Retired Navy high-flier takes on new challenge: Reviving a small shipyard

04 June 2016


Robert McCabe
The Virginian-Pilot
Newport News, VA, 4 June 2016

Over the span of a 40-year career, retired Navy Vice Adm. David Architzel left some pretty big footprints.

His last gig was as commander of Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Md., overseeing everything the Navy flies, from fighter planes to helicopters.

That followed serving as principal military deputy to Sean Stackley, the Navy’s point man for acquisitions at the Pentagon, whom Architzel calls a personal friend.

En route to those high-powered posts, he was program executive officer for aircraft carriers, essentially the guy responsible for negotiating the purchase and maintenance of the Navy’s biggest assets.

He was also commanding officer of the carrier Theodore Roosevelt and the amphibious-assault ship Guam, as well as a Navy test pilot and, earlier, a carrier-based aviator. He began flying S-3s – jet-powered, anti-submarine aircraft – when they were so new that his squadron, at first, had no planes.

More than 3½ years after retiring, seemingly able to do anything, he’s running the smallest ship-repair yard in the region, Fairlead Boatworks – formerly Davis Boat Works.


“People think I’m nuts,” said Architzel, who turned 65 last month.

“I see so much upside to this,” he said of his shipyard. “I love challenges. I like to take things on that are different and go about keeping things busy.”

His boss is Jerry Miller, a fellow Naval Academy grad.

“I met him when he was coaching Little League,” Miller said, recalling a time years earlier when their families were living in the Great Neck area of Virginia Beach, with kids at about the same ages.

They remained friends, and Miller followed Architzel’s rising career.

“He was a hands-on kind of people person,” Miller recalled. “I saw something special in him from the very early years that I had met him.”

A waterfront fixture for decades, Miller co-founded and later sold most of Portsmouth-based Earl Industries to General Dynamics, before remolding the remaining Earl units into Fairlead Integrated.

It had everything except a shipyard, which Miller addressed last June by buying Davis Boat Works.

Architzel joined Fairlead in January 2015. He made no secret about his interest in the shipyard job.

“He wanted to get his hands dirty,” Miller said.

A 1973 Annapolis graduate, where he majored in math, Architzel was born in upstate New York, though he spent most of his formative years on Long Island.

His father worked for the IRS and was a teacher and principal. His mother was a math teacher.

In the mid-1960s, her ninth-grade honors algebra class in Merrick, N.Y., included her son, Dave; his twin, Anne; and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who would later go on to co-found the Vermont-based ice-cream empire that bears their names.

“We all know him as ‘Arch,’ ” Greenfield said in a recent interview. “He’s a person who’s comfortable in his own skin and, you know, it’s like he’s not trying to prove anything to anyone.”

The three stayed in touch over the years.

When Architzel returned to Norfolk Naval Station after his first deployment on the Guam, he found truckloads of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream waiting for the crew and their families at the pier. It wouldn’t be the last time.

Ben & Jerry’s was there when the ship went out to sea again, too. And again when Architzel commanded the Theodore Roosevelt. On one occasion, Ben and Jerry themselves, along with Architzel, served ice cream on the mess decks.

Greenfield was unfazed to learn that Architzel had chosen to spend his retirement – or at least part of it – trying to turn around a sleepy shipyard.

“I think it’s inspiring that, you know, at a time when a lot of people are choosing to ride off into the sunset or play golf, that’s he’s taking on such a challenge,” he said.

The new job at Fairlead Boatworks, which employs about 90 people, has not been easy.

“We went from not having any ability to do any government work, having to come back and come out of a deep hole,” Architzel said.

Part of his turnaround plan includes beefing up the amount of commercial work – small fishing boats, tugs and similar vessels – ideally reaching a 60-40, or even 50-50, split between government contracts and commercial jobs.

When he took over last year, the yard was on a glide-slope to about $6 million in sales for the year. It ended up with nearly double that – $11 million – though it needs to make about $16 million a year.

