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Kirby Corporation Business Information, Profile, and History

55 Waugh Drive, Suite 1000
Houston, Texas 77007

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History of Kirby Corporation

As the largest inland barge operator in the United States, Kirby Corporation and subsidiary Kirby Inland Marine LP oversee a fleet of approximately 900 active tank barges. The company transports petrochemicals and pressurized products, along with refined petroleum, black oil, and agricultural chemicals throughout the Mississippi River System and the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway. Kirby's liquid cargo capacity stands at nearly 16.2 million barrels and the company has 230 active inland tugboats. Subsidiary Kirby Engine Systems provides overhaul and other related services and also sells diesel engine parts. Kirby began focusing aggressively on its inland tank barge and diesel engine services businesses in 1997. It sold off its offshore tank barges and ships, harbor tugs, and its stake in Universal Insurance Company the following year.

A Petroleum Spinoff of the 1970s

Kirby started out as a subsidiary of Kirby Industries, Inc.; incorporated as Kirby Jamaica in 1969, the company was formed as part of an oil and gas concession in Jamaica. In the early 1970s, the company's name was changed to Kirby Petroleum Co. However, in 1974, despite earnings of $6.5 million on revenues of $85 million, Kirby Industries liquidated its activities because, as then president Peterkin told Newsweek, "the market did not value [Kirby's] assets at the proper price." As part of the liquidation, Kirby Petroleum was spun off as a public company, renamed Kirby Exploration Company. The new company brought with it two former Kirby Industries subsidiaries, Dixie Carriers, acquired in 1968, and Universal Insurance, started in 1972. Revenues for the new company were $51 million in 1976.

The company's sales reached $58 million by 1978, and $73 million by 1980, driven largely by a boom in the marine transportation market. The company's oil and gas business was sagging, however, and in 1980 the company agreed to merge with a company to be formed by the New York investment firm Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Company. That merger was called off in 1981 after the parties could not reach agreement on the distribution of shares in the company to be formed. As the economy slid into the recession of the early 1980s, Kirby's oil and gas business began dragging down the company's profits, producing an operating loss of $118,000 in 1981. In 1982, the oil and gas units operating loss jumped to $29 million, sinking Kirby into the red by $15 million on $102 million in revenues. In 1983, the company acquired General Energy Corporation in a stock-swap merger, and the following year formed a new subsidiary, Kirby Exploration Company of Texas.

Kirby also made attempts to diversify its operations, moving into data processing, through an interest in Davenport Data Processors, Inc., and into semiconductor services, through a 97.7 percent ownership position in Materials Technology Corporation. The Davenport interest was sold to Bank of America in 1984. The company sold off the semiconductor business the following year. More successful was the 1982 acquisition of Marine Systems, bringing the company into diesel repair. Meanwhile, Kirby's oil and gas segment continued to falter. When the oil industry collapsed in the second half of the 1980s, Kirby discontinued its oil and gas operations. That portion of the business was sold to American Exploration Company for $62 million in cash in 1988. About half of that went to retiring debt and covering costs of the sale. With the rest, the company began weighing its options for the future, including investing in other industries or returning to the oil and gas industry. Instead, Kirby turned to its marine transportation unit.

Sailing into the 1990s

Peterkin's involvement in the barge business reached back to 1948, when his father and uncle, who also controlled Kirby, invested in Dixie Carriers. Peterkin, who had graduated from the University of Texas, joined the company that year. Dixie by then operated a 20-barge fleet. Five years later, Peterkin became president of the family-owned company. In 1968, Dixie was acquired as a subsidiary to Kirby Industries. When Kirby Petroleum was spun off after the Kirby Industries liquidation, Dixie was included as a subsidiary to the new public company.

The marine transportation unit already formed a major part of Kirby's operations. By 1981, over half the company's revenues came from its barge business, which also produced nearly two-thirds of the company's operating income. That business, too, was under pressure throughout the 1980s. Several factors combined to turn the once-solid marine transportation industry into a financial minefield. Chief among these was rampant overbuilding of barges during an industry-wide boom in the 1970s. With demand rising and hauling rates high, companies rapidly began expanding their fleets. By 1981 there were some 28,000 barges, including a historic high of 4,900 tank barges, working the country's waterways. Investment interest from Wall Street helped fuel the expansion of fleets, as investors sought out barges as attractive tax shelters.

