Great Lakes Towing Acquires Plotz Machine & Forge

By David Murray  |  Lakers & Salties, Tugs, Towboats & Barges
Great Lakes Towing Company (GLT) has purchased nearly all of the assets and real estate of The Wm. Plotz Machine & Forge Company. The two companies, Cleveland-based neighbors, have done business for more than 30 years, Great Lakes Towing Company President Joe Starck says.

The purchase adds marine and industrial machine shop services to GLTs book of business. All nine Plotz Machines workers are now part of GLT.

“We see many similarities between our two 120-plus-year-old, family-owned, Cleveland-based businesses, and we look forward to leveraging synergies to create long-term value for the collective benefit of both businesses, our customers and our city,” Starck says.

Tom Plotz, president of Plotz Machine, adds that the company’s mission has always been to go above and beyond for their customers and to continually improve on-time deliveries and service, at a competitive cost.

“We believe this transition will help us continue to do just that,” he adds.

Plotz is a longtime fixture in Cleveland. It began servicing the area in April 1888 when its founder, Wilhelm Plotz, a blacksmith, started his own company, The Plotz Iron Works. Both companies have been in continuous business since the late 1800s and have rich histories in the City of Cleveland. The Great Lakes Towing Company incorporated in 1899.

About two years ago, Starck began discussing the potential purchase with Plotz’s owners.

“Both owners were getting close to retirement age, and they had always taken great care of us,” Starck says. “We were one of their top customers. They would drop everything to take care of us.”

The company is now a fully integrated division of GLT, but it will continue to do business as Plotz, whose name was part of the deal.

“Were not changing anything,” Starck says. “All the employees except one have been with Plotz at least 20 years, and the most senior machinist has 40 years of experience. Thats the type of experience thats very hard to replace.”

Building on Tradition

Tradition and longevity mean a lot in the maritime world. Great Lakes Towing operates 32 Jones Act tugboats among 13 Great Lakes ports and is the only one to offer lakes-wide contracted service. Starck estimates his boats service about 250 vessels a year. They also assist in icebreaking, aiding grounded vessels and rescue work.

GLT is currently building its 33rd boat, and Starck expects it to be ready by June. Its part of a planned build-out of 10 new tugboats over a five-year window.

The oldest working boat in his fleet, the Wisconsin, was built in 1897 and is something of a Great Lakes legend. It is even rumored to be haunted. Built in Buffalo, N. Y. , it was the first steel-hulled towboat. It was originally named the America because it represented the best of American technology at the time. Originally fitted with steam reciprocating engines, it has been repowered five times.

“It may be the oldest steel-hulled tugboat operating,” Starck says.

Bouncing Back From COVID

Along with many other businesses, GLT was affected by the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the spring of 2020, Starck says, but added, “We were fortunate to have a good backlog of government contracts that carried us through the rest of the year. We never missed a day of work, and no one was laid off.”

The economy bounced back, and commercial work rebounded in 2021. Tugboats were not overly affected during the downturn.

Despite COVID-19, GLT is well on its way to meeting the final documentation deadline of Subchapter M, which is July 20. While all inland maritime companies were supposed to be compliant by July 20, 2018, they had more four years in which to document that compliance by being inspected and earning certificates of inspection.

Several years ago, Starck hired a director of operation and compliance to steer the company through the Subchapter M adjustments. About 90% of his company’s boats have gotten their certificates of inspection, and the company will be 100% compliant by the final documentation deadline.

Great Lakes Towing was the first U.S. shipyard to join the Green Marine program committing it to reducing its carbon footprint through measurable steps.

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