A state antitrust lawyer says a proposed merger may pit the commercial shipping equivalents of David against Goliath in Southeast Alaska.
The plan, announced in April, involves three shipping companies: Seattle-based Alaska Marine Lines, Seattle-based Northland Services, and Sitka-based Samson Tug and Barge. AML’s parent company, Lynden Inc., wants to buy AML competitor Northland Services.
If that was the end of the plan, Lynden would have a monopoly on shipping in Southeast.
It’s Assistant Attorney General Ed Sniffen’s job to review the merger plan, negotiate fixes to the anticompetitive parts, and if necessary, fight it out in court.
“Competing with someone like Lynden is a tough thing to do,” he said Thursday, speaking to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce. “I mean, they’ve been around, they’re big, they know what they’re doing. You get someone like, you know, Samson coming in, trying to swing at Goliath a little bit. And you want to make sure they’ve got a big hammer so when they hit him, he feels it.”
Though Sitka-based, Samson right now doesn’t operate elsewhere in Southeast. Samson Vice President Cory Baggen says the company only has about 10 employees in the panhandle, all of them in Sitka. However, Samson announced plans to expand its service in Southeast the same day Lynden announced its intent to buy Northland.
AML has been touting that expansion as the antidote to its Southeast monopoly.
“I think that the competition is going to be as stiff … as it is today with Northland, and normally competition tends to keep the prices down,” said AML President Kevin Anderson. “You know, we’re not going into this thinking we’re going to lose any customers. And if we have to battle for them to keep them, so be it.”
Many details of the vetting and deal making are under wraps – at least until the Department of Law files something in court – but the parties have essentially said that Northland won’t be wholly absorbed by Lynden. Instead, Northland may be carved up between Lynden and Samson in service of the smaller company’s Southeast expansion.
For example, Baggen said Samson is eyeing Northland’s current location on Channel Drive as its future port in Juneau. And if everything goes forward, she says her company will probably pick up 40 or 50 of Northland’s employees in Southeast.
That last “if” brings it back to the Department of Law. Baggen says Samson won’t start investing and expanding until the merger’s greenlit. But the merger may not be greenlit until AML actually has new competition in Southeast.
“I don’t want to set it up, and put a warehouse in with 25 doors and be all ready for nothing, and the consent degree doesn’t go through,” Baggen said. “So, it’s kind of a chicken-egg thing right now.”
AML’s Kevin Anderson says his company’s intent with the purchase of Northland is not to monopolize shipping in Southeast, but to expand in Seattle by acquiring Northland’s property there, and to become a full service Alaska seafood packager, carrier and marketer.
“The thing that Northland does extremely well is that they’re out in the west –Bristol Bay, Kodiak, and Dutch Harbor, I mean, some of the biggest fish runs in all of Alaska –we couldn’t play in that game,” he said.
He also says it’s been an “extremely painful” process.
“We’ve been involved in this process now for, I don’t know, close to a year. And it doesn’t seem like we’re getting any closer. It’s just one thing after another. And the amount of time and effort it takes on a lot of people’s part to put something like this together is unbelievable,” Anderson said.
Sniffen says the Department of Law hopes to have something filed in October, which would open a 60-day public comment period. Ultimately, a judge would have to sign off of on the deal. If the department can meet that timeline, Sniffen says the parties would likely know by the new year if the merger can go through.
As far as her company’s characterization as David, Baggen was lukewarm.
“I think that the history of Southeast Alaska has shown that small companies can be viable and successful and can do a really good job here, so, even though it might be a good – sort of a good analogy, I think, I think it’s OK,” she said.
That history includes echoes of another David and Goliath story. When Lynden, originally a trucking company, first got into Alaska shipping, Anderson says Lynden wasn’t taken seriously because Foss Maritime was the giant.