For 75 years, the boats and barges of Parker Towing Co. have plied the rivers of Middle America, much of the time in relative obscurity.
“Our industry flies below the radar, ” says Tim Parker Jr., chairman of the company founded by his father. “Most of the time, we are kind of out of sight, out of mind. We go through a lot of rural parts of Alabama and America. People don’t know exactly what we do.”
What Parker Towing does is operate one of the largest barge lines in the Southeast, with a fleet of 23 powerful towboats ranging from 1, 000 to 4, 200 horsepower and a fleet of more than 300 barges.
At the heart of the operation is the dispatch room at the Northport office, where employees keep track of the boats and barges with a large visual representation of the operations under way across several river systems.
“Our customers have to sell something or buy something before they need us. At our core, we are a transportation company, and a lot of what we do is associated with export-import business, ” Parker says.
“We barge it to Mobile, and it goes all over the world. We have other customers who are bringing product in from offshore, and we receive it and bring it in, so that it is sort of a world economy. That international component adds another dimension, another dynamic. What goes on in China does affect businesses in Alabama.”
Charles Haun, vice chairman and CEO and Parker’s brother-in-law, agrees: “Our biggest movements are actually exports, and Alabama is fortunate to have those exports.”
The barge business has changed since the company was founded in 1940, with a single stern-wheeler pushing coal barges on the Black Warrior River, says Parker, and those changes are continuing.
“I think we are in a period of change, of evolving, that a lot of the traditional cargoes we have had, such as coal going to power plants, those are on a decline both because of the environmental rules and the dramatically lower price of natural gas.
“I think the future is a little bit cloudy, because of a lot of uncertainty about energy policy and where we are going forward. On the other hand, we continue to be a low-cost, environmentally friendly way to move big tons, high volume. Our customer base is heavy industry: power plants, steel mills, refineries, chemical plants. We’re not into just-in-time. The United States is always going to have some element of heavy industry, so there is going to be a need to move raw materials in and finished or semi-finished products out, and a large percentage of these businesses are located on or near rivers, ” Parker says.
While the Black Warrior is the company’s major work place, its boats and barges also work further north and down to Mobile, Haun says. “We have terminal operations in Chattanooga, run regularly on the Tennessee and the Ohio rivers, and have had customers from Chicago to Pittsburgh in years past.”
“We are not a big agricultural player, ” Parker says, “but you talk about the barge and towing industry at large, that’s a huge factor. In the Midwest, which is still the most effective farming place in the world, a big portion of that moves to export markets and a big portion is barged down to the Gulf of Mexico — corn, soy beans, wheat, things like that — so you put all that together and there is going to be a barge and towing industry 50 years from now.”
“We are low cost, but we are a slow mode of transportation. If you have a product that just came in from China and needs to be in a Wal-Mart store in 48 hours, we are not your cup of tea, ” Parker says.
There is no “typical trip” for a Parker boat.
“We have some trips that are maybe 30 miles, maybe less than that, moving coal from an origin to a destination. But we have a steel mill here in Tuscaloosa where we load steel coils and send them to Houston, Texas. It all depends on the customer and who their customers are, ” says Tim Parker III, Parker’s son and president of the company.
Parker’s boats are manned 24 hours a day. A typical crew is six to seven people per boat: two pilots, two engineers, two deck hands and a trainee. Crews work two six-hour shifts a day, 20 days on with 10 days off. Employees usually progress from deckhand to engineers to pilot, and their progress is heavily influenced by U.S. Coast Guard rules, exams and time on boat.
Most towboats have two sets of rudders and two engines that drive two propellers hanging below the back of the boat. Some newer boats are equipped with Z-drive propulsion systems, which provide a 360-degree directional option.
“We have looked at it, and there are some people who are believers and charge ahead, but we have not convinced ourselves that it is right package for us, ” Parker says.
“Just about everywhere along the river (Black Warrior) you have areas where it is shallow rock, and Z-drives don’t mix well with rocks. That is not to say that somewhere in the future we might go to them but not yet, ” Haun says. “A tow boat is one continuous problem-solving opportunity.”
“The Black Warrior River is an unforgiving river, ” Parker adds. “Some places you miss a turn and you hit a sand bar; here you tend to hit rock.”
Rocks aren’t the only hazards to smooth sailing for the towing industry, Parker says. Regulations are another challenge, especially since most regulations are handed down from the federal level.
“We have some in Washington who don’t think we are paying our fair share of taxes, therefore we should have locking fees and pay more for maintenance on river systems. We feel like we are paying our fair share of tax, which we voted on ourselves. Any time there is a new lock and dam built in this country, it is 50 percent paid for by the private sector, ” Parker says.
Tow companies also pay a fuel tax of 29 cents a gallon to fund a trust fund for new locks and dams.
In addition to its Northport facility, Parker Towing operates the Port of Decatur on the Tennessee River and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway; Whistler Machine Works, a Mobile job shop specializing in the repair, rebuilding, machining and fabrication of parts and machinery for the industrial and marine industries, and Mobile Shipbuilding and Repair, which concentrates on barge repair and other maritime work.
“What I get the most joy out of in this job is what I have learned about the different industries in the state of Alabama, ” says Tim Parker III. “You start up north and we have a huge agricultural economy in the Tennessee Valley and a huge chemical corridor in North Alabama. Then you work your way down to the coal mines in west Alabama through the Walker County and Jasper area and Tuscaloosa County all the way down to the wood business and the paper business in the Black Belt. Then down to Mobile, where you have the maritime industry and another huge chemical corridor. We’re calling on those people every day to be our customers.”
Parker Towing is the epitome of a family business.
“The ownership of the business is in the family. There are the Parkers and the Hauns, ” Parker says. “But we have non-family members on our board of directors, and we traditionally bring in an outside person in a senior sales capacity, somebody who has not lived in Alabama. Because we are part of a system, it is important that we have people that have perspectives that go beyond here.”
“I am reminded every day that the second generation built the company and the third generation blows the company, ” says Tim Parker III. “So that is the challenge we have, to continue the legacy.”
Bill Gerdes and Barry Fikes are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Gerdes is based in McCalla and Fikes in Tuscaloosa.
text by BILL GERDES • Photo by Barry Fikes