By Karen Robes Meeks
Innovation has always been part of Integrated Marine Systems’ history.
The company originated from the corner of a shipyard in Port Townsend 30 years ago, where the business had been outfitting vessels with chilled sea water systems as Port Townsend Boatworks – IMS’ predecessor.
Through that process, the company saw improvements that could be made in the equipment that was being installed.
“It was kind of an incubator,” said IMS Founder Mark Burn, who cut his teeth as a fisherman working on boats in Alaska as a teenager. “In 1989, we started working on some of those improvements and the first thing was a chiller that we developed for refrigerating seawater.”
Today, IMS continues to innovate as a leader in providing refrigeration systems on the West Coast and beyond, serving the nation’s major fishing sectors as well as international markets.
In a recent interview with Fishermen’s News, Burn and IMS Operations Director Kurt Ness spoke about the company’s beginnings, its perseverance in the early years and its vision for the future.
“The name does say it all: Integrated Marine Systems,” Ness said, adding that know-how and customer service have been key in the company’s success.
“It’s not just the refrigeration systems that are going on these boats; you have to take a lot of factors into account – main engine generator, electrical, plumbing, refrigeration,” he said. “You really have to have a broad spectrum of knowledge to make sure that you’re coming up with the right solution.”
Meeting the needs of West Coast fishermen was what led the company to produce its first product, the HydroChiller.
“We started putting in our own systems because the chillers we had developed were a lot smaller than what was on the market at that time,” Burn said. “We were able to build a compact self-contained system and that gave us an opportunity in the Bristol Bay market.
“Those boats are limited to 32 feet long, so space is a real premium and weight is a real premium, and almost all of the vessels don’t have generators, so the system had to be hydraulically driven. So we combined the advances in hydraulics to create a self-contained system that ended up to be a real benefit in Bristol Bay.”
When IMS began to see a real wave of new orders in 1994-1995, the company decided to focus solely on refrigeration and closed the shipyard.
But business wasn’t always smooth sailing. Shortly after deciding to close the shipyard, the Bristol Bay market – close to 90 percent of IMS’ business at the time – collapsed a couple years later. Back then Alaskan wild salmon was hard to sell amid a rising demand for farmed fish.
“From 1998 to about 2002, it was a struggle to survive. As an owner, for months and months I went without a paycheck in order to meet payroll – it was just hanging on,” Burn said. “It took some years for that to evolve to where Alaska wild salmon was a distinct product – distinct from what I’ll call the commodity farmed fish market.”
But in that period of struggle, IMS innovated and diversified.
In 1999-2000, when Canadian fishermen were looking for ways to keep halibut alive in their vessels, IMS developed a titanium chiller for live products.
“That was one of the new markets that we diversified in,” Burn said.
The company began to diversify into larger vessels, other fisheries and live products and live fish applications.
The company developed the Hatch Mount Blast Freezer, one of many solutions for those who need to chill or freeze as soon as their catch is harvested.
The system allows vessels to convert from a wet hold for chilling to a dry, freezing hold.
The system is also mobile, allowing fishermen who work multiple fisheries to lift and store the freezing system when it’s not in use before heading to another fishery.
For those fishing for shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico, IMS created systems that enable them to catch, process, package and freeze their shrimp onboard and protect their catch from the warm weather.
Clients who fish in the Northeast markets for lobster and crab benefit from IMS’ onboard live delivery systems, allowing them to achieve near zero dead loss. The company’s live holding systems enable continuous flow of new water and aeration, allowing fishermen to keep working for a longer period of time.
“All of those were efforts to diversify and not be solely dependent on one fishery,” Burn said.
IMS holds a handful of patents related to refrigeration, including a patent for ice machines with extruded heat exchange and another for tray-based continuous throughput blast freezer technology.
Much of that was driven by need, Burn said.
“The original chiller was more of a product that was developed where you could see an opportunity in the market and then develop the product to fulfill a need, to do it in a different way that would improve the product for the industry,” Burn said. “For some of the other products, more people came to us with needs … (and) we could also see that that need was representative of a market that was worth pursuing. And then we would develop a product to satisfy that need.”
It has helped build IMS’ reputation for making refrigeration simple for their clients.
“I think IMS goes the extra mile in understanding what the need is and solving their need rather than just an off the shelf kind of thing,” Burn said. “It’s more about making sure that their objectives are met with the system.”
Ness agreed. “We want to make sure that what we’re selling you is going to be right for the job,” Ness said. “Because at the end of the day, quality is the name of the game. There’s a huge push towards refrigeration mandated in certain markets and there’s compensation for that, too, so the return on investment on a system is pretty quick. We just want to make sure that we’re continuing to do a great job for the industry and put out top notch equipment.”
IMS has expanded into offering refrigerating solutions for seafood and food processors. The company acquired an established refrigeration business, Wescold, in early 2009, allowing IMS to tap Wescold’s refrigeration product lines and parts infrastructure that could complement its own product development and manufacturing.
The company will continue to expand in size and scope in the coming years, Ness said.
“We’re diversifying in the sense that we’re looking at different applications – other applications – that might require larger systems or systems of a different refrigerant variety like ammonia,” Ness said. “It’s a new thing for the company to go into. We have a good market share currently, but we want to grow and we see an opportunity in the ammonia market.”
IMS has recently made a couple of hires to accomplish that goal.
“That’s the next step in the evolution of IMS – just doing more systems and bigger systems,” Ness said.
This year, IMS, which has outgrown its facility in Ballard, is corralling its manufacturing, sales, inventory and operations and moving them into a new 20,000-square-foot building north of Seattle.
“There’s not a ton of inventory on the market, so you really have to be ready to strike fast,” Ness said. “And I think we found the perfect place up there, so it will definitely streamline things and certainly add to the company feel. We’re like a small family here, so it’ll be good to have everyone under one roof.”
Ness said IMS continues to serve its main markets while exploring others.
“Our main markets are Alaska, the West Coast, East Coast, and the Canadian market,” he said. “We do international work as well in Central America, but the idea is to go even more international with our existing product line, and the new product lines we’re launching, to target other markets that might not be served with our small self-contained systems.”
The goal is to be a one-stop shop and aftermarket parts, manufacturing – the company’s bread and butter – and placing more of an emphasis on service will be key, Ness said.
“The goal is to be able to produce refrigeration equipment for literally any fishing boat that’s out there, big or small,” he said. “Having a solution for small Freon systems, large ammonia systems, getting into more processing plant applications, you know, larger stuff – and then going global with it as well. We want to be able to be the one-stop shop for any marine refrigeration that you need. But also we want to diversify and go into other markets as well. Food service, the fishing industry is a small percentage of what’s out there.”
Getting to the heart of a client’s need is what IMS is all about, Ness said.
“We really try to give excellent customer service, he said. “We all come from fishing backgrounds, so if there is an issue, we want to make sure it’s addressed quickly and timely and get people fishing, not worrying about their refrigeration system and making it as simple as possible.”