We talk to Gareth Escreet, Director at SMS Towage, about the growth and development of this family-run business in the harbour towage space, the launch of its latest vessel, and how the firm’s specialism continues to create opportunities for expansion throughout the UK.
Could you tell us a bit about SMS Towage and your background as a business?
SMS Towage was actually born out of another company, Specialist Marine Services (SMS), which my father Paul set up in 1992. SMS was set up to manage offshore assets such as anchor handling tugs and platform supply vessels.
In 2002, Associated British Ports (ABP) approached SMS to ask if we could help to address the monopoly held by one company on harbour towage business on the Humber. And so, SMS Towage was born.
How has the business evolved over the past 15 years? Has your focus shifted at all?
Over time, we have shifted more and more towards focusing solely on the SMS Towage side of the business. We no longer manage other peoples’ vessels, but we operate our own fleet of 15 specialist harbour tugs.
Work in the Humber Estuary is by far our largest operation and has continued to grow, year on year. This has provided the foundation for us to branch out to other ports and gain a foothold in the market in other areas around the UK.
We are also working in the Bristol channel and at Belfast harbour – and by the end of this week, we will have two tugs operating in Portsmouth.
SMS Towage has also evolved from working offshore, to focusing specifically on port and harbour towage. We still have the resources for offshore and coastal towage work but we are so busy in the ports these days, that ‘getting our feet wet’ and going offshore is no longer a core focus.
How did you personally come to be involved in the maritime sector? How has your own role changed over time?
I graduated from the University of East Anglia in 2001 and joined SMS shortly after, as a general dogsbody with the title of ‘operations and commercial assistant’.
Initially I worked on the offshore side of things, including the commercial management of a fleet which was spread from the North Sea down to Brazil, West Africa and the Mediterranean. As business in the ports began to grow, I transferred my focus and began to work more on our harbour operations.
Despite this shift, working on the fleet operations side gave me a good grounding in how to manage a diverse range of vessels. We were looking after every aspect of those large offshore fleets – from commercial and financial issues, to crewing and technical management. Although I now work with harbour tugs, which are smaller and have smaller crews, working in offshore was a strong introduction to the sector.
Tell us about the launch of SMS Superman and what she will bring to the fleet. What kinds of projects will she be working on?
SMS Superman is a new addition to our fleet – named last week – and, because of her size and power, she represents a major step up for us. She is dedicated to working primarily on the Humber, and she will be the largest tug on the estuary.
We can gain quite a lot of operational benefits from having a tug of that size on the jetties; she has an overall length (LOA) of 24m and a bollard pull of 72 tons. Superman will largely be used for large carriers and tankers, calling at the Immingham jetties.
What’s more, bringing her in is allowing us to free up a tug from the Humber to go down to Portsmouth. Essentially, Superman will allow us to utilise our fleet more effectively, benefitting both SMS Towage and our clients.
You’ve mentioned that SMS Towage is moving into Portsmouth – can you expand on that?
Portsmouth is municipal port and its main cargo is reefer traffic bringing in fruit and veg from around the globe. The port operator was having issues with the reliability of service from the incumbent service provider – mainly because of the high volume of naval traffic coming in and out of the port, such as the new QE2 carrier.
In looking for a solution, the port contacted us, and we have responded by providing a round-the-clock, two-tug presence which is dedicated exclusively to this port.
Where do you see the greatest opportunities in the Towage market? Are you coming up against any challenges?
There is quite a lot of rationalisation going on in the UK among other towage operators. While this can pose challenges for the market, it has presented opportunities for us; as ports struggle with reliability issues, SMS Towage has been approached multiple times and asked to move into new ports, to improve the reliability of the service offering.
What do you value most about your membership of the NWA?
SMS is a long-established member of the NWA and, although, as harbour towage operators, we are in the minority of NWA members, we have never felt that this is a negative thing. The NWA embraces and supports us – and the diversity of membership really creates benefits. Other associations that we are part of do not have such an extensive, or diverse, membership.
The NWA also has significant traction, and creates positive developments and successes – for example, with its influence on certification. It’s great that the association is progressive and open-minded, which is a definite positive for the industry.