From Charleston to the World

How does a small, family-owned company serve customers globally? By getting it right the first time for more than 50 years.

By Tony Munoz 2014-08-21 15:48:00

(Article originally published in May/June 2014 edition.)

William J. Detyens was born in 1917 near Georgetown, South Carolina. He joined the U.S. Merchant Marine at age 15 and twelve years later was a licensed chief engineer on ocean vessels of any size. During World War II he served as a Colonel in the Army Transportation Service.

Detyens went back to Charleston, the oldest city in South Carolina, after the war. Charleston is a major port along the U.S. eastern seaboard, where the Ashley and Cooper rivers form a natural inlet. The port would become a magnet for trade, a center for U.S. Navy operations, and the birthplace of numerous ship repair companies. 

In 1956 he opened Detyens Engineering Company. The business was immediately successful, and he purchased a 72-acre tract on Beresford Creek in order to expand. Within a few years the company outgrew that facility and leased the former U.S. Naval Minecraft Base along the Ashley River.

With two yards, Detyens’ business grew fast as work on Navy mine sweepers and commercial vessels poured in. Soon more space was needed, and he bought a 32-acre tract along the Wando River. 

Reaching Critical Mass

In 1962 the William J. Detyens Company incorporated as Detyens Shipyard, Inc. Its Wando yard served as the company’s headquarters as well as its main facility for large ship repair and conversions. The company invested heavily in the yard’s infrastructure, including a five-section, 12,000-ton drydock and a 1,500-ton drydock leased from the Navy. 

The company could now work on three 500-foot vessels at a time with additional pier space for four 170-foot vessels. Within four years the yard repaired and overhauled more than 600 vessels, including destroyer escorts, mine sweepers, Panamax ships, tugboats and Coast Guard cutters.

When Bill Detyens turned 65 in 1982, he decided to spend more time with his family and pursue his passion for competitive sailing and philanthropy. So he sold the firm he had worked so hard to build into one of the most respected on the East Coast to two of his most trusted lieutenants, Red Starke and his son-in-law, D. Loy Stewart. 

His benevolence to his beloved Charleston and throughout the state and the commercial success he had achieved resulted in his induction into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 1995. William J. Detyens died on June 6, 2002.


The two new partners were optimistic about the future because Detyens operated out of the deepwater port of Charleston with easy access to the Atlantic, Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico shipping lanes. Ninety percent of its business came from the U.S. Navy. When Red Starke retired in 1990, Loy Stewart purchased his half-interest and became sole owner. 

As the Navy began downsizing in the mid-1990s, Stewart took advantage and leased the shipyard section of the Charleston Naval Facility on the Cooper River. It was a huge opportunity for the company because the yard had three large graving docks, machine shops, portal cranes, and all of the support structures necessary to handle large commercial vessels, which was part of the master plan.  

The company had been operating two yards (Wando and Shipyard Creek) for years, but the old naval yard on the Cooper River with its excellent infrastructure was just too good to ignore. Cooper River could handle Panamax vessels, so Stewart moved the company’s headquarters there and closed the smaller Shipyard Creek yard.

In 1996, as the U.S. Navy slowdown began impacting shipyards throughout the country, Detyens signed a 10-year contract with the U.S. Foreign Military Sales Program and partnered with the BAV Division of VSE Corporation to rehabilitate the Navy’s Oliver Hazard Perry frigate class ships (FFG) and the Knox Class frigates (FF). 

The Foreign Military Sales Program was a consortium of shipyards, including Cascade General, Newport News, Ingalls and Detyens, that were contracted to refurbish FFGs and FFs for sale to U.S. allies. Detyens accommodated foreign crews from countries as diverse as Bahrain, Egypt, Portugal, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who were overseeing the work done on the ex-warships.

Meanwhile, efforts to increase the commercial side of the business began paying off as cruise ships, offshore vessels, and domestic and foreign carriers began employing the company for repair work and conversions. Its reputation for delivering work on time and on budget quickly got the attention of vessel operators around the world.  

Rising to the Occasion

Detyens’ ability to work on larger ships as well as its location provided the company lots of opportunities. Loy Stewart had kept the company on track by finding new commercial work and building a global reputation. Today, the company enjoys an equal mix of government and commercial work.

In 2004 Mr. Stewart stepped down as President and became Chairman of the Board. He appointed his son, Loy Jr., a 13-year veteran of the company who had been Executive Vice President since 2003, to succeed him. 

Mr. Stewart now turned his attention to expanding the business and, more dear to his heart, providing health care for the company’s employees. In 2006, with the assistance of Dr. Richard Freeman, he inaugurated the Detyens Shipyard Medical Center, which is staffed by two doctors, a nurse practitioner, a pharmacist and a certified medical assistant. The facility is open Monday through Friday and a half day on Saturday.

“It just made good business sense to provide Detyens workers and their families with easy, free access to good health care,” said Mr. Stewart. “Some of our employees have worked for the company for more than 35 years and many more for over 25 years. We are a large family, and we need healthy people working for the company.”

Earlier this year Mr. Stewart was presented with the Knowledge Economist Award from the South Carolina Research Authority for strengthening the state’s technology base and advancing the community through his positive influence and leadership. The company’s philanthropy and service to others are aptly reflected in its motto: “Customer Before Company, Employee Before Owner, Family Before Self, Safety Above All.”

The emphasis on safety is embodied in the company’s bonus program. Since it is self-insured on workers’ compensation, the company puts responsibility on frontline supervisors, whose bonuses are based on both performance and the number and extent of workers comp losses. The focus on safety has resulted in Detyens receiving the Excellence in Safety Award from the Shipbuilders Council of America multiple times over the years. 

Ensuring skilled workers for the future, the company has an apprenticeship program that trains high school graduates or the equivalent to become skilled craftsmen and future leaders. The goal is to provide the apprentice with parallel academic learning and on-the-job training for four to five years. At the end of the program the men and women earn a Certificate in Leadership and Basic Industrial Work Skills with an Associate Degree in General Technology.

The Future Is Now

Loy Jr. became President shortly after Mr. Stewart was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). As head of the third generation at the shipyard, he is keenly aware of the responsibilities he now bears. But he is appreciative that his father is beating the odds of ALS and is still active and keeping him focused on the immediate priorities. 

While a plethora of government regulations and compliance issues can make competing with foreign yards tough, the Detyens corporate culture, with its emphasis on family values and safety, has strategically positioned the company to do just that. Commercial and government work are now about evenly split, as is its domestic and international flag work. 

It recently did major conversions on two OSG tankers chartered to Petrobras. And it completed topside refurbishment on the cruise ship Carnival Fascination, including renovating the spa and private treatment rooms. Additionally, the company renovated a former naval barracks near the yard to house 264 subcontractors from Italy, who were also working on the cruise ship. 

The company has drydocked over fifty international vessels, many from repeat customers. While Detyens claims its success comes from its can-do attitude and strategic location, it is also due to the vision of Bill Detyens and the inspired growth strategy of Mr. Stewart and his determination to make the company a world-class yard. 

Loy Jr. says he is honored to be the third generation of leadership and appreciates the guidance he has received along the way. The company celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012, and with Loy Jr. firmly in place the course has been set for the next fifty years.  

Tony Munoz is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Maritime Executive.  

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.