Chief executive and president Richard Biben has presided over a business expansion since he took the reins of Gibbs & Cox in August. (Evy Mages/For Capital Business)

Gibbs & Cox is perhaps the most storied local company you’ve never heard of. Founded in 1929 in New York City, the naval architecture firm designed more than 5,400 ships during World War II as well as every class of U.S. Navy destroyer except one since 1933.

The company’s ocean liners include the SS United States, which was the largest and fastest passenger vessel when it was built in 1952.

Still, Gibbs & Cox has remained largely unknown to the public and primarily a subcontractor, helping giants such as Lockheed Martin design and engineer their ships.

Facing a decrease in the number of new ships being produced, the well-respected company is aggressively branching out. Since Richard Biben, a contracting veteran with tours at Northrop Grumman, CSC and most recently Science Applications International Corp., took over in August as chief executive and president, the company has opened a new office in New Orleans, doubled its workforce and put up its own insignia on its Crystal City building.

The company has embraced work to extend the life of existing equipment and is seeking to be a prime contractor, working directly with the Navy and related commands.

Gibbs & Cox is already working on well-known programs, including Lockheed Martin’s Littoral Combat Ship and the Missile Defense Agency’s Aegis Ashore effort.

“If you look at new-start programs, they’re not going to happen very often,” said Biben. “The real growth area that we’re pushing for is sustainment work.”

When Biben took over, the company was only on contract to provide engineering and design work as needed to one shipyard. Biben targeted other “mid-tier” shipyards, big enough to have significant work but too small to have in-house engineering teams. The company has since added six shipyards to its docket.

In February, the company opened an office in New Orleans to be near some of the shipyards it’s backing and to access a pool of highly qualified potential employees.

Gibbs & Cox is also looking at international opportunities and directing research dollars to developing alternative ship designs.

The new work has meant a significant staff build-up. The company had about 160 employees when Biben took over; it now has about 340. It has gone from 1 1 / 2 floors in its Crystal City headquarters to three and has added staff to its other offices in Hampton, Va.; Philadelphia; and New York City.

Now, the business is seeking more prime contract positions directly with the Navy and its warfare centers.

“We’re generally a subcontractor,” Biben said. “It works out okay [but] it doesn’t allow us to control our destiny as much as I want to control our destiny.”

Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant at the Lexington Institute, said many subcontractors would prefer to work directly with the government — and that the Defense Department is now embracing those efforts.

“The Pentagon is looking for voices other than the big six contractors it normally deals with,” he said. It “doesn’t want to be the captive of a handful of big defense conglomerates.”