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Executive Achievement: Hal Hockema, Chairman of Hockema Group

hal hockema

Published Jul 10, 2022 2:51 PM by Jack O'Connell

(Article originally published in May/June 2022 edition.)

Entrepreneur Hockema endorsed the “work from home” lifestyle long before it became fashionable, founding his boutique naval architecture firm 25 years ago in Seattle. Today, he and his like-minded colleagues continue to work mainly from home, and the firm has grown and prospered from its laid-back lifestyle and world-class designs for deck barges, dredges, tugs and fishing vessels.

Let’s start with a hearty congratulations on 25 years in business! Any special events planned for the company’s silver anniversary?

Thank you. We’ll celebrate at our annual company retreat. Otherwise, we’re on a campaign to make the industry more aware of us.

What led you and your wife, Julie, to found Hockema Group way back in 1997?

I had worked for 18 years at other companies – seven years as an engineer and planner in shipyards, then 11 with a naval architecture firm. Julie and I decided we would like to manage engineering and business processes our own way and, at the same time, improve our work/life balance. 

What was your vision for the company?

Simply to always do good work – that’s the foundation. Fostering relationships with our employees, clients and others is also very important. Those relationships provide the trust needed to solve problems and create profitable designs and consultation work for our clients.

How would you describe Hockema Group? What are its main lines of business?

We are a small business. We have 13 permanent employees including 10 licensed professional engineers plus numerous trusted individual subcontractors performing a range of work for us – from CAD to specialized engineering functions. This gives us a larger footprint than our in-house numbers indicate.  We’re diversified in various maritime sectors: barges, tugs, fishing vessels, dredges and government service craft. Work is divided between new construction design, conversions and retrofits, and miscellaneous consulting. 

Is there a main office?

Yes, we maintain a central office in the Ballard district of Seattle although we all work mostly from our home offices in five states – Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, Illinois and Louisiana. 

You were way ahead of the times in advocating a “work from home” philosophy and work/family balance back in 1997. Tell us about that. How has it influenced the company’s culture?

Then, as now, we work mostly from home offices, so we avoid the inefficient model of professionals commuting from the suburbs to an urban core. We are more productive while closer to our family lives at home. Video conferencing makes meetings more personal than phone calls while screen-sharing allows for collaboration on documents. Our business model with employees in diverse locations also allows us to readily access our clients.

Tell us how the company has grown and evolved over the last 25 years. We understand there were a number of acquisitions or mergers along the way.

Hal Hockema & Associates originally had no rigid goals for growth. Initially, it was just me and one CAD person, then my wife Julie joined the company as Business Manager. In 2004 Michael Whalen sold us his firm, Fisker-Andersen & Whalen, and he joined us as a Principal naval architect. We changed our name to Hockema & Whalen Associates.

John Myers was hired in 2005. We purchased a small electrical engineering firm from John Gerke in 2013. John Myers became an owner in 2018 so we renamed to Hockema Whalen Myers Associates. In 2021 John became President and suggested we rebrand to Hockema Group. We hope that name will be permanent!

What is Hockema Group known for? What are some of its trademark products?

First and foremost we’re known for doing good work in a friendly and professional way. We have the most efficient designs in the world for deck cargo barges between 250 and 450 feet in length. We’re also leaders in the commercial fishing industry, targeting Alaska and West Coast vessels. Our hopper dredge designs are noteworthy as well, focusing on efficient hull-form, structure and operational efficiency. 

What are the so-called “sexy barges” designed by your colleague, Mike Whalen?

When we purchased Mike’s firm back in 2004, included were leading edge deck cargo barge designs. In 2005 we teamed with Sause Bros. to further improve the designs. These designs and others developed since are for long-distance freight work, so we’ve focused on optimizing the cargo deck arrangements and providing exceptionally low hull resistance. They can be towed, fully loaded, at 10 knots with a much less powerful tug than what was traditionally required. 

You do lots of business in Hawaii and with Matson, a leading Jones Act shipper. Tell us about that.

