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In the barge business, this year has been "consistent, predictable, and profitable" (audio)

May 1, 2024   Marketplace

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"Our equipment is more expensive than ever, to repair it is more expensive than ever," says Austin Golding of Golding Barge Line. "The ability for me to grow is really inhibited by that cost structure." Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images


The Federal Reserve decided Wednesday to hold interest rates steady, signaling that its fight against inflation isn’t over yet. But despite sticky inflation, the economy overall has been looking pretty strong, with gross domestic product increasing last quarter and consumers continuing to spend.


So, what do today’s economic conditions mean for businesses?


“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal checked in with Austin Golding, CEO of Golding Barge Line, a family-run business in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to find out. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.


Kai Ryssdal: First thing, how is business in the barge business?

Austin Golding: Volumes are good. We’re seeing our business is definitely better this year than when I’ve talked to you in years past. I think we’ve seen a lot of stabilization in our volumes and demand. And we haven’t had things like pandemics to try to recover from or go through. We have had low water, which we dealt with. we had a low water condition in the entire lower Mississippi River Valley. But we persevered, and this year has been pretty consistent, predictable and profitable.


Ryssdal: That strength you’re seeing is a function of the strength of the economy, right? The underlying fundamentals, as the politicians like to say, are good. And so, you’re seeing that.

Golding: We are. But, you know, we are seeing the inflation that we’ve all experienced still linger within the new construction and repair part of our business though.


Ryssdal: Oh, say more about that.

Golding: You know, to build our equipment is more expensive than ever, to repair it is more expensive than ever. The ability for me to grow is really inhibited by that cost structure.


Ryssdal: Yeah, we’ve been talking a long time you and I, and I have never asked you this and I probably should have. Where does Golding Barge Line fit in the pantheon of, you know, Mississippi river barge companies? Are you guys giant? Are you medium sized? What are you?

Golding: Well, the short answer’s medium sized. Kind of a more drilled down on answer, in the tank barge world, I would guess we’re somewhere between No. 10 and No. 15, with the unique, I would say, disposition that we operate nationwide. You have a lot of regional carriers that may be bigger than us, but our ability to go nationwide is really what separates us.


Ryssdal: How do you get nationwide from the Mississippi River? Do you go out into the Gulf and go to other waterways, or do you just go up and around the Mississippi?

Golding: Well, I’m glad you brought that up. You know, we’re connected, not only through the parts of the country everybody’s familiar with like the Ohio River and the Illinois River. But we also go all the way along the Gulf Coast, from Brownsville, Texas, all the way to Panama City, Florida, which includes a lot of locks and dams that helped connect us to the system down there that are really aging and are really starting to come on the back end of their useful life.


Ryssdal: You know, it’s interesting, you mentioned locks and dams, and by extension infrastructure, because we’ve been doing a lot of infrastructure on this program with the CHIPS bill and the infrastructure law and all that. What I hear you saying is, maritime infrastructure ain’t getting the attention it needs.

Golding: No, it’s not. I think we’re easily overlooked because you do not have locks and dams in your everyday life. You’ll use the same roads, you’ll use the same railways, you’ll use the same airports, but locks and dams and dredging in there are things that are out of sight, out of mind that have huge impact on everyday life. It’s a lot harder to lobby for it when the average citizen isn’t that aware of it.


Ryssdal: Do you get good response when you go lobbying? And I imagine you spend your time, some of it, on the phone with your relative congresspeople and all that?

Golding: Oh, yeah. You know, Kai, everybody loves an infrastructure idea until they have to pay for it. And, you know, the Democratic side, of course, they have their methods of paying for it, which is a higher tax platform. And the Republicans typically want to toll and fee it to death. So, I find myself in a very purple posture, going around and asking for these infrastructure projects. And I’ll run through some quick dates for you. There are four locks in the New Orleans area that really allow our Gulf Coast product to be moved in and out. These were all built between 1923 and 1961. These are four locks and dams that have all had outages within the last six months. These four locks have caused the American consumer to pay a lot of extra money due to underinvestment in their health and wellness.


Ryssdal: Well, you have a key point there, right? You have to pass those costs along. You just have to.

Golding: Well, there’s no choice. I mean, in a lot of these cases, there’s no pipeline to be built. There’s no rail spur to jump on. And there’s for sure no highway to offset this type of tonnage. These are things that our country could invest in that would be major, major benefits to everybody and allow, I think, new projects to come online, not just existing projects to benefit.


Ryssdal: Do you still have your captain’s license, or whatever it is, that you need to run those barges?

Golding: I actually, I don’t. Speaking of economics, I came into the working world here in 2009. I got sent to Houston with a brand-new suit my dad bought me to go find us some business to survive, and unfortunately, didn’t get the onboard experience that I was hoping for.