Eastern lands $10.5 billion contract
By MIKE CAZALAS
News Herald Editor
PANAMA CITY- Eastern Shipbuilding Group on Thursday landed a $10.5 billion contract- the largest in U.S. Coast Guard history- to build the first series of nine offshore patrol cutters, topping the biggest and best boatyards in the country in the process.
The end of the several-years-long process ended about 4 p.m. Thursday when Eastern CEO Brian D'Isernia got the news.
"How do I feel? I feel great; my phone is going crazy. We won it," D'Isernia told The News Herald in an exclusive interview from Washington, D.C. "I told the Coast Guard this was truly a family event from beginning to now. What a legacy to leave, for the community, my family, my sons. We did it."
Eastern, which has two shipyards in Bay County, was one of three finalists vying for the $10.5 billion contract to build 25 next-generation offshore patrol cutters - at about $484 million each - and one of eight shipyards that originally submitted proposals for the project.
Former State Speaker of the House Allan Bense, who supported the project and helped push it along, said the win for Eastern was a true David and Goliath story.
"Brian's the one who did this," Bense said, "He worked it so hard."
"This is one of the greatest things ever for Northwest Florida, especially for Bay and Gulf County," he continues. "It's a game changer. It's just wonderful."
Panama City attorney William Harrison, who has worked with D'Isernia and his family, described them as "patriots" whose "pride in our country" and shipbuilding talents likely will produce the "finest Coast Guard vessels since they first sailed in 1790."
"This is a phenomenal achievement for Brian D'Isernia and his family's passionate shipbuilding craftsmanship for many years," Harrison said, "Our region is indebted to Brian, whose vision, risks and aspirations will benefit all who call this area home and our great nation whose borders will be protected by our Guardsmen upon their new vessels."
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he pushed hard for the work to come to Florida, and it is vital for the area.
"This is a big win for the people of Northwest Florida," Nelson said in a news release. "The 2,000 new jobs that this contract will create will provide a significant boost to the local economy."
Jorge Gonzales, President and CEO of the St. Joe Company, was thrilled with the news from the eastern end of Bay County. "This is a transformational event for Bay County and we are so excited for Brian, Mimi and the entire Eastern Shipbuilding family," he said. "This is a reminder to all of us of how hard work, determination, and humbleness are still the key to success."
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., congratulated Eastern and its workers Thursday, saying their strong talent showed in beating out competition from across the country.
"This is great news for the Panhandle and Florida workers, and further validation of the good work Eastern Shipbuilding does in building reliable. state-of-the-art ships that will now become a part of the Coast Guards's fleet," Rubio said.
U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Fla., offered congratulations to Eastern and said she looked forward to helping them grow even more.
"North Florida already plays an important role in our country's national defense and with the award of this project our role just became even more significant," she said. "Building the new generation of Coast Guard cutters in Panama City could lead to billions of dollars invested in our community and the creation of thousands of jobs in our state."
Eastern, which has two shipyards in Bay County, was one of eight shipyards that originally submitted proposals for the project. After the field was narrowed, three $22 million fixed-price contracts were awarded to Eastern and two other shipyards, Bollinger Shipyards in Louisiana and Bath Iron Works in Maine, for preliminary and contract design.
The awarding of the job to Eastern doesn't just represent the Coast Guard's largest contract ever, it carries the weight of Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, described in a news release Thursday as the service's "highest investment priority."
"The OPC will be the backbone of Coast Guard offshore presence and the manifestation of our at-sea authorities," Zukunft said in a release. "It is essential to stopping smugglers at sea, for interdicting undocumented migrants, rescuing mariners, enforcing fisheries laws, responding to disasters and protecting our ports."
Now that the contract is secure, D'Isernia and Eastern President Joey D'Isernia both expressed "absolute confidence" in the shipyard's ability.
"We knew from the beginning, that the U.S. Coast Guard would appreciate our excellent performance record of on time delivery of high quality vessels build by our first-rate craftsmen," Joey D'Isernia said.
"We believe that the Coast Guard is going to get the best value for its money and the finest vessels to succeed in its mission," Brian D'Isernia added.
The Coast Guard conducted what it called a "thorough evaluation of the proposals submitted by the competing shipyards" before awarding the contract.
Eastern Shipbuilding is a family-held shipbuilding company in Allanton, where it has operated for more than 40 years. Brian D'Isernia's colorful career includes not only building the eye-catching deep-water vessels destined for South America, but smaller ships that sailed on to bigger fame.
Among those D'Isernia built was the Andrea Gail, which sank in a viscous storm off Newfoundland near the Grand Banks of eastern Canada in October 1991, when the captain stayed out despite storm warnings. The story was turned into a book, then a movie, "The Perfect Storm," in 2000, starring George Clooney. The fishing vessel used in the film was the Andrea Gail's sister ship, also built in 1978 by D'Isernia. The studio found it, repainted it to match the original Andrea Gail and used it in the movie.
Now the company will be known across the country as the shipyard in a relatively rural area that knocked out the better known competitors, which in the end were Bollinger Shipyards Lockport LLC (now Edison Chouest Offshore) in Lockport, Louisiana, and Genera Dynamics, Bath Iron Works (Bath, Maine).
While the company was vying for the contract, D'Isernia said winning it would mead adding between 750 and 800 employees to the company's payroll, which currently has about 1,500 people. It will be determined later when those jobs will be needed, as the contract includes design as well as construction. But D'Isernia said Thursday it likely will include 1,000 craftsmen jobs and more than 100 engineering and administrative staff to fulfill the contract requirements while still conducting the company's normal business.
The Coast Guard release said Eastern's success was based in part on its "reputation as an industry leader in the construction of mid-range tonnage commercial ships." It said the company had delivered 149 ships on time and on budget since 2002, a record D'Isernia said is "unmatched."
It has built vessels ranging from 80 to 433 feet in length and has spent more than $75 million upgrading and expanding its facilities and shipbuilding capabilities since 2008.
The release also said the Coast Guard's "Program of Record" call from procuring 25 OPCs as replacements for the 29 medium-endurance cutters now in service. Eight shipbuilders initially provided draft designs, which were narrowed down to five by the Coast Guard./ Then, in 2014, the Coast Guard awarded three "firm fixed-price contracts for preliminary and contract design for the project," before Thursday's announcement.
updated: September 20, 2016, 9:00 am