In 1980, however, President Carter declared a grain embargo against the Soviet Union--until then the country's biggest grain buyer. At the same time, new federal regulations imposed waterway user fees for the first time in the industry's 200-year history. (Waterways had been decreed free in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.) The user fee was meant ultimately to recover 100 percent of the cost of waterway improvement and maintenance, which cost taxpayers some $300 million in the early 1980s. It started at six cents per gallon of fuel, then rose to ten cents per gallon. With fuel consumption reaching some 11,000 gallons or more for a single barge's return trip, coupled with a flattening of the market, the marine transportation industry underwent a shakeout, with many smaller--and larger--companies failing. By 1983, 20 percent of the country's barge fleet were idled. Moreover, new environmental regulations, imposed in the wake of such major oil disasters as the Exxon Valdez spill, demanded that companies carrying petroleum and other chemical products convert their fleets from single-skin hulls to more disaster-resistant double-skin hulls. The cost of converting a barge, as well as building new double-skin barges, finally proved too much for many of the companies that had survived the shakeout of the early 1980s.

Kirby's barge subsidiary struggled along with the rest of the industry, with revenues falling in the first half of the 1980s. Fortunately, Kirby had resisted the urge to expand its fleet during the 1970s boom, building new barges only when they were under contract. At the same time, the company focused on winning primarily long-term, fixed-rate contracts, which served the company well as the bottom dropped out of the spot contract market and rates plunged. By the end of the 1980s, Kirby emerged as one of only a handful of surviving independent barge lines.

Kirby, by then exiting the oil and gas business, recognized an opportunity to expand its marine transportation unit. With many of its competitors floundering, Kirby began adding to its fleet by acquiring other companies, starting with the $25 million cash acquisition of Brent Towing Co. in 1989. That acquisition was followed less than two weeks later by the acquisition of Alamo Inland Marine Co. for another $27 million in cash. The two acquisitions doubled Kirby's fleet to 164 tank barges and 64 towboats. The expanded operations helped raise Kirby's revenues from $98 million in 1988 to $141 million in 1989. The company also added to its diesel repair operations, opening a fourth service facility, located in St. Louis, Missouri. The following year, the company added nine new double-skin tank barges to its fleet, purchased four used double-skin tank barges and five towboats, and placed an order for the construction of six new double-skin tank barges. Then, in a stock and cash deal worth $145 million, Kirby acquired Western Pioneer, Inc. and its Delta Western subsidiary, bringing Kirby into the Pacific Northwest and Alaskan markets. The company also acquired the assets of International Barges, Inc., which included three cryogenic tank barges serving the anhydrous ammonia market, for $2.6 million.

Kirby changed its name to Kirby Corporation in 1990 to reflect the company's new direction. In 1992, Kirby was back on the acquisition path, purchasing in that year Sabine Towing & Transportation Co., a subsidiary of Sequa Corporation, for $36.9 million in cash; the assets of Ole Man River Towing, including that company's tank barges, towboats, and property holdings, for $25.6 million; and Scott Chotin, Inc., based in Louisiana, and that company's 29 inland tank barges and ten dry cargo barges for stock and cash worth $34.9 million. In its diesel repair arm, Kirby opened a fifth service facility, located in Louisiana. The company then made the first step toward exiting the insurance market, merging its Universal insurance arm with Eastern America Insurance Company, with Universal as the surviving entity. Terms of that deal called for Eastern/Universal to redeem Kirby's stock in the company--75 percent after the merger--over the next 12 years.

Kirby's expansion drive continued. In 1993, the company's fleet grew to 468 barges and towboats, adding 16 offshore vessels with the $24 million purchase of 72 inland tank barges from Ashland Oil Co. subsidiary TPT Transportation and the $25.5 million acquisition of AFRAM Lines Company, a worldwide shipper of dry bulk and container cargo, primarily for the U.S. government. The company completed the year with the $15 million purchase of 53 inland tank barges from Midland Enterprises, Inc. Revenues for 1993 reached $378 million, providing a net income of $22.8 million.

