Suffolk-based ship repair company sets sail

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Print this page by Veronica Garabelli

Donnie Mills retired as a construction engineer at Northrop Grumman Corp. in 2009, but he had no plans to stop working. Instead, he started Mills Marine & Ship Repair, a ship repair and manufacturing company in Suffolk that began operations last year. Mills plans to expand the company rapidly during the next three years, investing more than $3 million and hiring 142 employees during that time. 

“People are looking for something long-term, and that is what I hope we’ll be able to bring,” Mills says. “There’s so much instability right now in the work force, especially in ship repair, that we want to have a stable work force.”

Mills Marine serves as a subcontractor to Main Industries on construction of the USS Gerald Ford aircraft carrier at Newport News Shipbuilding. The company also is working with Advex Corp. on the SS Cornhusker State, a crane ship, at Cheatham Annex in Yorktown. Mills Marine also will participate in the overhaul of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier with Técnico Corp at Newport News Shipbuilding.

Part of the company’s job growth will be fueled by an apprentice program it is launching this year in collaboration with Tidewater Community College. “My goal is to have five people enrolled in the present program by the end of the year,” Mills says. The company will offer apprenticeships in welding, coating, sheet metal, insulation and piping.

Mills’ growth plans are undeterred by sequestration, the across-the-board, automatic federal budget cuts that went into effect in March. Mills believes it is more important to focus on the future than let Washington affect business decisions. “As a nation we have to get over this fear factor,” which is paralyzing growth, he says. Plus, Mills adds, his company has a diversified business model, serving commercial customers as well as the federal government.

Mills Marine participates in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s HUBZone program, which encourages economic development in historically underutilized business areas. To participate in the program, a business must be located in a HUBZone and at least 35 percent of its employees must live in that area. “We are looking for great people, but we are looking for people who need that opportunity,” Mills says.

Opportunity, he believes, is what got Mills Marine to where it is today. “We have been fortunate,” he says. “It takes a ton of money and a ton of talent to get into this business.”

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