May 03, 2010

It’s a long way from the Gulf of Mexico or from any other oceanic location, but nevertheless just about every day a rugged-looking group of marine and aquatic workmen shows up at 103 Sentry Drive in Mansfield.

Specifically, they’re divers. Even more specifically they’re technicians and engineers with a specialty: They do most of their work underwater.

The 50,000-square-foot building, the home of Neptune Underwater Services – the grand opening was in March – may well be Mansfield’s most unique business. The outside of the building looks unspectacular. But the interior is exotic indeed.

NUS provides a vast quantity of underwater services: offshore and port drilling repairs, cleanings and repairs for potable, raw and waste water inspections, as well as pipeline and lake intake inspections. Add to the list sluice gate design, installation and remediation, nuclear and chemical power plant inspections and repairs, bridges and dam inspections/remediation services, maintenance and inspections, sea chest (oil valve) capping and repair, underwater and topside cutting and welding, emergency response, and hazardous materials diving services.

None of the above are in Mansfield, of course. But a big wing of the building includes a surprise.

“It’s an immersion training tank,” said Mike Hale, Neptune’s chief financial officer. “Our divers come from all over the world to train for certification and the latest refinements in their craft.”

Neptune Underwater Services – formerly U.S. Underwater Services – is a recently purchased component of Australia’s Neptune Marine Services, a publically traded corporation. The parent company provides underwater services globally – for instance for Shell Oil’s off-shore West African drilling projects. Other projects are offshore from Brazil, but the company has divers and underwater missions worldwide.

The Mansfield division, though, specializes in Gulf of Mexico and U.S. freshwater projects.

Which brings up an interesting question: Why locate in Mansfield when the Gulf of Mexico is 300 miles away?

“U.S. Underwater Services, now Neptune, originally began as a fresh water specialist, but then expanded to marine projects,” Hale said. “Since then we’ve discovered that there’s something of a pronounced advantage to not being exposed to coastal weather hazards like the recent hurricanes that beat up Houston and Galveston. Our crews can be on the coast in four hours and not worry about damage to their homes or when the kids are going to be able to go back to school.”

The underwater world is clearly a growing business, particularly in the world of engineered solutions for the deepwater oil and gas industry.

“Recent industry research suggests global expenditure across the world’s major deepwater precincts will be more than $27 billion a year over the next four years,” Neptune CEO Christian Lange said in a recent news release. “Leading the charge will be Africa that is tipped to account for 40 percent of the total global spend.”

The general manager for the Mansfield component of Neptune Underwater Services is Bryan Nicholls, who said the company’s move from a smaller Burleson facility culminates “a dynamic transitional phase for the company that is recognized as a leading provider of inland and offshore commercial diving services.”

Nicholls said the move to the Sentry Industrial park location in Mansfield wrapped up a long collaboration between the city and the Mansfield Economic Development staff.

“This is an exciting phase in the development of the business that will act as a catalyst for future growth and will ultimately benefit our growing client base,” Nicholls said. Echoing that sentiment, CEO Lange said the relocation represented “a new and exciting chapter in the evolution of Neptune in the USA.”

The Mansfield unit will initially employ about 70 people on site, with plans to expand to about 85 in the near future. The on-going arrival and departure of divers for training will no doubt be appreciated by the city’s growing hotel industry.

Hale said in addition to providing underwater training and certification for its own employees, some additional training would be provided for other individuals not directly employed by Neptune. “Usually that involves subcontractors or sometimes military personnel,” he said.