Until recently, oceangoing ships were built from the keel up on a kind of dry dock called a “way.” This was either a temporary structure or permanent inclined surface (some ways are made of brick and concrete and resemble a long ramp) with a network of heavy wooden beams designed so the ship would be built on a downward slope.

A way had to be at the water's edge. When near completion, the ship, built as one piece, would be allowed to slide down the way and splash into the water by carefully removing strategic beams. From there, it would normally be floated into a wet dock to be finished.

However, methods have changed dramatically in some shipyards. For example, in 1967, Litton Industries began to build in Pascagoula, Miss., a new modular-manufacturing facility, the first major shipyard built in the United States since World War II. The yard, now owned by Northrop Grumman, the world's largest naval shipbuilder, constructs hulls in modules in areas with underground utilities. Once the modules are assembled, the vessels-some of them 700 feet long-are moved by a heavy-duty rail system to a floating dry dock where they are officially launched and completed.

These goliaths need room to be built and need electricity, a lot of it, in multiple locations. Needless to say, locating high-voltage electricity and welding machines in a marine environment presents unique design and installation criteria.

In 2003, Northrop Grumman announced plans for a $400 million facilities upgrade, the scope of which included reconstructing the electrical distribution system, blast and paint shops, cranes and rails, steel fabrication areas, administration buildings, erection facilities, and resource recovery facilities. The contract was administered by the Parsons Corp. of Pasadena, Calif.

In response, the management team at Doleac Electric, Hattiesburg, Miss., stepped onto center stage with a bid for the $2 million electrical contract. Brothers Donnie Doleac, president of the firm, and Larry, the vice president, knew from the first time they looked at the bid specs that it was an unusual project. Warren Saucier, general manager of Doleac's Gulfport division, who uncovered the project, agreed.

“This is a horse of a different color, and I may never see another project like it,” Saucier said. “It is a combination of concrete, electricity, overhead cranes and the deep blue sea located on an unsteady dirt surface.”

Adding to the size and diversity of the project was the fact that specs were detailed, tough and difficult to do take-offs. A hint of challenges the company faced lies in the equipment list for a project spread over seven acres: it included 15KV primary power in 24 manholes that consists of one double-throw, center-off 15 KV oil-filled switch being fed from two circuits, each of which feeds two ST boxes. The ST boxes have 15 KV elbows to which a skid-mounted 750 KVA transformer will be attached to power portable workstations that feed 480-volt welding outlets and a 120/240-volt panel through a 10 KVA transformer; a grounding system for rails, switches and manholes; a fixed-mounted 300 KVA transformer that will supply 480-volt power for a crane and utility circuits; and a communication duct-bank system with junction boxes at 22 locations.

To help understand the project's scope, the installation will require approximately nine miles of 15KV 500MCM unishield cable, along with eight miles of 4/0 ground cable; 1,300, 15 KV terminations; more than one mile of duct banks; and four miles of 4-inch and 5-inch PVC conduit.

Since the area on which the ship's modules will be constructed is a landfill, challenges included designing and installing the duct banks in areas that may change location as the ebb and flow of the nearby Gulf of Mexico erodes the foundation. It's no surprise that two weeks were spent putting the bid package together.

Nonetheless, the brothers Doleac wrapped their corporate arms around the project. That approach has contributed to their success, producing a growing list of major league projects that began when they purchased the business from their mom, Lois, after their father died in 1972.

The firm was founded in 1947 by Malcom C. Doleac, who had $500 in his checking account and owned a used service truck. During its first two decades, it operated successfully by completing residential and small industrial projects.

Like the sons of many business owners, Donnie, 54, began working for the company during summer months at age 13, and continued while earning a bachelor's degree in business administration at the University of Southern Mississippi. He then joined the firm full-time.

“Dad was a hands-on type of guy, who didn't share responsibility. And he developed much of our business through personal relationships, and by doing quality work,” Donnie said, adding that his father's approach resulted in a high degree of repeat business.

“When I told him I wanted to learn about estimating, for instance, he handed me the NECA handbook and told me to read it,” Donnie recalled. “He later gave me some small projects to estimate, and we'd compare numbers, and that's how I learned the business.”

