‘Trinity’ has several meanings in New Orleans: it invokes the divine trinity, central to this Catholic city’s culture; it refers to celery, bell peppers and onions, the ‘trinity’ of ingredients that local use to make a great gumbo and, finally, it stands for New Orleans’ hometown shipyard, Trinity Yachts. In 2005, the builder opened a second yard in Gulfport, Miss., and it now delivers between eight and ten yachts per year. Vice President Billy Smith, one of the ‘trinity’ of founding partners, recently opened the doors for Yachts International.
Story Danielle Viguerie Ahern Photos Trinity Yachts
There is an unassuming road in the quiet town of Gulfport, Miss. that could easily be overlooked; yet its underwhelming appearance conceals intrigues from megayachts to secret government ships. Trinity Yachts’ Gulfport shipyard (the original Trinity shipyard is still located in New Orleans, La.) is nestled here between Northrop Grumman, where secret materials and products are moved in and out of the covered shipyard at night, and Seeman Composites, the developers of SCRIMP (Seeman Composites Resin Infusion Molding Process) technology. Trinity is certainly in good company. Although this relatively new yacht builder expanded to the Gulfport locale post Hurricane Katrina, they have roots here that reach into the 1980s. This was the site of one of Trinity’s original parent companies, Halter Marine, which builds commercial, defense, energy and research vessels. (Halter Marine is where John Dane, CEO of Trinity Yachts, worked as a construction engineer in the early 1970s.)
Trinity’s location and roots are an integral part of their story. Anyone who knows the history of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast is familiar with the region’s commercial shipyards. A New Orleans shipyard even played an important role in World War II. In 1944, Dwight D. Eisenhower said of New Orleans-based Higgins Industries: “Higgins is the man that won the war for us.” (As fate would have it, Trinity’s New Orleans shipyard is the old Higgins Industries shipyard.) The region was not only known for their intelligent military vessels however; it was, and still is, one of the major thinking grounds for oil and gas technology. Thus it is from these military and commercial origins that Trinity Yachts was born.
In 1988, parent company Trinity Industries, which was a combination of Halter Marine, Equitable (the old Higgins shipyard) and Moss Point Marine, was looking for new markets; they had state-of-the-art technology at their fingertips and an underutilized shipyard within their reach. John Dane and Billy Smith identified two potential hot markets: yachts and high-speed ferries. They observed that, although it was impossible to find a 150’ motoryacht made in the U.S. at the time, European shipyards like Feadship, Abeking & Rasmussen and Benetti were selling 50 to 70 percent of their 150’ yachts to U.S. customers. The business plan was a no-brainer: use the commercial technology they had acquired over decades and add a bit of luxury and comfort. Looking back, Billy Smith admits their naivety: “Our biggest mistake was underestimating the subjective nature of the luxury yacht market. Reputation, image and pedigree are so important in this industry and we had no idea.”
Smith and Dane plunged head first into the business, and in 1990 delivered the 97’ Leda to a resounding THUD! After going through the trials of building their first luxury motoryacht, they received no phone calls or further requests. “You can build the best mousetrap in the world, but if nobody knows who you are, they won’t buy it,” Smith says, emphasizing how important a name is in the yacht business. Undeterred, Trinity Yachts continued and next built a 72’ sportfish while doing several refits over the next few years. In 1997, Trinity Yachts delivered the 150’ Victory Lane to Felix Sabates, an avid yachtsman. Excited by the idea of finding such good quality craftsmanship from an American shipyard, Sabates was quick to help promote Trinity and introduce his friends to the blossoming shipyard. Nevertheless, in 1999, after the shipyard delivered hull #11 (Bellini), Trinity Industries decided to sell its yacht division. In April 2000, Dane, Smith and Sabates acquired the company. “Once yachts became our sole focus, the company started to take flight,” said Smith. Since the budding company did not have deep pockets, spec boats were out of the question, and custom builds were, and still are, Trinity’s focus. “We do full custom because we have a very experienced engineering department, and we are used to sitting down with the military, asking the mission of the vessel they want built, and then winning the contract to build it,” says Smith. “Tell us what you want, and we’ll do it.” Trinity’s engineering department and designers utilize both AutoCAD and Rhinoceros software in the design process. Rhino is a great companion product to tools like AutoCAD, offering free-form 3-D modeling tools. Starting with a sketch, the designers use the software to accurately model each yacht with precision. Located in their own building merely a few yards from the covered sheds where the manufacturing takes place, the engineer and design teams can send directives from their computers to the machines that cut the materials, thus always maintaining control of quality.
Despite delivering many full custom yachts, the company started getting a reputation for building boats that had similar looks. “Our customers would see what we had done previously and say: ‘We want one like that,’” Smith says. “We have yet to find clients that are willing to pay for research and development, for many don’t want their yacht to be a revolution.” So in 2005, they started hull #30 on spec in order to show what they could do. “We had not even cut the aluminum before it was sold,” Smith says. With forward facing windows and interiors by famed designer Evan Marshall, Zoom Zoom Zoom led to several other similar yachts, such as Lohengrin, Mine Games, Norwegian Queen and Destination Fox Harb’r Too. Smith, Dane and Sabates thus decided that every four or five years they would start a boat on spec with a fresh new design to illustrate possibilities available to potential clients.
Energized by this new business plan, the company was on its way to finding great success when Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans. Although the shipyard was spared storm damage, it had no electricity and few workers. The next few weeks would determine the shipyard’s fate with two contracts to fulfill when Katrina hit. The option was to take drastic steps to save the yard or simply shut down. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the drastic measures the shipyard undertook paid off handsomely. Within a week of the storm, Trinity Yachts bought the Gulfport shipyard and offered its employees on-site housing. In the end, Trinity had about 500 people living at the shipyard in trailers it purchased. “It was quite a sight!” Smith says. The trailer city on Trinity’s grounds showed commitment to the shipyard’s employees and sowed the seeds of a fruitful future.
Within 11 months of Katrina’s devastating blow to the city, Trinity’s New Orleans shipyard was up and running. Three years later, Trinity Yachts employs over 1,000 workers between their two yards, more than twice the size of the pre-Katrina workforce. “We never would have bought the Gulfport yard and expanded if it had not been for Katrina,” Smith says. Pushing the shipyard to expand, the hurricane changed Trinity’s future for the better. The shipyard now has a 3,700-ton launching system, as well as 20 yachts under construction. At the entrance of the shipyard is a big Help Wanted sign, signaling Trinity’s continuing growth.
Despite the lackluster economy, finding qualified welders is one of the shipyard’s biggest obstacles, and they are not alone. “There are about 1,000 available jobs on this road alone,” Smith says. Thus, the group of neighboring Gulfport shipyards banded together to work with local schools to upgrade shop classes as well as developing a website, www.goships.com, to inform the local workforce of the available positions and encourage training; they even have a mobile welding school for on-site training and certification. Trinity Yachts likes to do most of the work, from the design process to the build process, in-house for quality control and thus need a large workforce.
It is consistent quality that upholds Trinity’s reputation. At the time Katrina hit, 75 percent of the shipyard’s orders were for repeat clients. Now the Trinity name is becoming widely recognized abroad; the last five or six orders all came from international clients, mainly from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Still considered ‘new’ in yachting circles, Trinity Yachts has quickly proven to be a stalwart and competitive player in the industry. Smith takes the present economic downturn in stride. For now they have enough to keep busy. “The world changes, and you have to change with it...We have very good client and a backlog for almost three years,” Smith says. “We can wait and see what the market does.”