By Brian Dunn

It’s a long way from Vancouver to Isle-aux-Coudres, QC and back again if you follow the origins and growth of Groupe Océan, one of the largest integrated marine service companies in Canada which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2022. Originally called Aqua-Marine, the company was founded by Gordon Bain in 1972 in Vancouver offering diving services. His first contract was inspecting dams for Hydro-Québec. Mr. Bain retired as President in CEO in 2018, but remains as Chairman. He was replaced by Jacques Tanguay, part owner and 30-year veteran at Groupe Océan.

The company’s vocation changed in 1987, when Mr. Bain, tired of commercial diving, bought Les Remorqueurs de Québec, a company that operated four tugboats in Quebec City. It was also the same year he hired Jacques Tanguay, a civil engineer and changed the company name to Groupe Océan. Together, the two went on an expansion spree, with acquisitions of tug companies in Montreal (McAllister), Sorel and Trois-Rivières. Today, the company operates 37 tug boats and over 500 barges, and is involved in harbour towing, dredging, marine salvage and towing, oversize marine transportation, in addition to barge and workboat rentals across the country. The company also owns and operates a shipyard on Isle-aux-Coudres, 100 kilometres downriver from its Quebec City head office.

In all, Groupe Océan employs more than 900 people at 21 locations in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Jamaica. In 2018, the company ended a multi-year lease after a dispute with the New Brunswick government in Bas-Caraquet where it built a 350-foot floating dry dock and a cable ferry.

The company has three divisions – Harbour Towing and Navigation, Marine Work and Dredging and Construction and Repairs. Harbour Towing is by far the biggest division, accounting for about 70 per cent of undisclosed revenues. “The fastest growing division is Marine Work and Dredging. “We won a contract for the expansion of the Port of St. John and a large contract during the construction of the new ($4.5 billion) Champlain Bridge and we recently won another contract for the dismantling of the old Champlain Bridge,” explained company spokesperson Philippe Filion. The latter project will be one of the largest and most challenging civil engineering contracts ever undertaken by Groupe Océan. The company plans to mobilize around 40 workers, 13 barges and a tug for about two years to ensure this stage in the deconstruction of the 3.4 km structure.

The company is part of a consortium consisting of Pomerleau and Delsan-AIM. The value of the contract hasn’t been disclosed, but it could go as high as $400 million, according to The Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridges Incorporated, a Crown Corporation responsible for the operation of the two bridges.

In 1994, the year Tanguay became a shareholder in the business, Groupe Océan made two key acquisitions: the shipyard on Isle-aux-Coudres and dredging company Dragage St-Maurice.

Ten years later, the company launched a $90-million fleet renewal project, the highlight of which consisted of building eight high-tech tugs for use on the St. Lawrence. In 2005, Groupe Océan created Ocean Ontario Towing, which offers harbour tug services in the ports of Hamilton, Oshawa and Toronto. Five years later, it began operating in the port of Sept-Îles and opened new workshops in the port of Quebec.

In 2013, Ocean Dredging obtained its first international dredging contract at the port of Dos Bocas in Mexico. In addition to Mexico, it now does dredging work in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Virgin Islands and Jamaica.

Jamaica is also where the company opened its first international operation in 2018 when its Ocean J Towing subsidiary signed a 10-year contract with Jamaica Port Authority to provide harbour towing services at the port of Kingston, using its own tugs.

The company experienced another growth spurt after Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and Fonds de solidarité FTQ bought a minority stake in Océan for $112 million in 2018 which it is using to expand its Canadian and international operations and to acquire new equipment.

In January, 2019, Groupe Océan acquired Techsol Marine, a Quebec-owned specialist in marine electrotechnology. The company installs and ensures the commissioning of various automated systems used to control and monitor onboard machinery. Entirely designed and developed in Quebec, the systems are installed on ships around the world.

Groupe Océan was granted the largest shipbuilding contract in its history in April, 2019, when subsidiary Ocean Industries Inc., was awarded a $100 million contract from the government of Canada to build four large tugs for National Defence. The work will be carried out at its Isle-aux-Coudres shipyard.

The yard employs some 130 workers who are also building a small ferry and doing a retrofit for la société des traversiers du Québec, in addition to building several barges for Nunavut Eastern Arctic Shipping Inc. In November, the yard was awarded a $4.15 million contract from Ottawa to build sixteen 20-cubic metre barges for the Canadian Coast Guard as part of Ottawa’s $1.5 billion Oceans Protection Plan announced in 2016.

Due to a lack of local qualified personnel, particularly welder-fitters in the Charlevoix region where the shipyard is located, Groupe Océan recently hired three Tunisians and six Moroccans from a list of 100 potential candidates to work at the yard.

In February, 2020, the company finally returned to its roots after being awarded several contracts in British Columbia. Subsidiary Ocean BC Towing Inc. will provide harbour towing services in the port of Vancouver, using two new 28-metre tugs built in Vietnam. In total, three tugs will provide harbour towing services in Vancouver, following the signing of a service contract with Cargill Limited Canada.

Another subsidiary, Ocean Dredging DM Inc, has won the most important mechanical dredging contract in company history. The work will consist mainly of marine dredging, subsea shoreline infilling, rip-rap (loose stone used in breakwater construction) and marine habitat compensation, including the construction of artificial reefs, for Coast Tsimshian Northern Contractors Alliance. The alliance will construct a 5.4 km road in Prince Rupert, BC to connect two facilities at Port of Prince Rupert, Ridley Island and the container terminal on Kaien Island. Ocean Marine Works Inc. made a breakthrough in Western Canada last June by renting about 40 container barges to various clients in British Columbia for wharf construction projects.

In terms of growth opportunities, the company has targeted three areas, namely BC, the Caribbean and South America where it is doing lots of business development, according to Mr. Filion. “We bypassed the U.S. market completely because of the Jones Act, a protectionist Act designed to protect domestic shipping interests in the U.S. It’s too complicated and not worth the returns.”