FASTSHIP: IT'S TIME TO MAKE IT OR BREAK IT

It would be understandable for anyone in the logistics field to roll their eyes or knowingly shake their head in doubt when hearing the word ''fastship.''

FastShip is the trademarked name of a venture to create a high-speed transoceanic container shipping service. Its ships would cross the Atlantic at nearly twice the speed of ordinary container ships, carrying time-sensitive cargo whose owners require fast delivery but don't want to ship by air.The roots of the venture go back more than a decade, and in the ensuing years the public has heard everything there is to tell about the idea without ever seeing a FastShip built.

Roland K. Bullard II, a successful former banker who has been president of FastShip Inc. for the last 13 months, cites a ''continuum of skepticism'' that has dog- ged FastShip through the years. ''The past is a problem, because when you go to market, you have shelf life,'' he said.

Yet, unlike any number of other bright ideas in transportation that today exist only on a library bookshelf, FastShip may yet become a reality. But its day of reckoning is approaching, and for that day to be a good one for its Philadelphia-based backers, the venture will need to find $150 million in fresh investment.

In recent days, FastShip has embarked on a quest to raise that money, an effort that will likely be its final crusade to punch its way from idea to reality.

In an interview this week with Journal of Commerce reporters and editors, Bullard said that all the pieces are in place - except that one crucial piece of financing.

The Delaware River Port Authority and the Port of Cherbourg have each committed to build multimillion-dollar port facilities that incorporate FastShip's unique trolley-to-ship loading system. Det Norske Veritas, the Norwegian classification society, has approved the ship design, and some big names in international forwarding such as AEI, Panalpina and Kuehne & Nagel, have committed cargo to the venture. Thomas Holt, the Philadelphia stevedore and owner of NPR Navieras Inc., owns 11.3 percent of privately held FastShip Inc.

The Maritime Administration, moreover, is excited about the idea. That's important because the agency is being asked to provide government-backed Title 11 financing for 87.5 percent of the $1 billion or more it would cost to build the four planned FastShip vessels. The remainder of the construction cost would be financed by the shipyard - National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. - as well as suppliers of the ship's engines, water jets and other major pieces of equipment.

That leaves $150 million for all other expenses to be raised through a private placement from investors - both here and abroad - who are willing to make a leap of faith that Fast- Ship's time has finally arrived.

''We know the critical issue right now is raising the money,'' Bullard said. ''Failure isn't an option.''

Bullard and his management team hope to have the financing in place and ''money moving'' by the fourth quarter of this year. If it doesn't happen by then, the project will slowly begin to unravel. The agreements with Philadelphia and Cherbourg, for example, both expire in 2000 if FastShip doesn't have its financing in place.

The FastShip concept has made it this far based on a simple premise, that a viable market exists for moving time-sensitive cargo by sea across the Atlantic at rates that fall somewhere between those charged for ocean and air cargo. The market is being driven by rapid growth in trade in high-valued goods, combined with a growing sophistication being brought to supply-chain management.

FastShip's rates would be about 13 to 18 cents per pound, vs. four to eight cents for standard ocean shipments, 35 to 60 cents for standard air and $1.50 for express air, FastShip officials say. FastShip says it will guarantee seven-day service from points in the United States to Europe, compared with typical ocean transport of 14 to 28 days that don't come with delivery guarantees. If all goes according to plan, FastShip's 1,432-TEU, 38-knot ships will sail from Philadelphia and Cherbourg every three days, spending only six hours in port for loading and unloading.

Bullard says FastShip is aiming for 5 percent of the total trans-Atlantic market, and 27 percent of the market for high-value, time-sensitive goods. About one-third of its business would be siphoned off from air cargo, and two-thirds from ocean carriers, he said.

He stressed, though, that ''shipping lines are not our competitors.''

''Most of the carriers (in the Atlantic) will be looking at incremental capacity over the next few years. This gives them another product offering,'' said Christopher Rankin, the former North American chief of P&O Nedlloyd, who is now a consultant to FastShip.

FastShip had to pay a price to get where it has. In exchange for its agreements with the two ports, it has agreed not to call at other ports on either side of the Atlantic. Also, to obtain Title 11 financing, it will have to build its ships at a U.S. shipyard, which are not known for being able to deliver low cost commercial vessels.

But the use of a U.S. yard is precisely what has attracted the interest of the Maritime Administration.

''I started with a deep sense of skepticism five years ago, and I have grown into a believer in this project,'' said John Graykowski, Marad's deputy administrator. ''These people all have their feet on the ground. They have a sense of purpose, and they're attacking this in a methodical, coordinated fashion.''

Graykowski said FastShip presents the United States, a tiny player in the commercial shipbuilding sector, with an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something potentially big. ''We would be the only country in the world building this vessel. If this is a success, we will own this market.''

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