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Chris Clark navigates a new path to shipbuilding success

As a kid, Chris Clark spent his summers boating with his dad on Lake Michigan, watching as massive Great Lakes bulk carriers navigated the waters. He never dreamed that when he grew up, he’d make a career out of designing and building ships.

Today, as Director of New Construction for TOTE Services, Clark leverages his experience and best commercial shipbuilding practices to meet the rigorous demands of constructing a government vessel.

TOTE Services was awarded the Vessel Construction Manager (VCM) contract in 2019 by the U.S. Department of Transportation – Maritime Administration (MARAD) to build five ships known as the National Security Multi-Mission Vessels (NSMV). These state-of-the art vessels have been designed to serve as training ships for our state maritime academies and as ships that can be deployed for national disaster relief and humanitarian missions.

Clark and his 14-person team are managing the construction and delivery of these five ships at the Philly Shipyard in Philadelphia.  The first vessel, the Empire State, was delivered in September 2023 to the State University of New York – Maritime College in the Bronx, New York.

“There are few shipbuilding programs that will impact our industry as much as the NSMV program,” Clark said. “Not only are the ships unique and extremely complex, but the ships’ mission of training our cadets to develop the next generation of merchant officers is critically important.  The colleges are already seeing improvements in recruiting numbers based on the excitement generated around these new training vessels.”

“No matter what I do with the next 20 years of my career, successfully completing this program will remain one of the most important highlights of my career”

Career launch

Clark, 40, has worked in the maritime industry for nearly 20 years, but he never intended to build ships.

“In high school, I was very interested in residential architecture,” he said. “I loved creating blueprints and designing homes.”

However, he entered the University of Michigan to study chemical engineering. There, he learned the university offered a naval architecture and marine engineering program.

“Despite all my time around ships on the Great Lakes, it never occurred to me that I could pursue a career around building ships and develop that specific expertise,” Clark remembered.

He enrolled in the program and launched his career as a naval architect designing and building high-end luxury yachts for a shipbuilder in Mississippi. The 2008 recession deeply affected the yacht business, so Clark changed course and joined the U.S. Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) in Washington, D.C., where he was responsible for design integration on a new class of amphibious warfare ships.

Despite the allure of designing Navy combatants, the work at NAVSEA left Clark searching for something different.

“The pace was terribly slow and every decision in the government is made by committee. I saw first-hand why Navy shipbuilding programs cost so much, and I had no authority to do anything about it,” he recalled. He decided to get back into the commercial side of the industry, where he felt his ambition and expertise could be more impactful.

Overcoming obstacles

Clark first learned of the NSMV program while working for a competitor who also pitched MARAD for the VCM contract. While the company he was working for wasn’t awarded the job, Clark knew he wanted to be involved in the program and its profound impact on the maritime industry.

When he spotted the job opening with TOTE Services, he applied. In addition to Clark’s knowledge of both government and commercial shipbuilding, he believes his familiarity with the NSMV program and its requirements was key in helping him land the position at TOTE Services in 2020.

He moved his family from Florida to Philadelphia and dove in—right at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The TOTE Services team faced a host of challenges, from ensuring a sufficient and safe workforce to juggling global supply chain issues. Clark credits his team and the crew at Philly Shipyard with overcoming these significant hurdles.

As he describes it: “It is easy to forget all that we had to overcome during the first several months of the pandemic. While most of the world was working from home, our team was on-site at the shipyard every day. To build a ship of this magnitude and complexity during the heart of the pandemic was an unbelievable success story and an accomplishment by our team that I am extremely proud of.”

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This teamwork enabled the delivery of the Empire State in 41 months, which is unprecedented for government shipbuilding programs. “I tried to play it cool at the time, but I can’t tell you how proud I was of our team and all that they achieved to make that moment a reality.  Delivering Empire State was a special moment for me personally and our organization.” 

Leading for the future

Clark said he gets his drive and work ethic from his dad. But he is continuing to develop the soft skills he’s observed in TOTE executives.

He lists TOTE Group President & CEO Tim Nolan, TOTE Services President Jeff Dixon, and Ben Christian, Vice President of Business Development and New Construction for TOTE Services, among his mentors.

“They are strong communicators who prioritize relationships. They genuinely care for their people.  As leaders, they have a way of making you feel like the most important person in the room, which is a skill I respect and admire,” Clark said.

Clark feels fortunate to have “an unbelievable team of project managers and new construction experts.” He wants to be the kind of leader who can develop their talent and set them up for long-term career success.

“No matter what I do with the next 20 years of my career, successfully completing this program will remain one of the most important highlights of my career,” Clark said. “Our success on the NSMV program has generated a great deal of interest in TOTE Services and our approach to shipbuilding. My challenge now is figuring out how to replicate this success for our future customers and preparing our people so they are ready when those opportunities come.”


Off the Clock

These days, when he is not working, Chris Clark likes to play golf, a game he is now teaching to his 7-year-old son.  It is a hobby that he hopes they will continue to enjoy together for many years.

He also enjoys woodworking projects. When he married his wife, Lyndsay, Clark built a large cedar pergola for their wedding ceremony in St. Augustine, Florida. After the wedding, the pair began renting it out to other couples. Together, they started a business, Clark’s Event Rentals.

Soon, they acquired an inventory that included hundreds of chairs, tables, dance floors, lighting and more that they rented for weddings and parties around Northeast Florida. It was a great experience that generated some extra income, which they used for travel and other hobbies.

“But we got tired of hauling tables and chairs all over town on the weekends,” Clark said. “Taking the job at TOTE Services and the move to Philly in 2020 was a natural off-ramp for the business, but I am certainly grateful for the experience.”