Karen Robes Meeks
For 17 years, Alaska Logistics has been a steady mainstay as a service provider that difficult-to-reach villages rely on in Western Alaska.
Since its inception in 2003, the company has grown from an office with a handful of employees and rented equipment to a fleet of its own assets and more than 50 employees at the height of its busy season, including consolidators, crew members, schedulers and talliers.
From May through October – its usual busy season – the company is open at least 12 hours every day at its main yard in Seattle and on delivery sites, according to its website. It offers charter barges and stevedoring services and added services to nearby villages, transport to Central Alaska, and charter marine equipment.
In an interview with Pacific Maritime Magazine in February, Alaska Logistics’ General Manager and President Allyn Long reflected on his company’s early years and his opportunity to enter a niche market.
After spending the previous decade working for Osborne Construction Co. as a logistics manager, Long used his know-how – creating air, steamship and barge freight plans for loading and quickly moving freight to job sites in a timely and cost-efficient manner – to launch his business.
“I had been doing it for a construction company, so I already had somewhat of a customer base almost built in with charter, because we’d be building houses or something and we’d charter barges,” he said.
One of his earliest jobs was assisting Crowley with the shipment of a new tank farm in Bethel in 2003.
“Couple that with the customers that I already had from Osborne, it just was a pretty natural fit (to start a business),” he said.
Long spoke of taking a loan out on one of his homes to purchase two forklifts and lease-to-own tugs, barges and other equipment to get the job done, eventually building a fleet that now includes four tugs, nine barges, as well as containers, shipping platforms, cranes, loaders, trucks and other equipment. The company also has a four acre lot for storing and repairing barges and boats.
“That was a slow process – over probably five or six years – that we acquired our little fleet that delivers stuff in shallow draft and gets up the rivers and all the hard places to get to,” he said. “And since then, for probably the last five years or so, we’ve been kind of rebuilding it and working on it and improving it.”
Alaska Logistics regularly moves materials and equipment big and small between Seattle, Seward and Western Alaska and caters specifically to the Western Alaska region, with stops in Bristol Bay, Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue and the Arctic.
“We have six sailings going back and forth in the six or seven months that you could operate in there without ice, so we always have something either coming north or southbound that people can either get on or get their stuff moved.”
The company regularly services dozens of villages, including Akiak, Deering, Egegik, Quinhagak and Tuntutuliak. Few of these villages have docks, Long said.
“We’re hitting the beach with ramps and running on beaches with loaders and cranes,” Long said. “Everyone has a different kind of operation. And it’s so remote. You can’t really rely on anybody else. So you have to have extra gear out there and extra stuff. Every day changes depending on what your plan is.”
And while most days are far from typical, the company deals with the conditions of Alaska on a daily basis. For example, the freezing up of the Kuskokwim River has affected barge companies, including Alaska Logistics. Last year, one of its barges had been pushed onto a sand bank near Aniak by ice.
Long confirmed that “the unpredictable freezing, thawing, and refreezing of the ice” had been an issue for the company.
“Every day is a battle,” Long told Pacific Maritime Magazine. “It’s an ever changing world, and weather and nature is the biggest. Alaska is so tough. The water – the Bering Sea – is so shallow and makes it very tough to maneuver.”
The key to dealing with the elements is getting ahead of it, he said.
“The madness starts at the beginning of the season,” Long said. “We want to get to the villages and Bristol Bay shortly after the ice goes out. Then to Kuskokwim, Bethel and Nome shortly after. That’s why we have staggered schedules, so we get there when the ice kind of goes out, then we migrate north and then come back south.”
The company has been involved in many different school and hospital projects over the years, including the shipping of 26 big modular structures for a school, Long said.
“We’re a subcontractor to the construction market,” he said. “It’s all state and federal projects and contracts and money out there. There’s very, very little private money unless you get up in the oilfields and stuff. We do more infrastructure – roads, airports, schools, tank farms, water and sewer.”
Long said he sees the company expanding into the Arctic in the coming years.
“The Arctic is opening up,” he said. “You can just feel that there’s a lot more activity, so we’re going to be expanding up to the Arctic a little more. We do go up there, kind of cherry pick things, but we don’t go out there on a consistent basis. But that’s an area that we are exploring a little bit more.”
Alaska Logistics’ nimbleness as a small business sets the company apart from larger competitors, as well as its personal touch, Long said. A project manager personally quotes all shipments, helping customers with questions and taking the time to walk them through the process of booking, delivery and receiving.
“We can tend to people’s needs a lot more and be more specific on jobs or maybe delay a sailing or do something a little bit for a couple days so they can get something on and they wouldn’t have to wait another month,” he said.
“We’re a little more flexible to project needs than the big machine that goes on the hour that they’re supposed to depart and is pretty regimented. We can always get stuff moving pretty quick if somebody needs it.”