Tampa Bay’s seawall master

Back in the late 1990s, I worked as a writer for the Tampa Bay Business Journal, covering the business of sports, commercial real estate and the local advertising and marketing business. It was a good place to work and I enjoyed my time there. I don’t really remember doing this story, but I do dimly remember that I used to drive by this place of business on my way to and from work.

Staff Writer

Bill McNamara wasn’t thinking much about docks and seawalls when he was installing chain link fences around schools and prisons in Philadelphia. But when he moved to the Bay Area in the early 1970s, he found there wasn’t much of a market for chain link fences here.

“There was no money in it, no volume, and it was too competitive,” McNamara recalled of his Florida chain link fence prospects. “It got old.”

He needed something else to do, but he didn’t know what. To fill in the time, he started doing some work for a Clearwater-based company that installed boat lifts.

“I just started putting in boat lifts,” said McNamara, whose McNamara & Son is now the biggest dock builder in the Bay Area. “We made one connection after another, and things started to grow for us, just like things were starting to grow for Tampa. I had to hire help, and soon we were doing everything. Before long, we were all the way at the top. We are bigger than anyone as far as residential stuff is concerned.”

“We” is really McNamara, his 36-year-old son Kevin, and a group of employees and subcontractors that right now stands at around 15 people. The 60-year-old McNamara usually stays close to the company’s offices on West Hillsborough Avenue. The younger McNamara can usually be found on one of the company’s barges, placing seawall material or overseeing dock construction.

“I used to do a lot of the stuff myself, but we got busy and we hired a lot of guys,” McNamara said. “Now we’ve got a good crew. And Kevin does most of the high-energy stuff.”

Kevin claims that he and his father get along so well because there is really two companies rather than one — each man owns one of them. William McNamara owns McNamara Docks; Kevin McNamara owns Bay Dock Enterprises.

“I never actually worked for my dad,” Kevin McNamara said. “We get along great because we do our own things. I own all the heavy equipment. I have seven barges, and I built all of them.”

Actually, the younger McNamara didn’t start out to work in the family business. Instead, he started working as an auto mechanic. He also trained as a welder. Both skills have helped him in his business, he said.

The elder McNamara, who spent his early years as a shipyard worker in Pennsylvania, said he learned dock construction by simply keeping his eyes and ears open when he was working for the Clearwater company. He went from building small residential projects to handling dock construction for some of the area’s largest home construction firms.

The younger McNamara learned his dock building and seawall skills from his father, and from friends who were also in the business.

“Basically I’ve just educated myself as I went along,” he said. “I learned a lot from my father and from Doug Speeler, who owns Speeler & Associates in Pinellas County, a marine contracting and consulting business.”

McNamara & Son has handled dock and seawall construction for some of the area’s most prominent and well-known people, including New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Sam Wyche. Tampa Bay Lightning Coach Terry Crisp also hired the company to install a seawall at his home.

Kevin McNamara remembers several other local sports figures, including NFL players Paul Gruber and Ricky Reynolds and Houston Astros player Derrick Bell.

“We did Parker’s Landing in Town and Country, where we built a mile of dock and did the gazebos and decks and the recreation center, and we did everything in Bayside,” William McNamara recalled. “Right now we are doing Culbreath Isles, all the docks and seawalls over there.”

“We do all the work for Centex Homes, for Pulte Homes, and we did more than 300 docks for Arthur Rutenberg Homes,” Kevin McNamara said. “We did the Sailport Resort and the Residence Inn on the (Courtney Campbell Parkway), and we did the Palm Bay subdivision in the Bayport area.”

McNamara & Son now owns about 600 feet of land on Hillsborough Avenue, and the company is moving soon into a new 2,600-square-foot office building on the site, next to an older building the company has been using.

“We bought the property from Rocky Creek Bridge up to the southwest side of Hillsborough,” McNamara said. “We have put in docks and a seawall, and we are planning to build a big warehouse.”

The company operates nine barges of various sizes, a twin-diesel tugboat and a 36-ton friction crane, which it uses mostly for setting seawalls.

The dock building business was somewhat seasonal in its earlier years, but William McNamara said the company is busy year-round now.

“As Tampa has progressively grown, we have stayed in business, and it seems we are always three or four weeks behind,” he said.

Kevin McNamara said the key to the company’s success has been the quality of the work that it performs, in an industry in which quality is not always a watchword.

Since there are no local codes for docks, the younger McNamara said, quality of construction can range from good to bad to terrible.

“A lot of people doing this kind of work don’t have insurance, and they pay their people under the table,” he said. “That cheats the government and it cheats us, and it is not doing the job right. There are people who build docks that blow away every time there is a storm, and that is why we are so busy.”

“Our docks stay put because we drive the pile down 15 feet and we don’t cut any corners,” he said. “People know that we will do the job right.”

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