While government work will always be key – the yard recently completed work on the first Coast Guard vessel it had seen in a long while – Architzel’s strategy includes some out-of-the-box ventures, too.

Earlier this year, the yard’s carpenter used a chainsaw to remove and then sculpt a new wooden stock on a centuries-old anchor for the Mariners’ Museum.

“That was my first go,” said Bernard Smoot, who had been framing houses until joining the shipyard about 18 months ago. “They asked me, could I do it? And I said, ‘Yeah.’ So, it came out all right.”

On a quick tour of his yard, most of which is leased from the city of Newport News, Architzel reveals an easygoing rapport he’s developed with his workers.

“We’re trying to up our game,” he said, noting that Fairlead has taken advantage of the opportunity to hire workers and supervisors from other yards, some of whom were laid off. They’re people who can do things right the first time.

Don Capers is his painting supervisor, formerly at General Dynamics.

“I love the small stuff,” Capers said, adding that he’s more accustomed to working on bigger vessels, such as carriers, amphibious-assault ships and destroyers.

“We love having him,” Architzel responded.

Asked how he does what he does – how he leads – Architzel cited his fascination with what people can do, their skills.

“You can’t know everything,” he said, adding that it is amazing how people open up when you begin to probe how they do what they do.

As for being a tough guy?

“You can be Napoleonic about it, but it doesn’t work well,” he said.

Among the other beneficiaries of Architzel’s new post is Bill Crow, who heads the Virginia Ship Repair Association, a regional trade group.

“You couldn’t have a better hand-in-glove fit,” Crow said of Architzel’s role at the small yard, where he’s able to parlay the high-powered expertise he learned at the carrier level down to barges and landing craft.

Last year, Stackley, the Navy’s acquisitions czar, visited Norfolk and spoke at an association luncheon, something that had never happened before and was made possible by Architzel’s connection.

Away from work, you’ll probably find Architzel … working, or at least it can seem that way.

Make no mistake that there’s a sense of play there, too.

When one of his daughters began taking piano lessons, so did he – when he was a 29-year-old test pilot.

“I’m a project kind of person,” he confessed.

He and his wife of more than 40 years, Barbara, live on a 5-acre tract in the Chuckatuck section of Suffolk, where he’s installed solar-energy panels, put in a pool and tends to a huge garden that includes blueberries.

A train geek since he was a kid, Architzel decided to buy the place, in large part, because it would come with a 1.2-mile loop of track for miniature trains big enough for people to ride.

The tracks were moved to the site years ago by one of the leaders of the Southeast Virginia Live Steamers, a local railroad club that Architzel joined.

When he learned in late 2014 that the owner of the property was planning to remove the tracks and sell the home, he acted quickly and decisively.

The property was going to be listed the next day. He met the real estate agent and committed to buying the place – and the train-track loop – within 24 hours of learning about the opportunity.

On a recent Saturday, he tended to his two engines, one an 8-foot-long replica of a coal-fired steam locomotive, into which he fed chunks of coal.

It took a little while, but after the locomotive built up enough steam, Architzel took it on a spin around the property, blowing its whistle, passing under a fort he built for his two grandsons last year.

About twice a year, the group members hold a big party of sorts, taking kids for rides.

This spring, about 200 people showed up.

“I stay very busy,” Architzel said. “But busy is good.”

After Stackley visited the ship-repair association, Architzel invited him over to his boat yard.

“He smiled a lot, because he likes this stuff, too,” he said.

Much of Stackley’s time, he noted, is spent dealing with the big stuff – carrier and submarine programs, cruisers and destroyers, spreadsheets tracking where the money goes.

Architzel, in a yard with barges, seized the moment.

“‘This is a side of the Navy you don’t really hear much about,’” he recalled telling Stackley. “’We’re the grains of sand at the bottom.’”


This article was originally printed in The Virginian-Pilot,