While not all of Kirby's endeavors were equally successful. In January 1994, the company attempted to open a new shipping line running from Memphis to Mexico and South America; the company aborted that line in August 1994 in the face of stiff competition. In 1996, Kirby was forced to idle its AFRAM fleet and began to look into exiting the government/military transport market. Nevertheless, Kirby continued to post impressive gains into the mid-1990s as demand for barge transportation underwent a new surge. The company added to its fleet with the purchase of 65 inland tank barges and leases on an addition 31 inland tank barges from Dow Chemical Company for $24 million in cash. At the beginning of 1995, the company placed an order for construction of 12 new double-skin inland take barges--double hulls were now required by federal environmental laws. The company's 1995 revenues surged to $440 million, including $45 million from the company's insurance operations. Kirby de-consolidated Universal from its revenue statement for 1996. In that year, the company faced a weaker market for its marine transportation. However, its diesel repair arm posted strong growth, boosting the company's profits to $27 million on revenues of $386 million for the year.

Late 1990s and Beyond

Costs related to restructuring and floods on the Mississippi River in 1997 weakened company sales. Late that year, however, Kirby revamped its business strategy and launched a plan to focus on its core inland tank barge and diesel engine services businesses. As part of that initiative, Kirby sold its offshore tank barges and ships, harbor tugs, and its remaining stake in Universal Insurance.

The company significantly expanded its holdings in 1999 with the $322.2 million acquisition of Hollywood Marine Inc., the third-largest inland barge operator in the United States. Hollywood's fleet included 256 inland tank barges and 104 towboats. C. Berdon Lawrence, Hollywood's president and owner, was named Kirby chairman after the deal.

Kirby's growth continued into the early years of the 21st century. In 2001, the company signed a long-term lease agreement with Dow Chemical for 94 inland tank barges that it had acquired as a result of its merger with Union Carbide. In March 2002, the company added Cargill's Cargo Carriers fleet to its arsenal. In October of that year Kirby purchased ten double hull black oil tank barges and 13 towboats from Coastal Towing. Ninety-four double hull tank barges were acquired from Union Carbide Finance Corporation in December.

The company made another move to strengthen its leading industry position in January 2003 when it purchased the SeaRiver Maritime fleet--Exxon Mobil's U.S. marine transportation affiliate. The deal included 48 double hull tank barges, seven towboats, and a lease of 16 double hull tank barges. Kirby bought a one-third interest in Osprey Line LLC in 2004.

While Kirby enjoyed success during this time period, the company faced distinct challenges brought on by a slowdown in the refining and chemicals industries as well as an aging locks system and river infrastructure that was in need of upgrades. CEO Joseph H. Pyne commented on the situation in a November 2003 Journal of Commerce article, claiming, "If Congress doesn't fund it, ports will have to close down. You close one port, and it would affect all the others." He went on to add, "It's always a fight to get full and adequate funding, but I can't imagine Congress doing something adverse to a system that's so fundamentally important to the U.S. economy."

Despite facing several industry obstacles, Kirby held an enviable position in the industry. It transported a considerable portion of the nation's chemicals on its barges. In fact, just after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Coast Guard contacted Kirby to find out exactly where dangerous chemicals could be found on U.S. waterways. As the largest inland barge operator in the United States, and with a long-standing history of prosperity behind it, Kirby appeared to be on track for smooth sailing ahead.

Principal Subsidiaries: Kirby Corporate Services, LLC; KIM Holdings, Inc.; Kirby Terminals, Inc.; Sabine Transportation Company; AFRAM Carriers, Inc.; Kirby Engine Systems, Inc.; Kirby Tankships, Inc.; Dixie Offshore Transportation Company; Mariner Reinsurance Company Ltd.; Oceanic Insurance Ltd..

Principal Competitors: American Commercial Lines LLC; Crowley Maritime Corporation; Ingram Industries Inc.


  • Key Dates:
  • 1968: Kirby Industries buys Dixie Carriers Inc.
  • 1969: Kirby Jamaica is incorporated.
  • 1974: The company activities are liquidated; Kirby Petroleum is spun off as a public company and renamed Kirby Exploration Co.
  • 1982: Marine Systems is acquired.
  • 1983: Kirby purchases General Energy Co.
  • 1988: American Exploration Co. buys Kirby's oil and gas operations.
  • 1990: The company changes its name to Kirby Corporation.
  • 1998: Kirby sells its offshore tank barges and ships, harbor tugs, and its stake in Universal Insurance Co.
  • 1999: Hollywood Marine is acquired.
  • 2003: Kirby adds the SeaRiver Maritime fleet to its arsenal.

Additional topics

Company HistoryWater Transport & Cruises

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