overseas vessel operations.

The company was conceived in 1913 as a way for the Stevens family to get its tomato crop to market. It has evolved and grown from there.

Today, Stevens Towing employs roughly 80 workers between its operations in the Lowcountry and an office in Edenton, N.C., near Elizabeth City.

The company’s business is largely concentrated in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic regions. It includes eight tugboats, heavy-duty cranes and Coastal Venture, a 247-foot vessel used for container and breakbulk transport.

The company is lauded among those in the Lowcountry’s maritime industry.

“Stevens has evolved over the years and currently provides a number of important services, including towing, ship repair, transport and heavy-lift services,” said Pam Zaresk, president of the nonprofit Maritime Association of South Carolina.

Zaresk also noted that much of its payroll is made up of second-generation employees.

“They are a company that truly exemplifies what makes Charleston’s port great,” she said.

Stevens said he’s charged with maintaining the company’s tradition, a task with the support of longtime workers.

“I am not running the show alone,” Stevens said. “I have a lot of senior management and seasoned employees I can rely on who will be instrumental in guiding the company over the next 100 years.”

Among those on tap for advice include Stevens’ father, in addition to long-standing staffers such as Gordon Locatis, who is now in charge of business development, and Benjamin “Bos” Smith, vice president of sales and operations and a former chairman of the local Maritime Association.

The board appointed an executive committee charged with managing day-to-day operations of the company. Johnson Stevens will lead the executive committee, serving with two outside directors, Mike Deignan and Jack Hoey.

Stevens Towing has been focusing on niche projects such as government contracts, shuttling steel for companies such as Nucor Steel, in addition to power turbine transportation for General Electric.

“We focus on niche markets, including oversized, heavy cargo that doesn’t fit on the highways or rail, and makes for more complicated jobs,” Stevens said. “This is stuff that not everyone wants to do.”

Stevens Towing has peppered newspaper headlines with such high-profile projects in the Lowcountry, including the vessel shuffling at Patriot Point last year.

The project included moving the submarine Clamagore to the south end of the state-owned maritime museum, near the Yorktown aircraft carrier. The company also safely returned the World War II-era warship Laffey back to Patriots Point after a major hull repair in North Charleston.

In 2005, Stevens Towing teamed with Batesburg-based J.E. Oswalt and Sons, a heavy-cargo lifting outfit, to design and build Charleston Giant, a barge-based crane that was touted that year as the largest floating crane in the Southeast. In 2010, the crane increased its certified load capacity for breakbulk items from 900,000 to 1 million pounds.

In 2003, Stevens Towing was tapped by the state Department of Natural Resources to build and install an artificial fishing reef in Charleston Harbor.

The company’s duties outside the region include being tapped roughly two years ago to move an EA-6B Prowler fighter jet for the Navy from Norfolk to Jacksonville. In Pamlico Sound off North Carolina, it installed an oyster reef.

Such projects have helped Stevens Towing stay afloat, as have measures, such as controlling operations costs by manning its own shipyard for repairs and maintenance.

“We control cost by managing repairs in house rather than contracting the jobs out,” he said.

Increased federal regulations and operating costs have led to the thinning of the competing tugboat companies that Stevens says consist of “a handful in the Southeast.”

In addition to maintenance, one growing operating cost is transportation companies being charged with helping to reduce emissions and increase fuel efficiency on waterways.

In 2010, the State Ports Authority awarded Stevens Towing part of a federal stimulus grant to help replace engines in two of its tugs. The cost was about $1 million, with Stevens paying roughly $600,000 for its part of the cost.

Stevens said the company is continually looking for ways to enhance and expand its capabilities. That includes plans to add a crane in Charleston and to shift one to Savannah so as to have “a presence in multiple ports,” he said.

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.