His company has been in business for more than 60 years, but McKeil Marine president and CEO Steve Fletcher still regards himself as the head of an underdog start-up. “We work hard to think through if we were our competitors, with their vessels and their approach, what is the smartest thing they could do?” says Fletcher, who joined the Hamilton-based company in 1999. “Knowing that, how do we do something better? It’s a lot of fun when you can outsmart others.”
Established by Evan McKeil in 1956, McKeil has grown from a single wooden boat into a multi-faceted marine services firm with a staff of 325 and a fleet that includes 21 tugs, 26 barges and five ships that operate throughout the Great Lakes, the Canadian Arctic, the St. Lawrence River and the East Coast.
McKeil provides services ranging from general cargo transportation to supplying a barge flotilla used in the construction of a reinforced concrete structure designed to store approximately 1.2 million barrels of crude oil in the Hebron oil field, which is located 350 km off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The company’s growth has been further accelerated by its 2016 partnership with private equity firm TorQuest Partners, which specializes in mid-market firms and manages more than $2 billion of equity capital. “We always had banks willing to throw more money our way, but the question was always: ‘How much debt is too much?’ ” says Fletcher. “Suddenly, overnight, like snapping your fingers, we were financially stronger than I could have ever dreamed.”
The TorQuest partnership has enabled McKeil to open up the throttle on everything from new hires (it added 100 sailors in 2017) to deals aimed at growing the business.
That includes last year’s conversion of the Ardita—a vessel previously used to carry bulk cargo such as grain and soybeans—into a state-of-the-art cement carrier for its client, Lehigh Cement.
McKeil spent more than $20 million to convert the 139-metre vessel, which began transporting Lehigh Cement’s products to customers along Lake Ontario and Lake Erie earlier this year.
“We could have pulled that off [before TorQuest], but we would have had to have been very careful about how many more deals we could do before digesting that,” says Fletcher. “Now we can match investment with the right amount of equity and debt, whereas in the past, new investment would have to be funded mostly through new debt.”