Business & Lobbying

Shipbuilding is in her blood: ASA head leads fight for more Navy ships

Cynthia Brown has a rare passion: shipbuilding.

It is that passion that fuels her dogged fight within the Pentagon and Congress to breathe new life into what is one of the nation’s most challenged industries.

{mosads}“Shipbuilding has been my passion for 20 years,” said Brown, the president of the American Shipbuilding Association. “I just fell in love with it; it gets into your blood.”

Brown wakes up every day to a sore reality: the erosion of the U.S. shipbuilding industrial base. The Navy’s shipbuilding budget has been running at a historical low for 15 years, with the service only buying an average of six ships a year.

The Navy’s fleet has sunk from almost 600 ships in 1987 to 279 ships today, and Brown knows that the number will fall below 200 if the budget is not dramatically increased over the coming years.

In Brown’s business — advocating for more ships and the needs of the shipbuilding industry — passion is one key ingredient. The other two are patience and the ability to deal with setbacks.

The shipbuilding industry this year came close to seeing five additional ships funded in the 2008 defense budget, but conference negotiations between the House and the Senate dealt a blow to those hopes.

Stalwart supporters of the industry Reps. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, and Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), chairman of the Armed Services Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee, led House efforts to boost the shipbuilding budget request by nearly $3.7 billion.  

Negotiations with Senate appropriators, however, resulted in funding to begin buying materials for the construction of five additional ships, but not to complete them.

One victory for Brown and her industry, however, was the $588 million included in a final bill that will fund long-lead materials for the Virginia-class submarine, a move that would allow the Navy to order two submarines a year starting in 2010 rather than in 2012 as the Navy planned.

“I was very disappointed in the final outcome,” said Brown. “But I do know that you are not going to fix shipbuilding overnight anyways. There has to be a sustained commitment to a larger shipbuilding budget.”

Brown can also see the bright side: The extra funding this year should prompt a commitment from the Navy and Congress to fully fund the five ships next year.

“We do know that Mr. Murtha and Mr. Taylor have committed to make shipbuilding a priority every year, so hopefully the outcome next year will be better than this year,” Brown said.

The Navy leadership has indicated that it wants to build and then maintain a 300-ship fleet, but this would require the ordering of 10 new ships a year for 30 years because of expected retirements in the current Navy fleet. Since the fleet is already well below 300, the Navy would have to order more than 10 ships a year for a while to make up the current deficit, Brown said.

Those who have worked with Brown over the years say that she does not cut the Navy or Congress any slack on shipbuilding.

When she makes her case on the Hill, she not only knows the substance of the programs but also understands the various lawmakers’ personalities, said John Rayfield, the GOP staff director for the Transportation Coast Guard Subcommittee.

“I have known Cindy for 16 years. She’s really never changed,” said Taylor. “She looks the same … her priorities are the same. What resonates with Cindy is that she has stuck to the same task for so long and therefore she brings so much credibility to what she does.”

Brown’s passion, patience and knowledge have won the industry some considerable victories over the years. Brown was instrumental in pushing for the conversion of single-hull oil tankers to a double-hull design, and, with the help of Murtha, the creation of a robust and much-needed sealift program during the 1990s.

She also was instrumental in bringing change to the way naval shipbuilders filed their taxes, by working to change laws that allowed them to file once they paid for a ship delivery. Under the previous arrangement, they paid taxes on an unrealized estimate of the expected profit.

Brown has been involved with shipbuilding for 20 years, but began her foray into the arcane defense world as a staff member for Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), now the ranking member of the House Appropriations Defense panel.

After spending time in Spain, England and Germany, Brown, a native of central Florida, decided that she wanted to become involved in political science and international relations.

She sent her résumé to every member of the Florida delegation and landed a job as Young’s receptionist in 1979. Six months later, she was promoted to scheduler and special projects coordinator. When the lawmaker joined the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, she became one of his associate staffers on the panel.

When she left the Hill in 1982, she went to work for NASA doing congressional relations and public affairs.

Lockheed Martin Corp. hired Brown from NASA, and she ended up working on what is now the F-22 Raptor program. But when Lockheed went through a reorganization, and asked her to move to Burbank, Calif., Brown did not want to leave Washington.

That decision led to the current chapter in Brown’s career. She joined the Shipbuilders Council of America, and when the major shipyards withdrew from the Council, objecting to a trade agreement that would have hurt and restricted the U.S. shipbuilding industry, Brown  went into consulting and eventually set up her own firm.

Part of her job became helping to put together the American Shipbuilding Association (ASA), and in 1997, the association’s board asked her to become its president. As president, Brown expanded the association by opening the doors to all manufacturers of ship components and systems and not only the shipyards.

Today, ASA has six shipyards as members: General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works, Electric Boat and the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company; and Northrop Grumman’s Newport News, Ingalls and Avondale.

On top of the six shipyards, the association has 88 partner companies that manufacture everything from engines to pumps and electric drives.

Brown said she tries to visit all the shipyards at least once a year, if not more, and on each trip she stops by the other member companies as well.  

These days, Brown has her hands full planning the annual convention and congressional workshop, which will take place in Venice, Fla., at the end of November.

All the labor unions, presidents of the shipyards and major manufacturers will gather at the convention and work with Brown to finalize the priorities for next year. Much of Brown’s job will be to make sure that competing companies are on the same page and work as one for the good of the industry.

“One of the things she has done very well is to get interested parties to sit down and focus on the 90 percent of the things they have in common rather than the 10 percent of the issues that they disagree on,” said Taylor. “She deserves credit for that.” 

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