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Ship Suppliers Are Struggling to Keep Old Way of Life Afloat

They deliver basic necessities, gear and even live chickens. But business has declined as vessels use smaller crews.

December 10, 2005|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

On the high seas, there is no Wal-Mart or Costco to turn to when the need arises for 100 rolls of toilet paper, 100 pounds of pork heads or a few spare rockets.

That's why there is Harbor Ship Supply Group.

The San Pedro company, known as a "chandler" on the docks, is part supermarket, hardware dealer, department store and delivery service for items needed on a long voyage.

Chandlers have been around since the earliest days of the maritime industry, when they made and delivered the candles used to illuminate ships. But even as increasingly more goods are manufactured overseas for shipping to the United States, the number of companies that stock those vessels is on the decline.

Long hours, thin margins and aging owners have driven many ship suppliers to consolidate or get out of the business entirely. It's hard to make a living supplying "the hotels of the seas," as one history described the shipping profession, when the hotels have become floating warehouses with only the smallest of crews.

Chandlers have survived by keeping costs low and finding new sources of business.

"Nobody ever went to college to become a ship supplier. Unless you've been in it and know it, you won't be in it for long," said Jeff Crouthamel, president of Harbor Ship Supply, the third of four generations in a 73-year-old family business that is one of the biggest on the West Coast.

In the early 1900s at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, ship chandlers and hardware stores did a thriving business along San Pedro's Beacon Street and Front Street, part of which is now called Harbor Boulevard. Dozens operated in every port.

Some, like C.J. Hendry, which opened in 1912, were large enough and busy enough to have their own catalogs.

But many suppliers fared as Hendry did in later years. After a boom supplying Navy ships during World War II, Hendry chased after the fishing fleet and recreational boating businesses before closing in the early 1960s, never regaining the prosperity it had during the war, according to reference books at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.

Others have run aground because of succession issues.

"Most ship chandlers were long-term businesses that were started by and run by families," said Bill Robinson, executive director of the National Assn. of Marine Services, the trade group for ship suppliers, which now counts fewer than four dozen active members in the U.S., down from more than 60 members 20 years ago. "As the leadership and ownerships of these businesses age, they get fewer in number and get sold."

The boom in international trade hasn't helped ship suppliers because fleets have become more automated, requiring smaller crews.

Liberty ships, the cargo vessels that were built by the thousands during World War II, were about 441 feet long and required a crew of 41. In the 1970s, a shift to containerships resulted in vessels that were nearly twice as long, capable of carrying 1,500 containers but requiring virtually the same number of crew .

Today, an 8,500-container ship is three times longer than a Liberty ship and requires a crew of 22. Smaller ships have even smaller crews.

"A good order from a ship used to be about $10,000; now, it's more like $3,000," Harbor Ship Supply's Crouthamel said.

Bigger vessels mean that fewer are needed to move the ever-increasing amounts of cargo. This year through October, for example, 2,383 containerships had moved through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, 177 fewer than the same period in 2004, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which tracks vessel movements at the ports.

To survive in a business launched by his grandfather in 1932, Crouthamel said, he has changed the way that Harbor Ship Supply operates.

The company, with sales of $17 million in 2004, has begun supplying cruise ships, which Crouthamel hopes will boost revenue by $2 million to $3 million. The company turns a profit, he said, but he declined to say how much for competitive reasons.

In addition, Crouthamel has opened offices in San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Seattle to improve the company's chances of landing orders from ships that stop at multiple ports. He also forged long-term contracts with shipping companies he trusted to pay on time.

Long hours are part of the business. Harbor Ship Supply's four West Coast offices have 48 employees, and sometimes even the company president winds up driving one of the delivery trucks, as Crouthamel did recently on a job to San Diego.

Unlike early chandlers, who kept large inventories of goods on hand, Crouthamel stocks only the most commonly sold items. The rest are quickly obtained through third-party suppliers, and deliveries usually are made while the vessel is docked.

"There is just way too cheap a margin on most things to keep them in stock," he said.

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