JF Lehman, Norwest move to launch Hawaii ferry

JF Lehman & Co. and Norwest Equity Partners are pursuing an infrastructure deal in Hawaii, acquiring two catamaran ferries in a $235m transaction as the initial step toward building the state’s first inter-island ferry service.

New York-based buyout group JF Lehman & Co. paired off with Minneapolis-based Norwest Equity Partners to co-invest in what will be the first high-speed ferry service to operate in the State of Hawaii.

Hawaii Superferry will be the first ferry operator in Hawaii.

The investors acquired two high-speed, Austal USA-built catamaran ferries designed for the transport of passengers and vehicles. The deal, which included $80 million of equity from JF Lehman and Norwest, is valued at over $235 million (€284 million). The boat maker, Austal, also provided $17 million in subordinated notes, while ABN Amro Bank issued $140 million of senior debt to support the transaction. The State of Hawaii, meanwhile, has appropriated $40 million dedicated to the improvement of port infrastructure.

The company will be based in Honolulu and operate under the name Hawaii Superferry. Each ferry will have the capacity to carry up to 866 passengers and over 250 vehicles.

According to a press release, the investors anticipate ferry service will begin in early 2007 between Oahu and the islands of Maui and Kauai, with service to the Big Island expected to be launched in 2009.

Currently, travel between the Hawaiian Islands has largely been dominated by the local airlines. In fact, Hawaii is the only major archipelago in the world that does not have a ferry service operating between the islands.

JF Lehman chairman John Lehman believes the introduction of ferries will transform “inter-island life and commerce” in the area. “Hawaii Superferry,” he said, “will provide, for the first time, quick and cost-effective movement of passengers and commercial vehicles between islands.”

For the investment, the firms are backing Tim Dick, who will serve as president of the company.

Debevoise & Plimpton served as counsel to the investors, while Blank Rome provided legal advice to Hawaii Superferry.

Norwest Equity Partners is currently investing out of its eighth fund, the $800 million Norwest Equity Partners VIII LP.  JF Lehman, headed by former Secretary of the US Navy John Lehman, is currently raising its second fund JF Lehman Equity Investors II LP. According to the most recent SEC filings, dated last November, the fund has a target of $300 million and has so far closed on $60 million.