From 85 hp to Infinity

By Greg Trauthwein, Editor
Monday, November 26, 2012

Talk to Joe Bekker for five minutes and you know he’s living the “American Dream.” Bekker, the founder, owner and president of Thrustmaster of Texas, came to Houston from The Netherlands in 1979 and has never looked back. An innovator and entrepreneur, Bekker has helped Thrustmaster of Texas evolve from its initial contract – a single 85 hp outboard propulsion unit for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the early 1980s – to a $150 million company today: here’s how.

The maritime industry is replete with interesting stories, and Thrustmaster of Texas and its founder Joe R. Bekker are no exception. Bekker moved from Holland to the U.S. in the late 1970s, gainfully employed at the time but clearly itching to make his own mark in what he viewed as the land of opportunity.
“I came to the U.S. in 1979; I came to Houston from Amsterdam, and at the time I was working for Byron Jackson Pump Company. And at this time, Houston was an amazing place. It was a booming market for the oil industry in general. You couldn’t help but be successful in Houston at that time. After two years, I figured that this was a great place to start your own company, to do your own thing,” Bekker said in a recent interview in his office, located at 6900 Thrustmaster Drive in Houston.
“I started first as a trading company, and it was fairly successful, but in fact I got a little bored with it as I always enjoyed manufacturing. I was looking for an opportunity to start my own manufacturing business, and I got the opportunity when we received an order (through the trading company) for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a small 85 horsepower outboard propulsion unit.”
And so was born, unbeknownst to Bekker at the time, Thrustmaster of Texas and a leading player in supplying powerful thrusters – up to 8 MW each – for some of the most sophisticated and high-value ships in the world, modern deepwater drillships.

Government Contracting 101

The initial ordered product from his company, the 85 horsepower outboard propulsion unit, was targeted for a small lock and dam maintenance barge. When Bekker won the contract, he freely admits: “At the time, I didn’t even know what an outboard propulsion unit was.”
The plan was to procure the product form a European supplier, but once the order was place, the European supplier literally disappeared, meaning Bekker and company had no means to fulfill its contract. He reached out to various suppliers, but was unsuccessful in finding anything that would cost them less than the value of the contract with the Army Corps of Engineers. So Bekker reluctantly went back to the contractors to inform them that he was unable to fulfill the contract, and that they should proceed to the next lowest bidder instead.
He was in for a rude awakening, and the birth of Thrustmaster of Texas.
“The Army Corps of Engineers representative explained to me that I didn’t understand,” Bekker said. “They explained that if I had a contract with the government of the United States, I had an obligation to perform it. And if I chose to not perform on the contract, I would be found in default, and under the Federal acquisition regulations I would be found liable for the additional expense that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would incur in buying it someplace else, and possibly incur some delay charges. In addition, I was certainly going to be put on a black list and would never be able to sell to the government again.”
Startled but not dissuaded, Bekker soldiered on. “So I said, ‘well, let me take another look at that contract,’ and I went back to the office and decided to build it myself,” he said.

Birth of the Manufacturer
Bekker had always been enamored with manufacturing, and he decided to build it hydraulically.
“We bought a little Detroit 353 diesel engine, a pump and we mounted it on the engine. We bought a propeller and drove it with a hydraulic motor, and designed and built the structure. And after it was complete, I thought it was a great idea. It seemed to work fine, and I decided to start marketing the concept of these hydraulically powered outboard propulsion units.”
The concept evidently had legs and started to take off, though not exactly like a rocket, Bekker said. “The early years were struggling, but it was enough to keep me busy and out of trouble. We built four 200 hp units for the US Navy, and then we won a contract for the US Army, and then the Exxon Valdex oil spill happened while we had the Army units under construction,” he said.
So the fledgling company with the fledgling product line requested – and obtained – approval from the Army to divert the use of the 250 hp deck-mounted hydraulically powered outboard propulsion units to the oil spill response effort, essentially to help power barges that worked close to shore and sprayed hot water on the rocks flush the oil down so they could skim it up off the water.
“After this job, things started going a little better for Thrustmaster.”
As with any new, small company, the challenges in the early years are multiple, and in many cases, lethal. But not in the case of Thrustmaster.
“The biggest challenge in the early days was the lack of resources, lack of people, lack of engineering resources, lack of complete work and quality systems, lack of production equipment so I was heavily dependent on subcontractors,” Bekker said. Though the challenges came in multiples, so too did the opportunities, and Bekker was never hesitant to explore new markets, including the booming gambling boat business in the late 1980s and early 1990s – many vessels which had hydraulically driven Z-drives, bowthrusters and paddlewheels. “That was a good time for us,” he said.

Growth Abroad
Thrustmaster of Texas is unique in another aspect, in that it regularly sells and ships its finished products to customers in China. “The U.S. marine market is not that large of a market,” said Bekker. “Currently about 75% of our business is outside of North America … primarily to Southeast Asia, but also, Africa, Australia and Europe.
Clearly Bekker’s business is driven by the hunt for offshore energy, as the move for finding oil and gas moves into increasingly deeper waters, demanding Dynamically Positioned drillships, semi submersibles, and even supply vessels … all of which are potential customers for Thrustmaster’s propulsion units.
In assessing the company’s prospects today, Bekker still sees offshore drilling as the main driver, as it gets increasing business to supply its mammoth 4 and 5MW thrusters for some of the world’s most sophisticated drillships.  “Those are nice orders, because a drillship typically has six 5MW thrusters; and semi submersibles generally have eight 4MW thrusters, and they’re all identical so that’s nice business for us.”
In addition to this, Bekker sees ample opportunities in the pipelay and subsea construction business, as well as the offshore wind industry, which he sees as strong in Europe and emerging in China, and hopefully soon evolving to U.S. shores.

Invest to Grow
Thrustmaster of Texas believes that investing in people, facilities and equipment is central to its long-term health and welfare, and the edict is far more than company mantra, rather company action. Proof foremost is its gleaming fabrication facilities located at 6900 Thrustmaster Drive in Houston, a facility that was custom designed and built by the company just three years ago – at the height of the global economic meltdown – to handle new loads of business.
The facilities are impeccably laid out and maintained, and in fact Bekker has on the drawing boards to open a new sand blast and paint shop in 2013, and depending on the final results and prospects at the end of 2012, to start plans for an entirely new fabrication building.
Among its latest investments:
•    A Zeiss Computerized Coordinate Measuring Machine is installed as QC continuously improves manufacturing feed back program, what Bekker calls one of the largest CMMs in the U.S.
•    A $1.5m Hancook machine, which is a Vertical Machining Center with a 12-foot rotary table.
•    And a new $2m German make very large horizontal boring mill, using 6.5 or 7” inch boring bar with a ram to extend the boring bar further while maintaining tight tolerances.

(As published in the November 2012 edition of Maritime Reporter -

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