Dredging Feature

Inside The Dutra Group

Digging Deep with Bill Dutra

Bill T. Dutra, CEO of San Rafael, Calif.-based The Dutra Group, is a walking encyclopedia on dredging and marine construction, having built his business from the ground up starting at age 26. But the man, who is often seen in his signature Stetson or Borsalino hat, transcends pure business and engineering acumen, firmly grounded in his family and his community, working to build and maintain a “we” company that exists not simply to bolster its bottom line, but to make better the lives for employees, clients and communities.

By Greg Trauthwein

Dutra Derrick Barge 24 staged for work at The Dutra Group’s Rio Vista Facility, Rio Vista, Calif.

Photo Courtesy Dutra Group

To fully understand Bill Dutra and The Dutra Group, you have to start from the beginning, and in that we mean looking at the Dutra family as it emigrated to California’s San Joaquin Valley via covered wagons. Because when you talk to Bill Dutra today, via words and actions you can see that he leans heavily on his roots, personal and professional, from the hat that often sits upon his head—a nod to his grandfather and his influence to ensure he became the first Dutra to graduate college—to his strong affinity for the local San Joaquin Valley communities and families.

The Dutra name is synonymous with the construction and maintenance of the California Delta levee system, with Antone Dutra starting in 1904, follow by his son, Edward Dutra in 1933 and followed by Bill, who in 1972 at the age of 26 formed Dutra Construction Company, Inc. based in Rio Vista, California.

Photo Courtesy Dutra Group

Dutra Hopper Dredge Stuyvesant entering the San Francisco Bay, San Francisco, Calif.

Looking back, Dutra said “you have to remember that in those times the dredge captain, the lever man on the dredge, the deck hands, the cooks, and the labor force was pretty much family,” said Dutra. “You didn’t have the highways that we have today, so you lived and you worked onboard.”

As a young man, while Dutra worked alongside his grandfather for a short bit and his father, following in their footsteps was not a given. “I was not, shall we say, ‘a manageable individual’ in my earlier years,” remembers Dutra. “I did not like going to school and I found a passion for the sea.”

The family business was in fact not passed down, as his grandfather started, then sold, the company, only to reenter the dredging business later on with his son, Bill’s father.

“I dropped out of high school at a very early age because I wanted to be challenged by the sea and work on towboats and in marine construction,” said Dutra.“I had a bit of a maverick in me in my earlier years. I always knew that I had a passion[for the dredging business]. I was born into it, and I grew up in it. But I didn't know how well it would work for me. I was comfortable as a towboat operator.”

But influenced by his father and grandfather, as well as several key professional mentors, he eventually was convinced to start using his brain instead of his brawn.

The Dutra Group performs emergency levee repairs along critically damaged levee sites in the Sacramento and San Joaquin delta river system following the historic 2017 winter.

Photo Courtesy Dutra Group

The Dutra Group performs emergency repairs following a levee break at the Upper Jones Tract Levee. In 2004 the levee failed, inundating the island with an estimated 150,000 acre t. of water.

Photo Courtesy Dutra Group

“Thinking from the shoulders up …”

In the 1960s Dutra leveraged a small life insurance policy from his grandfather into seed money for a college education at Oregon Technical Institute, pursuing a program that was 50% engineering and 50% business orientated. “It really encouraged me, and I felt that, maybe one day I can have my own business.” A key moment for Dutra after college was the realization that he didn’t want to be a professional engineer, rather a contractor, so he earned his contractor license and went back to work for his father for a short time.

Shortly thereafter there was a big flood in the lower end of the San Joaquin Valley where cotton farmers had lost more than 100,000 acres of ground, requiring a sizable land reclamation solution.

“I bought myself a couple small drag lines and excavators and I kind of started like my grandfather did, in the ditching business,” said Dutra. “Working with and helping those cotton farmers was a great experience for me, and I learned a lot about land reclamation, ditching and building levees.”

“I'm very passionate about the San Joaquin Valley, the Sacramento region and the farmers. They trusted me, they gave me my start,” said Dutra. “When the floods came a lot of livelihoods were wiped out, and they weren't just a number or an address; they were my friends, they were my family, and they were devastated. I put everything I could into saving their lands and helping them to regroup their livelihoods. That is a phenomenal thing for me, and in reward it grew our company tremendously.”

His engineering education helped out on the practical matters in those early days, but it was the combined business education that helped him to effectively grow his business, an organic growth with some key acquisitions, too, including other dredging companies and a rock quarry. “When you're just reclaiming land and digging ditches it's [largely] a function of the weather, and your cycles could be long or short depending if there are floods,” said Dutra. “I always felt that we needed a multiple rate of return type of business.”

Powered by a growing population in the Bay Area, Dutra expanded into a marine construction and dredging business, and then expanded it outside of the Bay Area, so that today The Dutra Group is national, with more than 320 full-time employees experienced in dredging (70% of the business) and marine construction (30%).

As the company grew and expanded, it’s portfolio of projects became larger and more challenging, including its participation in “The Big Dig” in Boston to help build the Ted Williams Tunnel. Naturally there were plentiful challenges along the way, including one bad job in Miami that nearly cost Dutra his company. But on balance, Dutra and his team have been a steady force in the dredging community, not averse to taking calculated risks such as its entry into the hopper dredge market. Powered by the expansion of the Panama Canal and the need for ports to dig deeper to accommodate ever larger ships and booming commerce, Dutra “bet the family fortune” to enter into the hopper dredging business, a move that has thus far panned out well, driven by the high level of maintenance dredging need to keep key waterways open, from the Columbia River to the mouth of the Mississippi.

