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For a profitable barge line on the Mississippi, it is “still too expensive to grow”

Kai Ryssdal and Sarah Leeson Jul 25, 2023
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Golding has also been working to improve work-life balance for his employees, saying, "When I ask you to come live at work, and work floats around the country, that's a big ask." Mario Tama/Getty Images

For a profitable barge line on the Mississippi, it is “still too expensive to grow”

Kai Ryssdal and Sarah Leeson Jul 25, 2023
Heard on:
Golding has also been working to improve work-life balance for his employees, saying, "When I ask you to come live at work, and work floats around the country, that's a big ask." Mario Tama/Getty Images
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Every year, around 175 million tons of freight travel by barge on the Mississippi River. It’s usually a reliable way to get things from north to south or vice versa in the United States. However, just as people across the country are dealing with an unpredictable climate, so are our rivers.

Austin Golding is the CEO of the family business Golding Barge Line in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He joined Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal to talk about how the river is faring this season and how business is going. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: First of all, as always, how’s business at Golding Barge Line?

Austin Golding: Business is going great. But we’ve actually seen an uptick in demand for our services and volumes this year. And we’ve seen a pretty good balance of equipment versus volume on the liquid side. And on the aggregate and raw material side, it seems to be pretty steady. Also, there’s a lot of economic activity in our area of the world, and both of those materials and the movement of those materials seems to be in demand right now.

Ryssdal: Not to put you on the hook, but play a little Jay Powell for me. Do you see an economic slowdown in the next, like, six to 12 months?

Golding: Well, I think you’re asking the right guy when you’re asking a tow boater from Vicksburg, Mississippi. So let me give you the hardcore, short and sweet on it. But no, I think that there probably is more pullback to be had. I mean, I can tell even in the pricing of our equipment. The pricing for new equipment and the pricing for repair on that equipment has to come down. Even though our business is good, we’re not seeing any growth. And at some point, the pricing will get good enough that it’ll encourage some of that growth. But for right now, even though we’re profitable, it is still too expensive to grow.

Ryssdal: So what are you going to do about it if it’s too expensive to grow? And if you’re not growing, you’re standing still. I mean, you’re running a business, man. What are you gonna do?

Golding: Well, I really think, you know, in the short term, we’re still focused on our human issues. We’re so cyclical, Kai. Our workforce will not stick with us through those down cycles, and we don’t treat them the best, really. We stagnate wages; we lay people off; we start back with less experienced people from the beginning. So we need a little equilibrium. We need a couple of years to try to get our feet underneath us and grow our talent.

Ryssdal: You know, it’s funny you and I’ve been talking for I don’t even know how many years now. And I think every time labor force comes up from you.

Golding: Yes, absolutely. I have a number of ideas as to why we’re here. And I think that the quick answer that we’ve had as an industry is to just increase wages. I mean, our wages are as high as they’ve ever been. But the work-life balance that we all seem to talk about, regardless of what industry, when I ask you to come live at work, and work floats around the country, that’s a big ask. So we’ve really been focused on life on the boat and how we can best attach work-life balance to living at work.

Ryssdal: Let’s talk about a couple of nuts and bolts things. Last time we had you on, which was October last year, you were dealing with low water levels, and then we had flooding and high water because of the snow melt in the spring. Where are you now? And how worried are you about environmental issues generally? And then also, you know, climate change, because you’re out there in it every day?

Golding: No doubt and, Kai, your listeners are very educated. And so whenever they ask me, they said, “You haven’t been on Marketplace in a while, what’s been going on?” I said, “Well, the rivers are probably pretty consistent right now, you know.” We usually only talk around high- and low-water events and how that affects the economy. But we are headed towards a low-water season here. Though it looks like it’s not going to be as bad as last year, which would be great. But yes, overall, the effect of the climate on our business is very direct. The amount of water we have to operate on directly translates to our bottom line. And we definitely feel like the weather patterns are getting more extreme. And we’ve also seen as population centers have grown around our watershed, the water gets into the system a lot faster or the water can be retained from our system if that water is needed in the civilian areas along all our waterways. All that being said, I think the Corps of Engineers has never been better at operating our inland water system as they are right now.

Ryssdal: When was the last time you got to get out of the office and actually do a little work-work?

Golding: Well, I got on one of our boats just the other day down in Texas. I always walk away renewed and really kind of motivated to become somebody that’s more of an embodiment of where the action is rather than somebody that just gets to hear about it. But duty calls and it’s very, very tough to find those hours to get out there. But they have to be a priority especially when you’re relying on equipment and talent in a business like we are.

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