MAMMOET BETS ON VERSATILE, HEAVY-LIFT SHIPS

MAMMOET BETS ON VERSATILE, HEAVY-LIFT SHIPS

A shipowner who specializes in handling oversized cargo plans to order vessels that are versatile enough to be able to handle other types of goods

because the marketplace is changing.

"The ships we invest in must be suitable for a wide range of cargoes," said Arie Peterse, managing director for Mammoet Shipping BV of Amsterdam, Netherlands, a specialist in operating the heavy-lift vessels designed specifically to carry and self-load oversized pieces of cargo.Mammoet is expected to finalize soon an order with a Dutch shipyard for at least three new 15,000-deadweight-ton ships that are designed both to meet the exacting demands of project cargo shippers and to be able to operate in other businesses when project shipping is slack.

Booms and busts have been a common feature of the project cargo business in recent decades, Mr. Peterse said at the Breakbulk Transpo conference here. During the late 1970s, there was a tremendous demand in the Middle East for new petroleum industry and power generation facilities. Shipowners rushed to cash in on the boom, ordering a host of heavy-lift vessels of which there are a total of about 60 in the world today.

But when the boom ended in the early 1980s, there were a bevy of bankruptcies and consolidations that reduced the number of players in the business. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the project cargo business has recovered, but Mr. Peterse does not, like many others, describe it as a boom. Instead, he sees the business as steady, with about 1,200 projects over $100 million in value in some stage of construction and planning around the world.

With its view that the project cargo market is stable but not booming, Mammoet is planning on replacing, but not expanding its current fleet.

The new ships will feature the large open spaces, the large automated hatches and the strong cranes that project cargo shippers desire. But they also will be equipped with container slots, so that in slow project cargo times they can carry the 20-foot and 40-foot intermodal containers that can easily go straight from ships to trucks or trains and that are predominant means today of moving manufactured goods internationally.

The Mammoet ship design "almost described the perfect ship that we would like to see to carry our cargo today," some Tom Cullins, transportation and logistics manager for Bechtel Corp., one of the world's largest engineering construction companies.

But, while project cargo shippers clearly would like to see new ships built with features tailored to their needs, it is far from clear whether they will be willing to pay the freight rates necessary to justify a shipowners' investment in such vessels.

Project cargo shippers like Bechtel are coming under increasingly intense

financial pressure in a fiercely competitive international market to offer buyers power plants and industrial facilities at low, fixed prices, Mr. Cullins said.

"In today's marketplace we see ourselves more and more driven into lump- sum turnkey jobs," Mr. Cullins said.

Thus, while project cargo shipping executives like Mr. Cullins want high levels of service, they also are searching for low freight rates as their

financial people constantly demand they trim their budgets.