Bill Dutra with Steve Lee, Dutra Equipment Division Manager, at Corn Island Shipyard during construction of the scow ES15

Photo Courtesy Dutra Group

Bill Dutra circa 1982 in the Sacramento Delta, Calif.

Photo Courtesy Dutra Group

Bill Dutra with the crew of the DB Paula Lee in Port Canaveral, Brevard County, Fla.

Photo Courtesy Dutra Group

Bill Dutra circa 1986 at the Montezuma Slough installation of CA Department of Water Resources gate structures

Photo Courtesy Dutra Group

Bill Dutra is “All In”

“The dredging business has a lot of risk,” said Dutra. “When you deal with mother nature and you deal with the sea, there is no forgiveness. So you have to be all in. It's nothing that you want to run from a golf course or the back of a country club … at least not me. This is a ‘we’ company, so we are constantly improving our assets, our fleet, our technology, while at the same time improving our ability to be a low-cost producer.”

Being “all in” entails a commitment to many things—employees, community, safety—and a common denominator is building and maintaining a capable, efficient and diverse set of dredging and maritime assets. (For the full rundown on Dutra’s fleet visit: www.dutragroup.com

“If you go back and you study the history of dredging and marine construction, it was a very mechanical business,” said Dutra. “Everything was pulling ropes and turning the big ship wheels. They didn't have all the electronics and electric motors to make things move.”

Asked to narrow it to the one outstanding technology that has most improved the business, Dutra points to electronics and the ability to precision dredge as a key.

“I used to sit as a kid with a lead line and a rope to measure how deep I was dredging,” said Dutra. “Now, the operator sits in the pilot house and he has a screen showing exactly where he can dig under water. What’s exciting for me is I can be at home and see where my dredges are, how they are tracking and even their speed. If I see a problem, I can call them directly.”

The new technology also helps to attract the younger generation, as they are natives to the online, remote control access. “They can turn a switch on and go down and do a virtual tour of the engine room,” said Dutra. “The only way I used to go down the engine room was with a flashlight. And I had to go out the door to get down below, and you’d get concerned about getting flushed over the side. Now, you sit [in the pilothouse] and do a virtual tour of everything.”

A big part of the technology equation is, of course, the dredge and marine construction equipment itself: large pieces of heavy machinery that are designed to last more than three decades.

“Somebody asked me once, ‘Why are you getting rid of that old dredge?’ I said, ‘What are we going to do … go to the cemetery to find somebody to run it for us?’,” said Dutra.

While the team at Dutra scrutinizes fuel consumption, maintenance schedules, ergonomics and all aspects of crew comfort as it pertains to living and working there safely, when evaluating newbuilds, perhaps most important from the business aspect is an asset that is multifunction.

“I'm constantly looking at refurbishing the fleet, to really understand my customers' needs,” said Dutra. “But in this world today you don't have the privilege of building a single rate of return type of asset. Today, you need a dredge fleet that has a multiple rate of return. For example, I have a dredge the Paula Lee that's a great clamshell dredge. Is she the best clamshell dredge in America? Probably not. But she can go to Hawaii and dredge,and then she can drive piles, and then she can lift heavy beams.”

Dutra’s Derrick Barge Paula Lee performs dredging work for the Port of Oakland 42 ft. Deepening Project, Oakland, Calif.

Photo Courtesy Dutra Group

Dutra Derrick Barge Paula Lee installing fendering on the San Francisco Bay Bridge, San Francisco, Calif.

Photo Courtesy Dutra Group

Dutra Derrick Barge Paula Lee installing fendering on the San Francisco Bay Bridge, San Francisco, Calif.

Photo Courtesy Dutra Group

Opportunity Ahead

With aging and decaying infrastructure, combined with the need for ports to modernize to better facilitate the growth of maritime commerce, Dutra sees plentiful opportunity to keep his company on solid footing for the coming years. “We have a decayed infrastructure in certain areas,” said Dutra. “Our roads, our highways, our ports need a capital shot in the arm. And they need an infusion to help expand to keep us competitive.”

The greatest challenge to the future success of his business will not be a lack of opportunity, rather addressing the challenge faced by many across the maritime sector in attracting, developing and retaining a strong, productive and vibrant workforce.

“You've got to make it attractive for them, and I think that we do,” said Dutra. “We spend a lot of time studying the overall chemistry and makeup of individuals, and ultimately, we’re not an ‘I’ company, we're a ‘we’ company, and we do our best to show that we are a better, more vibrant and safer place to work by all of us working together. If you don't change with the times you get left in the dust.”

Photo Courtesy Dutra Group

The Dutra Group’s Tug Sarah Reed delivers a barge load of rip rap rock from Dutra’s San Rafael Rock Quarry to a delta levee project.

Dutra Museum of Dredging

The Dutra Museum of Dredging was created in Rio Vista, Calif. in 1978 by Edward and Deolinda Dutra in a 1907 Craftsman house to showcase the Dutra Historical Collection, a private collection of materials representing the history of sidedraft clamshell dredging and the important role the Dutra family has played for more than a century in reclaiming the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, San Francisco Bay and beyond. It includes photographs, logbooks, dredge models, linen drawings, artifacts and a family history mural painted by Delta artist Marty Stanley.

March 2021