Our Hawaii connections have grown over the past 20 years. Our involvement there with deck cargo barges has been with Sause Bros., Aloha Marine Lines and Matson. Sause recently sold its Hawaii barges to Aloha and Matson. Two of our 438’ x 105’ barges are now part of Aloha’s fleet, hauling freight between Seattle and Honolulu. Matson has two of our 362’ x 105’ barges for inter-island service.  These designs were built by Gunderson/Greenbrier Marine.

Who are some of your other major customers?

We serve many independent operators in the fishing industry as well as Trident Seafoods on the larger end. Dunlap Towing is an important client for our tug designs, both harbor and line-haul. Manson Construction is our main dredging client. Our military vessel designs are built mostly by Modutech Marine in Tacoma. These are primarily aluminum and steel vessels of 25 to 100 feet in length.

How is business divided between the commercial and government segments? Which is bigger?

Commercial is a much larger portion of our work although our hopper dredges must meet Army Corps of Engineers standards. Recently, we’ve begun to emphasize growth in the government sector.

Do you work directly with shipyards as well?

Yes, we provide contract design services to shipyards when their customers prefer a design/build project. We also provide structural lofting, pipe modeling and 3D laser scanning services. 

Hockema Group recently designed the U.S.’s largest hopper dredge, currently under construction in Texas. Tell us about that. What is a hopper dredge anyway?

There are two main types of trailing suction hopper dredges: maintenance dredges that maintain water depth in navigable waterways and island builders that create islands from sand recovered offshore. The Frederick Paup is designed for both functions with a hopper capacity of 15,000 cubic yards. Hopper dredges are one of the most interesting vessel types we work with as dredging requires an entirely different set of machinery and equipment than propulsion and accommodations. The cargo, either sand or mud, is dumped offshore through bottom doors or pumped onshore for land reclamation. 

What’s your vision for the company today? Has it changed from 25 years ago? Where would you like to see it in, say, the next 25 years?

We are focused on expanding into new sectors like offshore wind, government work of interest and general growth to better serve our industry. Our succession plan is in place with John Myers as President and Shannon Potter as Business Manager. They’re doing a great job of leading the company into the future.

My responsibilities as Chairman are on design and quality assurance and as a member of our Board of Directors. The next 25 years will see us expanding our services to continue offering leading edge design, analysis and new technologies.

What’s your biggest challenge in getting there?

Foreign competition. The Jones Act, which we support, unfortunately does not protect American naval architects. Many Jones Act vessels built in the U.S., even military craft, are foreign designs. Congress doesn’t understand that its decisions, or lack thereof, can negatively affect American naval architects’ ability to provide services in leading edge industries. 

The latest example is offshore wind. Europeans started developing their industry 10 years ago with government subsidies while our politicians argued whether the industry was even legitimate. Now that domestic offshore wind is starting up, the majority of vessel designs are European because of their head start. It’s hard to catch up with that. 

On a more personal level, how would you describe yourself and your management style?

I made a commitment after not graduating from college to be a life-long learner. This includes my profession and other aspects of life. Each of us is capable of learning something new every day.  Combining small increments of learning results in major knowledge gains over longer periods, and I constantly encourage our Hockema team to keep learning and becoming incrementally better every day. This results in excellent engineering work and relationships with our clients and each other. 

When we interview a prospective new employee, we usually look for a specific skill set. But just as important, we ask what their career interests and goals are and how we can assist in accommodating their goals. We continue to ask this at each annual review. This creates mutual trust and loyalty between employer and employee and sometimes even new opportunities for Hockema Group.

What do you like most about your job? What gives you the most satisfaction?

Initially, it was a cool vessel to design. Then it became more about comprehensive project management – delivering good engineering work and developing a productive team. We enjoy receiving compliments from our clients and others who see our designs become reality and are impressed.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I’m a mountain biker and participate in duathlons that are a combination of road bike riding and running. Julie and I travel regionally to participate in our events. 

Wonderful! Thanks for your time. Is there one final message you’d like to leave for our readers?

Hockema Group is an excellent and thoughtful naval architecture and marine engineering team that provides top-level service to a variety of clients. – MarEx

Jack O’Connell is the magazine’s Senior Editor.

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