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Interview with Tom Crowley Jr on SIU Dedication

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Published Jul 22, 2015 10:43 AM by The Maritime Executive

The Seafarers International Union recently honored the late Thomas Crowley Sr. with a new administration building named in his honor. The building is located on the campus of the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education in Piney Point, Maryland and will house the Seafarers Medical Plan, a new hiring hall, an industrial relations classroom for the study of maritime history and additional classroom facilities.

MarEx caught up with Tom Crowley Jr., son of Tom Crowley Sr. and Chairman & CEO of Crowley Maritime Corporation, to get his thoughts on the newly dedicated center.

Tell us about the new building named in honor of your father.

Sure, well, obviously I was very honored to be a part of the dedication of the new building. It replaces an old structure that once housed trainees in the early days of the school and will serve as the administrative center of the campus and be used primarily to train U.S. merchant mariners. It is part of the SIU’s Paul Hall Center in Piney Point that is committed to providing the nation’s maritime industry with skilled, physically fit, and responsible deep-sea seafarers and inland waterways boatmen.

Crowley’s relationship with the SIU goes back a long way and I believe started with your father. Is that correct?

Yes, the relationship with the SIU certainly started with my Dad. We’ve managed to continue and expand it, and they’ve really been a key part of our success and also of the success of the entire industry in terms of helping support the Jones Act and making sure that we’re doing the right kind of training and bringing young people into the industry and building careers that otherwise wouldn’t exist. So I would say that’s kind of the cornerstone of the relationship. And of course the quality of the people – under the leadership of Mike Sacco and his team – is top notch, and the relationship just continues to grow and build across all of our businesses. So it was a great honor for them to dedicate a building there at Piney Point in honor of my father.

Is Piney Point the SIU’s main training facility?

Yes, Piney Point is kind of the center of their educational program. It was built many years ago with the support of employers but clearly put together by the SIU leadership, and they use it as a cornerstone of their efforts to help the industry. And I don’t know if you have been to Piney Point lately, or ever, but that is worthy of a story in itself. In addition to the new administration building, they’ve done a tremendous amount of work on the facility including putting in probably the most sophisticated simulator system in the country and, through consultation with us and other employers and after going out and studying what the latest and greatest technology is, they’ve really made a huge investment.

They’ve got three full-bridge simulators and six additional tug simulators to go along with them and they are all interconnected. They’ve got an engine room simulator and a crane simulator. It’s a very, very impressive facility. They’ve really upgraded the school, the classrooms and all the technology within those classrooms to give students the latest and greatest.

Your grandfather founded the company in the late 19th century and it soon became known as the Red Stack fleet. Was that the first tug group out of San Francisco?

There were a number of different ones. There was the Shipowners and Merchants Tugboat Company. There was Bay City Transportation. There was Red Stack. There was Thomas Crowley & Brothers, the original company founded by my grandfather in 1892. He had a number of different companies that he either started or purchased interests in over the years and that was kind of how he grew in San Francisco. Eventually everything was consolidated under Red Stack and the Crowley fleet was known for its distinctive red stacks.

When did your father take over and succeed him?

I’d say probably in the mid-1950s. They worked together for a long time. My grandfather was a cantankerous old guy, so he would come down and raise trouble and my Dad would have to go fix all the problems that would get raised. I guess the moment when he took over completely is when he got my grandfather an office away from the pier, so he stopped messing with him.

Your father is often referred to as a maritime visionary. What does that mean, and what was his most important contribution to the industry?

I think commitment was his vision. Like my grandfather, he continued to build the company and grow it into new areas, some of which were opportunistic – things that came along that he felt had growth opportunities but also in regard to new technology and building equipment that didn’t yet exist but knowing that the customers needed it. So that would be the Invader Class tugs and the 4x1 (400 feet by 100 feet flat-deck) barges. With respect to acquisitions, it meant buying up different ship-docking businesses up and down the West Coast. So he would grow through acquisition and then he would also grow the company by building things that he knew the customers needed but were not necessarily stepping up to the plate to build.

Kind of like you with the ATBs, right?

Well yes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, right?

No, I guess not.

You’ve got to learn your lessons somewhere. And that’s the advantage, I suppose, we have with respect to having the same type of ownership for a long period of time. We get to learn from our mistakes and we get to learn from our successes and we continue to refine and grow and build.

One of your father’s most famous exploits was the annual “Alaskan Sealift,” the armada of tugs and barges that assembled in Seattle each spring to transport supplies north during the building of the Trans-Alaska pipeline.  Was it the largest project in Crowley’s history?

Yes, it was definitely the largest project and one of the largest in American history. We had built a lot of equipment that could carry the very large modules into the shallow waters of the Arctic Coast, but it was still going to be a unique solution set for what had to be done and it took a lot of logistics and coordination in terms of ice management and getting in and getting out and staging all of that equipment up there. So it was a monumental effort, but we had a great team of people who had a very “can do” attitude. Get it done and if it can’t be done, figure out how to get it done.

Yes, I knew a lot of guys who were still around San Francisco who were a part of that and they said it was pretty amazing.

In 1985 I went up for the summer and flew ice reconnaissance in Point Barrow and then met the fleet when it arrived. There were 32 barges that year. Really remarkable scene to see all of that equipment arriving all at once and then having to get discharged and watching the heavylift pull those modules off. It was quite a sight to see, and fun to be a part of.

You were also a big part of the Exxon Valdez cleanup. Was that a catalyst for Crowley’s entering the salvage and oil spill response business?

