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Winter 2002

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Pierless
Shipyard entrepreneur operates light and lean

by Amy Bernstein

Michael Moss ’75 was on his way to a business luncheon in downtown Baltimore when his beeper went off. It wasn’t his boss, his broker, or his attorney. It was a shipping agent with an urgent message: A Singapore oil tanker that had just arrived at the Clinton Street pier was leaking oil into the harbor. Could Moss take care of it right away?

     Moss didn’t exactly run to the nearest phone booth and exchange his Clark Kent business suit for tights and a cape. But he did drop everything and rush over to the vessel to inspect it before putting a team of divers on notice.

     Fixing leaky oil tankers is just the tip of the iceberg for Moss, the founder and driving force behind Moss Marine USA Inc., a shoestring of a business that handles a wide array of ship repair jobs for vessel owners and agents around the world out of a tiny, unmarked office on Key Highway.

Michael Moss ’75 makes a house call on Baltimore’s docks

     Despite his lifelong love of boats (he did a Skidmore independent study in ship restoration at Mystic Seaport) and his knack for repairing engines (he went to grad school in engineering), Moss is an anomaly in the U.S. maritime market. He doesn’t own a shipyard. He doesn’t even rent a pier. In fact, he doesn’t really have much of anything other than a one-room office crammed with seafaring memorabilia (an old ship’s compass, a ship’s steering wheel, chunks of rusted anchor chain), a shed, and a small area out back for welding.

     Moss didn’t even hire an employee until his business was three years old, in 1997. And now he carries just four people, including a boiler welder and turbine mechanic, on his payroll full-time. “I’m a virtual company,” he says.

     Virtual or not, his firm has a tidy niche—emergency ship repairs—mostly to itself. The company takes in three to four jobs a week, nearly all of them last-minute calls. One day it’s inspecting an underwater rudder. Another day it’s repairing a hydraulic pipe on a hatch cover. Or reinforcing a deck. Or repairing faulty engine-room fire equipment.

     At Moss Marine, no two days—or nights—are alike. “So much of our business is performed after-hours,” Moss says. “July Fourth means nothing to the Japanese.”

     The work may not be glamorous—and many of the jobs are small, a few thousand dollars at most—but there’s still enough of it to generate $500,000 or more in gross revenue annually for the company.

     Moreover, it’s a reliable niche, since most of the vessels berthing at Baltimore’s public and private piers are on a tight schedule and are willing to pay a premium for quick turnaround on repairs. Often, the pressure is intense. Sometimes ships fail Coast Guard safety inspections and cannot leave until the necessary repair and inspections are completed. “They say to me, ‘Do whatever you can to fix this thing before the ship sails, or it’ll cost me $15,000 a day,’” says Moss.

     The company’s small size is a distinct advantage in this regard, since it enables Moss to take jobs on the fly, complete them quickly, and handle creditors all over the world. He calls on specialists around Baltimore for key jobs—fiberglass work, engine repair, machine-part fabrication, and the like. As for sales, estimating, purchasing, quality, accounting, and personnel management, Moss does it all himself, like many other small-business owners. And he doesn’t mind getting dirt under his nails.

     Moss turns his company’s size and low overhead to ad-vantage by giving his customers—foreign shipping lines and steamship agents who are often unknown to him—instant credit. That’s something few, if any, of his shipyard competitors can afford to do. “The first thing you say is not, ‘Do you have the money?’ but ‘When are you sailing?’ My hope is that customers reward me by paying the bill.”

     That gamble usually pays off, since it allows Moss to get straight to work—which is precisely what his customers want. But on occasion it backfires. Moss is involved now in a protracted battle with a Greek shipping agent to collect a long-overdue payment.

     But getting paid is cake compared to the firm’s real work, which is technically difficult, occasionally dangerous, and often inconvenient. Moss’s beeper goes off in the middle of the night at least once a week. Last January Moss was called to Philadelphia to remove a crane boom that rose 100 feet into the bitterly cold air. That same month, he rented a floating crane and other equipment in order to move an eighty-four-ton heat-change unit from the Dun-dalk Marine Terminal to Curtis Bay a couple of miles away. Another day, he was on the phone trying to figure out whether a big Dutch cargo vessel that had just pulled into Dundalk would need to borrow a lifeboat or else wait until the cracked one on board could be repaired.

     All in all, it’s hard to imagine a line of work with greater potential risk, especially for a small firm. Take, for instance, a job Moss took on recently, in which he agreed to inspect and verify the stability of a huge roll-on/roll-off vessel. Moss Marine’s report, which turned up loose gears, doors, ramps, anchor chains, and lifeboats, clearly suggested ways to improve topside safety on the vessel. But that still left room for a nagging doubt: “If they do what we suggest and the vessel tips over, they gotta go after somebody,” Moss points out.

     In addition to the day-to-day risks, Moss Marine faces another challenge: succession. Moss readily concedes he is the lifeblood of the company. “This is not something you can throw strangers at and expect the work is going to be done. You need someone who’s the driving force.” He says he cannot decide whether to try to build a self-sustaining company or to close up shop when he retires.

     Until then, on almost any given day, and sometimes at 3 a.m., you’re likely to find Michael Moss aboard a large ship somewhere in the harbor, peering into a balky motor, perhaps, or inspecting the engine room down below.

Amy Bernstein is a business writer for the Baltimore Daily Record; this story was adapted, with permission, from the Record of June 20, 2001.

 


© 2001 Skidmore College