A Heritage of Distinction
The family that founded Tidewater continues its winning ways – with a difference.
(Article originally published in Sept/Oct 2022 edition.)
“When I made my decision to start Laborde Marine,” says Founder & Managing Member Peter Laborde, “I knew I didn’t want a public company. I wanted a niche, streamlined company that could better respond to the customer, offering quality equipment with reliable, highly qualified personnel.”
That was in 1995. Today, 27 years later, he seems to have achieved his dream: a modern fleet of 25 vessels serving all aspects of the offshore energy business, an industry-leading safety program, qualified and dedicated personnel, the invaluable assistance of his brother Cliffe, growing family involvement and a number of promising new business opportunities.
But it wasn’t all a bed of roses. There were lots of ups and downs along the way in the notoriously cyclical offshore business. Even Tidewater – the industry stalwart – had to file for bankruptcy at one point, emerging with a cleaned-up balance sheet and renewed strength. Laborde Marine, on the other hand, never had to go through a legal restructuring, remained private, kept its family atmosphere and grew steadily.
“We survived those years by keeping true to two things,” says Laborde. “First, we supported our customers and provided them breaks when we could. Second, we fully funded our safety programs and kept our crews in the best position we could. We always believed the industry would return, and we needed both our customers and crews to know they could trust our management team.”
Laborde founded his company after working as a senior executive at Tidewater Marine for 15 years, where he gained experience in vessel operations, marketing and management. In 2007 his brother Cliffe joined the company after also spending 15 years at Tidewater, where he served as General Counsel & Corporate Secretary.
The two brothers were raised in the offshore energy support industry because their father, John P. Laborde, and their uncles, Alden “Doc” Laborde and C.E. Laborde, co-founded Tidewater in 1955. John P. Laborde would be the CEO of Tidewater for more than four decades and build the largest fleet of offshore vessels serving the offshore oil and gas industry in the world at the time.
“One of the most important things I learned from my dad is that he believed in hard work and did deals with a handshake,” Laborde says. “He also recognized people, or they recognized him, and he had an incredible ability to recall someone’s name immediately even if he had only met them once.”
Laborde recalls that even though his father founded Tidewater, it was a publicly held company and never felt like a family business. So he didn’t feel destined to join it one day. But he began working offshore after high school. The hours were long and labor-intensive. He stacked chains, cleaned cement out of tanks and painted engine rooms. One summer, he was sent to work in Tidewater’s London office. When he went on a few sales calls and learned about working in the harsh environment of the North Sea and the technologies being deployed, he recognized the magnitude and appeal of the business and decided it would be his career after all.
He says that having unique access to Tidewater’s CEO, President and Chairman of the Board was both a curse and a blessing. Being able to witness high-level decision-making policies that enhanced his professional growth was a blessing. But his access was like walking a tightrope, and he had to work twice as hard to avoid the stigma of favoritism.
“Thanks to my dad's confidence in me, I never doubted I would make it,” Laborde states. “With my experience as an offshore deckhand, my years of marketing experience in calling on oil and gas companies, living in four different cities, my educational background and a last name associated with the marine industry, it never crossed my mind that I would fail.”
Going His Own Way
Peter Laborde decided to venture out into the great unknown with three babies in diapers, a new home in New Orleans and a father whose loyalty was to the Tidewater brand. But he was adamant about starting his own business and formed Laborde Marine LLC in 1995, leaving behind the corporate lifestyle.
“My father had a strong commitment to Tidewater and its continued success,” he explains. "He didn’t help me start the company nor did he offer assistance in opening customer doors or any financial support. Without his financial or moral support, it allowed me to build my own company on my own merits, and it was mine to win or lose. It was truly a sweet moment.”
He wrote out a business plan at his kitchen table and presented it to the Whitney National Bank. The bank liked the plan and agreed to move forward with a loan allowing the purchase of two 180’ OSVs from Seacor Marine and then managed to secure two long-term contracts. He bought two more vessels and a partially submerged 195’ OSV from Otto Candies Jr., which he refurbished. While the OSV was in the shipyard, he secured a five-year contract from a Gulf of Mexico oil and gas company.