Well, at that point Crowley was the contractor for Alyeska to escort the tankers in and out of Prince William Sound, and so we were first on scene after the incident occurred. And we also had a lot of people there and a lot of equipment we could mobilize. So that was done and we were able to respond and become one of the prime contractors on the spill. Since that time we’ve gotten a lot smarter and now we spend a lot of time and effort with Alyeska on prevention. So I like to say we leveraged the skills that we learned from cleaning up to become the protectors of Prince William Sound.

It’s been a fun evolution and I think the team up there does an amazing job, day in and day out, guarding that Sound to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. So they’re up there and our tugboat captain is down in the Caribbean complaining when a hurricane rolls through, but the crews up in Prince William Sound see that weather on a weekly basis and those tugs are out there on station waiting for those tankers to come in and they get pounded pretty hard. So it’s pretty amazing to see what it’s grown into as a result of that spill.

Tell us about the joint venture between Titan and Svitzer, which is now known as Ardent.

Well, with respect to Titan, we purchased that company from Dick Fairbanks and the late David Parrot a number of years ago and ran it as a wholly owned Crowley group. And we recognized after a number of very high-profile projects, the latest being the Costa Concordia, that we had developed the Titan brand into a global player and needed to continue to grow our footprint globally. We’ve known Svitzer for many years and sat down and had some strategic discussions with them and found that they have a very similar set of goals and a very similar approach. So we quickly came to the conclusion that if we were to join forces we would improve our coverage and be able to eliminate some duplicate costs in terms of facilities and equipment but most importantly create a more global brand that would be able to focus not only on salvage but also on prevention and response, looking at things at little more proactively instead of reactively.

It’s a 50-50 joint venture and we’re trying to take the best of the best from each company and build around that and really implement a more focused marketing approach, ensuring that we take the capabilities we gained from a project like the Costa Concordia and combine that with Svitzer’s expertise from jobs like the Rena down in Australia. Rena is an incredibly complex job, probably just as complex as Costa Concordia but with less publicity.

Has the merger expanded your geographic capabilities?

Yes, it has. Svitzer is very strong in Australia and the Middle East and Asia. We have a small office in Singapore and have been trying to grow our Asian presence. And of course Titan has a strong presence in the Caribbean and more recently in the Mediterranean. So it gives Titan a much larger footprint and also gives Svitzer more wreck-removal expertise that Titan gained over the years.

There is a well-known book about your grandfather and father called Two Men at the Helm, detailing the company’s first 100 years. Is it still available?

Yes, you can actually download all 159 pages from our website, www.crowley.com. It was commissioned by my father and written by Jean Gilbertson, who used to work for us, and it was published in 1992 on the 100th anniversary of the company’s founding.

Tell us about the Thomas Crowley Award and what it means to you as the “Third Leader at the Helm.” I understand it’s really a big deal.

Yes, that award covers a lot of different dimensions. We survey employees and ask for nominations of people who stand out and demonstrate the core values of the company, especially hard work and getting things done and being a high-performance employee. The other dimension is to recognize all of the past hard work that’s gone into making the company what it is today. And that’s not just my grandfather and my father but all the employees who pitch in, and the award is kind of a symbol that all employees can relate to when they realize that the reason they come to work is to get the job done and keep the customers happy and grow the company for the future.

And lastly it’s certainly a tribute to my grandfather. He had to work a hell of a lot harder than any of us today in terms of rowing out to the Farallon Islands to catch the ships as they came in. So it’s also meant to recognize that effort and what it took to build the company up in the early days.

Yes, it’s pretty amazing. He used to row out and then row alongside and throw up what they called the “Crowley Hook.” And he would sit there behind the vessel as it came in and talk to the quartermaster or whoever and get all the provisions. It’s really a great story. He was really a tough guy.

Under your leadership Crowley is moving into LNG in a big way. Do you see this as a long-term commitment for the company?

Yes, LNG is really the cornerstone of an even larger project, which is the conversion of our Ro/Ro tug and barge service to Puerto Rico to a lift-on/lift-off ship service, which will significantly upgrade the  quality of the service we’re able to provide our customers.  The  huge investment in our two new Commitment Class, LNG-powered ConRo ships, is the  single largest investment the company has ever made. When you look at environmental compliance and what it’s going to take to burn cleaner, the fact that the U.S has an almost infinite supply of natural gas helped us determine that LNG was the fuel of the future for container shipping.

In addition to fueling the ships with LNG, we also see an opportunity in the Caribbean islands to export the fuel in small-scale form. So we bought a company called Carib Energy that is in the business of exporting LNG, and we are continuing to build out that business to supply manufacturers and other industrial customers in the Caribbean with domestically sourced LNG that we ship in ISO containers. I think it will grow into a big business, but the cornerstone of the strategy is clean, cheap fuel and investing in the infrastructure to put that fuel to use. And these container ships will be significant users of the product, so we see that as a great opportunity.

We understand congratulations are in order on your Honorary Doctorate in Commercial Science from Webb Institute. What did you say to the graduates as they embark upon their careers?

My message to them is that they had to work a hell of a lot harder than I did to get that degree! I spent a day with them touring the campus and seeing the work they had to put in. Webb Institute is a boot camp for naval architecture and it’s a great, great program. They are really turning out some of the brightest folks in the business, and they will all have an amazing impact on our industry in the future whether it’s in vessel design or new fuel systems or autonomous vessel controls – you name it, they’re working on it there.

 Is this your first honorary degree?

Well, it’s actually my second. The other was from Kings Point, so both from Long Island.

I want to thank you and most importantly congratulate you.

It was good to talk to you. – MarEx  

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.