BATH, Maine -- Making the switch from building corporate jets to building Navy warships has been reinvigorating for a soldier-turned-business executive who’s leading Navy shipbuilder Bath Iron Works.
Charles “Chuck” Krugh said he wasted no time in getting his hands dirty, meeting daily with workers on the ships' “deck plates.”
“I’m a hands-on guy that likes to get into the details,” he said.
Shipbuilders weren’t so sure at first whether it was just an act, but after six months they’re now accustomed to him regularly chatting with shipbuilders to get a handle on their workflow, at all hours of the day and night.
Labor relations have improved along the way.
“It’s all been good. We’re moving in the right direction. We’ve just got to keep moving that way,” said Rock Grenier, president of Local S6 of the Machinists Union, which represents production workers.
Krugh, 58, arrived in June after the abrupt departure of former Bath Iron Works President Dirk Lesko, who led the General Dynamics subsidiary through a difficult period that included a pandemic and a two-month strike, both of which lengthened construction delays.
The future USS Carl M. Levin that completed acceptance trials this month is more than a year behind schedule. The silver lining, Krugh said, is that the warship earned the highest marks for a Bath-built ship in years in a review by the Navy’s Board of Inspection and Survey.
Krugh said he's encouraging the shipyard's 7,000 workers to rethink processes to ensure they can complete tasks as efficiently as possible. A big part of that is ensuring proper planning before a task even starts.
“We show people that you can do the impossible, or the seemingly impossible, if you spend enough preparation time to get things ready. So that’s the good news side of what we’re doing, and we're seeing a momentum building now,” he said.
The Army veteran formerly served at Gulfstream, another General Dynamics subsidiary, which builds business jets, before being tasked with overseeing a historic shipyard that dates to the late 1800s.
He said he was taken aback by labor relations and the condition of the company upon his arrival.
Part of the improvement in relations with the union and in shipbuilding efficiency was the rehiring of shipyard veteran, David Clark, from Marinette Marine, to serve as vice president of manufacturing, Grenier said.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep building those ships faster and more efficient,” the union president said.
The shipyard is continuing to hire hundreds of new workers to replace older workers who are retiring, and Krugh said they’ll picking up the necessary skills to build the latest versions of the Arleigh Burke destroyer along with the next-generation destroyer in coming years.
Continual improvement made possible by cooperation is necessary to assure the shipyard’s survival, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute.
The future isn't assured for the shipyard beyond the current decade unless the shipyard continues to become more competitive, Thompson said. Bath Iron Works competes with the larger Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi for contracts to build destroyers, the workhorse of the Navy.
“It is imperative for the union and management to get along because if they don’t, the long-term consequences for the yard could be fatal,” he said.
As for Krugh, he said some outsiders mistakenly suggested he’d struggle with the transition from aerospace to shipbuilding.
But he said he's rejuvenated by being closer to the military — and urged any critics to watch and see what happens at the shipyard before casting judgment on the shipyard's abilities.
“This is really personal for me. This is our country. We don’t build mixers here. We’re building the warships that are going to protect my family, your family and other Americans,” he said.
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