Then, in 1997, Trico Offshore offered to buy the company, and Laborde agreed to sell: “I decided it was the correct decision because the vessels were mostly 15-20 years old, and I recognized that the major oil companies were going into deep water. They wanted new equipment with the latest technology. As soon as I sold the assets of Laborde Marine to Trico, I ordered two new state-of-the-art vessels from Service Marine Shipyard in Amelia, Louisiana.”
In an interesting turn of events, the shipyard soon filed for bankruptcy. Laborde quickly hired four inland tugboats to float the partially constructed vessels to Conrad Shipyard just before the Sheriff closed the yard down. He redid the loan with the bank, and Conrad finished the work.
He had learned the power of relationships from his father, and he had continued to negotiate Master Service Agreements with all the major and independent oil and gas companies operating in the Gulf. Even today, it is highly unusual for a company of Laborde Marine’s size to have Master Service Agreements with almost all operators in the Gulf of Mexico. Because of these established relationships, he was always able to seek out and earn good contracts.
Over time, the company added new equipment by purchasing crewboats and support vessels and managing fleets for other operators/partners. Most recently, it started managing the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (NORTA) ferries. Laborde’s son, John Peter (J.P.), took the lead in that project.
The Quality Commitment
Among Laborde Marine’s many distinguishing features is its commitment to quality and the safety of its personnel and marine assets. While at Tidewater, Cliffe authored that company’s worldwide safety manual and Peter, who at the time was Vice President of Operations–Gulf of Mexico, implemented the program into vessel operations, which are now engrained in the culture of the industry.
“Our company's unique size allowed us to take what we learned at Tidewater and implement a safety management program that touches each employee and allows valuable interaction to ensure policies and procedures are effective and sustainable,” he says. “When employees know they are part of such a program, they know their feedback is taken seriously, and everyone benefits.”
During the height of Covid, Laborde Marine avoided stacking its newer equipment while maintaining strict maintenance schedules. While cash flow was a challenge, it never contemplated drawdowns and kept crews and vendors paid. It also kept their financial institutions apprised of their contracts and opportunities and maintained transparency with them. And the crews worked on the boats even if the boats didn’t have a job.
Toward the Future
Laborde says the oil and gas industry looks steady for the foreseeable future even as it tackles climate issues and the eventual transition to cleaner forms of energy. But he doubts there will ever be another traditional OSV built in the U.S. Jones Act market for oil and gas exploration and production.
“Prior to the drop in commodity prices, our industry had woefully overbuilt itself with money coming in from many, many sources,” he explains. “Luckily, we predicted that problem and kept our fleet size manageable, but we did not predict the plunge in commodity prices. I think the vessel overbuild and climate change initiatives will continue to stunt the growth of our industry, forcing consolidation as the only answer to companies wanting to expand their fleet.”
Laborde’s strategy is to bring “new” assets into the fleet from owners no longer wanting to manage their boats. He views this approach as a reasonable way to grow and offer quality, well-managed equipment to customers, and he sees plenty of new opportunities in areas like dredging, construction, subsea, ferries (where it already operates) and interstate cargo movements.
“We have a long-term view for our company that includes steady but manageable growth,” he says. Nor does he have any intention of taking the company public: “Conventional financing and private equity will probably continue to work best for us. I have managed the successful sale of two fleets since I have been in the private sector. It’s much better to be in a nimble position when these opportunities come along and learned long ago to not marry your assets.”
Both Laborde and his brother have children working in the company and foresee a bright future for them that includes the offshore wind market.
“One very positive aspect of it for our industry is that it will require vessels during all stages of development and ongoing operations,” Laborde says. “We see ourselves as a part of this new growth opportunity and are actively engaged in working in this industry. While the East Coast is getting all the attention today, based off what I am reading about wind farms it appears that eventually they are coming to the Gulf of Mexico.” – MarEx
Tony Munoz is Founder, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of The Maritime Executive.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.