Fortunately, Donnie was a quick learner because he assumed the mantle as owner of the company at 23. Younger brother Larry joined the firm in 1973 with a self-imposed requirement that he begin as an apprentice, working his way into his current role as vice president overseeing field operations.

To that point, their biggest job was a $50,000 apartment complex, Donnie said. The company had not pursued business at nearby Southern Mississippi University because their father didn't like to be bothered with all the paperwork necessary to bid jobs. The company has since changed its attitude about paperwork, and recently completed the contract on the university's student union, adding to a list of projects completed on the campus.

Along the way, the brothers learned many lessons, some of them painful. For instance, they were low bidder on a $156,000 job, one of their first big contracts. Unfortunately, the mechanical contractor went bankrupt and the job ran 456 days past its scheduled completion date. But the firm endured. When business declined in the 1980s, the duo hit the road to bid and complete jobs in Louisiana, Kentucky and Georgia.

“We just went where the work was and did whatever it took,” Larry said.

In the early 1980s, Doleac abandoned residential to pursue more commercial, industrial, retail and institutional projects. The result: gross sales of approximately $500,000 in 1972 that grew to more than $15 million in 2002. Doleac now employs 16 office and 91 field personnel.

In 1993, the brothers learned another big lesson when they were awarded the contract for a new facility for the Sunbeam-Oster company. The project was bid at $7 million but the final tally was “closer to $11-$12 million,” Donnie said. “That was twice as big as anything we'd ever bid and was a fast-track project. It forced us to learn a lot about managing big projects, coordinating with other trades, and moved our skills up several levels. At one point, we had 100 men on that job and a $1 million payroll that we had to advance. We were working seven days a week and meeting daily with the other contractors.”

“We sure learned a lot about productivity on that job,” Larry added.

The rest of the good news is that “the project was completed on time, we made money and it helped establish our reputation,” Donnie said. It also increased the firm's self-confidence, allowing it to become more aggressive in pursuing bigger projects.

By 1994, the brothers saw an opportunity for growth on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, so opened a division office in Gulfport. Under the guidance and, in Donnie's words, “the never-quit attitude” of division manager Saucier and his staff, Doleac began pursuing the military construction market at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, and the John C. Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis. It now holds a high-profile position in the military and industrial market on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

This time, when faced with operational and technical challenges on the Northrop project, there was no case of the jitters.

“One advantage we have is a large, at-the-ready labor pool so can react quickly to the need for additional manpower on short notice,” Larry said.

For example, when the need arose for an additional six to eight men to pull cable at the shipyard, they borrowed them from other projects for a week without disrupting their overall production schedule.

“We know that we have our guys, who are properly trained, on the job,” Larry said. “The core on the project has been 14-16 electricians, but the pool has expanded to 22 when necessary.”

“We think that may have played a part in our being awarded the bid,” Donnie added.

The weather did produce one speed bump, however.

“In the middle of the project, Hurricane Ivan made an appearance and was first predicted to arrive at Pascagoula, requiring the relocation of $80,000 of cable that was on-site,” Donnie said. When the storm veered east, the cable was returned and business continued as normal.

Along the way, some old dogs learned some new tricks, too. With more than 10,000 cable connections in the offing, Doleac's staff was introduced to Erico's Cadweld Plus exothermic welding system, which significantly increased productivity. In short, the new-generation method produces the same result as conventional exothermic systems, but reduces to four the number of steps necessary to bond connectors. Workers are now completing two connections per minute. Plus, the new method is safer and cleaner than predecessors and eliminates the need for an “open spark” permit on a job site.

They also were introduced to Elastimold 600 series separable connectors. Historically, alterations to installed cable junctions have involved a “cut-and-splice” method of adding or rerouting cable. Elastimold's separable connectors, which are manufactured in elbows, straight receptacles and junctions, allow future connections-even those going in opposite directions-to be made using hand tools.

As the project winds down, Saucier said it has been a challenge due to the nature and type of work encountered.

“However, it has brought much satisfaction in seeing the accomplishments made and the experience we have gained throughout the process. It was a collective, creative and rare experience that has been exciting to take on,” he said.

And, another that will contribute to Doleac's stature on the Gulf Coast. EC

LAWRENCE is a freelance writer and photographer based in Bozeman, Mont. He can be reached at hrscrk@mcn.net.