At 7 p.m. on May 23 at the northern edge of Mount Vernon, a tractor unit on Interstate 5 hauling a trailer with an oversize load struck an overhead girder of a truss bridge spanning the Skagit River. The truck kept going down the highway but, within seconds, a section of the bridge behind it collapsed into the water, taking an SUV and a pickup truck with it. First responders quickly rescued the three people in the vehicles and no one was seriously hurt. Almost immediately, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) investigators faced a problem: Much of the evidence had sunk to the bottom of the river. “The accident happened on a Thursday night and our first crew was up there on Friday morning,” says Devon Grennan, president of Seattle-based Global Diving & Salvage Inc. “We picked up all the pieces.”
Diving on broken bridges isn’t an everyday occurrence in Grennan’s world, but his company is one of the most visible marine industrial firms you’ve never heard of, doing high-risk work without fanfare or much public recognition. Here are some of Global Diving’s jobs since 2011:
• Removing from a coastal beach within Olympic National Park a 200-ton concrete dock swept out to sea by the killer Japanese tsunami of 2011
• Assessing the health of the 28,000-ton Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig Kulluk, which broke free from a tow and went aground off the coast of Alaska
• Diving on the sunken cruise liner Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy
• Raising the 140-foot derelict fishing vessel Deep Sea after a fire sank it in Penn Cove off Whidbey Island
• Hauling the carcass of a dead fin whale off a beach in Burien
Each of these incidents made local, national or international news, but Global Diving was rarely mentioned. “That’s OK,” Grennan says. “I’d rather be under the radar.”
After the collapse of the I-5 bridge section, Global divers worked at the site in two seven-man shifts of 12 hours each, 24 hours a day, for two weeks straight. Marine salvage is the bread and butter of the 300 full-time employees of the firm, which was founded in 1980 with the idea of providing a “tenacious approach” to underwater salvage any time of day. “We never wanted to tell customers that we couldn’t do something,” says cofounder John Graham, “or give them any reason to look elsewhere. When other companies did that, their customers came looking to us, and we never let them down.”
By the Duwamish River beneath the West Seattle High Bridge, Global occupies a 1941 office building that is part workspace and part museum. Salvaged capstans, bitts and anchors decorate the front yard. Antique diving gear greets visitors in the foyer. (The building was originally the headquarters of General Construction, which still has operations next door.)
Privately held, Global grossed more than $50 million in 2012. Two of its founders—Graham, who is chief strategic officer, and CEO Tim Beaver—are still involved with the firm. Graham and Beaver dove together in the mid-1970s and after starting the company they worked jobs for Todd Pacific Shipyards (now Vigor Industrial) on Harbor Island. “It took us about five years before we could pay ourselves a decent salary,” Beaver recalls.
To help generate sufficient revenue, the company moved into marine construction, such as building piers for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Today, Global supports the State Route 520 bridge replacement project by inspecting the pontoons built in Aberdeen for WSDOT. But its marine construction work isn’t limited to places you can get to by boat. One of its most hair-raising projects was completed last year on the Delaware Aqueduct, which carries about half of New York City’s fresh water from upstate New York through an 85-mile tunnel. Using techniques similar to deep-sea divers in the open ocean, Global divers plunged 685 feet down a water-filled access shaft to install a 23,000-pound stainless steel-bulkhead.
Described as the largest diving contractor on the West Coast, Global Diving is a key player in the $331 million national marine salvage industry and the $4.1 billion marine construction industry. In addition to its main office in Seattle, the company has a presence in Alaska, California and Texas, where it coordinates a growing presence among the oil drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Locally, it competes with Northwest Underwater Construction of Vancouver, Washington; Harbor Offshore, a Ventura, California, firm with an office in Kingston; and Associated Underwater Services, based in Spokane with an office in Kenmore. During the past 10 years, Global has been careful to diversify operations, working in three main areas: salvage (technically known as “casualty response”), marine construction and offshore operations, especially for the oil and gas industry.
For most of that time, Global has worked with David Parr, a vice president at HomeStreet Bank, the company’s primary lender. Parr describes the relationship as “meat-and-potatoes commercial lending” in an industry that’s extremely capital intensive. “This company understands the need to have multiple revenue streams and diversify its lines of business,” he says.
Grennan, a non-diver who joined the firm in 1995 and handles day-to-day operations, says Global’s mixed service portfolio helped the company ride out the Great Recession better than most of its competitors, primarily by instituting stronger internal cost controls. “I think we had a shorter correction than others in the industry,” he adds.
The firm foresees growth in all its lines of business, particularly marine construction and environmental services. (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the environmental services business is worth more than $1.3 billion a year.) Both sectors have a “green” cast; the interest in offshore alternate energy, such as wind farms and tidal energy, means Global Diving will play a role in the long-term switch away from fossil fuels. It is also working to make routine environmental services, such as maintaining oil booms around stationary industrial vessels, a stronger part of its service offerings. Grennan notes that his customers are now looking for providers who can do everything under one roof. “Ten years ago, it would’ve been us and another company doing a job,” he says. “Now, they ask us to do both.”
The multidisciplinary approach to its business has an added benefit: It keeps employees at the top of their game by expanding their skill sets under the company’s “Together Everyone Achieves More” (TEAM) philosophy, which includes companywide employee training, ongoing observations and suggestions, daily meetings with job hazard analysis and frequent job safety audits. “Part of being a good diver,” Grennan says, “is being a safe diver.”
Beaver adds that the company’s thoroughness extends into its business relationships. Divers require complete trust in each other and in the support team on the surface. Global Diving tries to build similar relationships along the waterfront, often a tight, specialized world where craftsmanship matters and a handshake counts as much as a contract. Says Beaver: “Small service providers like us are the ball bearings that make the wheels of maritime commerce go.”