Interview: Jennifer Carpenter, CEO of the American Waterways Operators

Jennifer Carpenter

Published Jan 2, 2024 9:35 PM by Tony Munoz

(Article originally published in Sept/Oct 2023 edition.)



Growing up in St. Louis, Carpenter would see the barges going by on the Mississippi but didn’t realize their significance. Today, as head of AWO, she represents the entire tugboat, towboat and barge industry – the largest segment of the Jones Act market and a sector that contributes more than $35 billion annually to the nation’s GDP, supports nearly 300,000 jobs, moves 700 million tons of cargo every year on America’s marine highways and is by far the greenest form of transportation available.

Telling the industry’s story is her mission, putting more cargo on the water her goal. Here’s how she does it.

Welcome, Jennifer! We’re honored to have you on our cover and feature you and AWO in our November/December issue. Tell us about yourself – your background and education. How did you find your way to AWO?

I grew up in St. Louis but joke that I had to come to Washington, D.C. to discover the barge industry because I really had no idea growing up in St. Louis what an amazing industry it is. I came to D.C. to go to school and got my undergraduate degree at Georgetown in Foreign Service. Then I went to Taiwan on a graduate fellowship and thought a lot about the Foreign Service as a career.

But while I love to travel, in terms of lifestyle I didn’t want to be living two years here and two years there. I wanted to put down roots somewhere and I loved D.C., so I came back and thought government relations might appeal to me for some of the same reasons the Foreign Service did – the idea of being an ambassador and a bridge builder and bringing people together.

Except in this case, it was bringing government and industry together as opposed to countries. Through serendipity and great good fortune, I found my way to AWO. The week I started was the week the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was enacted into law. So wow – talk about drinking from a fire hose!

Outstanding. Those were exciting times. How did your career progress at AWO?

I was a “hawsepiper.” Started in August of 1990 as a government affairs assistant and just fell in love with the industry. It was a fantastic time to start because everything was changing, the whole regulatory landscape – certainly for companies involved in oil transportation but really for the whole maritime industry.

The Exxon Valdez wasn't a barge, but OPA 90 made the entire industry think about how it interacted with government. And it was like, “Hey, the Coast Guard's got 80 new regulatory mandates. They're going to have to do these things that Congress told them to do. So are we going to just sit back and tell them they got it wrong, or are we going to get in there and engage with them and try to help them get it right?”

But to answer your question, I've had about eight different titles during my time at AWO. A little bit of this, a little bit of that, and along the way I earned a Master’s degree in Conflict Analysis & Resolution from George Mason University – something that’s come in handy over the years! I became CEO at another dynamic moment – in January 2020, just as COVID was getting underway.

How big is AWO – in terms of people and offices?

We've got 25 people. Most of the staff is based here in Arlington, Virginia, so the Washington D.C. area. But we have a presence in Seattle, New Orleans and the Midwest because regional and state advocacy are also important parts of our mission. So size-wise, we’re actually the largest maritime transportation trade association in the U.S., but we’re small compared to our friends in the rail and trucking industries.

What percent of the industry does AWO represent?

I would say roughly 75 percent. It's a very diverse membership. We've got the largest companies in the industry and the smallest companies in the industry, and I think that’s a real strength.

Why is the inland waterways industry so important, and why is it surprisingly invisible to many people?

The industry is absolutely vital to our economy, to our security, to our environment, to our quality of life. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the transportation system, which I see as an opportunity.

Many people don’t see boats and barges as part of their daily routine. They’re not getting tailgated by a barge on the highway on their way to work. They're not stuck at a grade crossing waiting for a tow to go by. And they might not know, just like me, the kid growing up in St. Louis, how vital this industry is. I saw the river. I saw the barges go by when I went to a Cardinals game but had no idea what it was and why it was important.

And when you start to tell people about it, you should embrace the opportunity because it’s a fantastic story to tell. These are marine highways – 25,000 miles of navigable waterways, 250 locks, 3,500 marine terminals.

They transport 700 million tons of cargo a year – coal on the Ohio, grains and petrochemicals and oil products for export on the Mississippi. I heard the other day about wind turbine blades moving on the Missouri River, going to Iowa for onshore wind, not offshore wind. Moving massive parts of an ethylene cracker plant in Pennsylvania. You can't put that stuff on the road – the highway would cave.

And then there are the job opportunities, which are fantastic. Where else can you start out as a high school graduate and in five or six years be making a six-figure salary?

What about the environmental benefits?

Right. When people hear about the sustainability benefits of barge transportation, they're kind of stunned. One dry cargo barge can carry the same amount of cargo as 16 rail cars or 70 trucks. A 15-barge tow takes more than 1,000 trucks off the road!

Barge transportation produces 43 percent less emissions than rail and more than 800 percent less than trucks. So if you're a shipper and want to reduce your carbon footprint, put more cargo on the water.

Tell us about AWO’s many programs and activities. What are some of the hot-button issues you're dealing with today?

AWO is the industry's advocate, resource and united voice for safe, sustainable and efficient transportation on America’s waterways, oceans and coasts. Advocacy is the core of our mission. Working with Congress, federal agencies, the Coast Guard, the Administration (whichever party is in power) and state governments, advocating for policies that enable our members to be successful – that’s what we do.

As for hot-button issues, we've got some perennials like the Jones Act, and then there’s the seasonal variety that change depending on current events.

The Jones Act is the foundation of every dollar that our members invest and every job that they provide. And we’re constantly working to educate decision-makers about what the Jones Act is and why it matters. And it’s a never-ending task that we embrace. Sometimes folks get frustrated and say, “I can't believe we have to tell this story again,” as personnel change in the agencies or on Capitol Hill.

But we do, and we have to proudly tell it and in a way that resonates with what's going on in the world today and how current events make the Jones Act more relevant than ever – whether we're talking about China or supply chain lessons learned from the pandemic or jobs and economic security.

Another ongoing issue is waterways management where we work closely with our partners at the Waterways Council and the American Association of Port Authorities to make sure we've got the necessary infrastructure so our members can operate sustainably and efficiently.

Take, for example, low-water levels on the Mississippi, which we’ve had for the last two years. We have to be prepared for that. So we work with the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers to focus on controlling what we can control. We can't make it rain, but we can advocate to make sure we've got efficient, proactive dredging in time for low-water periods.

We learned a lot of lessons last year, so even as we’ve faced worse river conditions in some areas this year we’ve lost fewer barge days. We've had more dredging. We've had better buoy-setting. We've had better industry coordination and communication.

Excellent. Tell us, how do you reach consensus on an issue? With such a diverse membership, how do you come up with a single voice?

Great question. Well, I told you I have a degree in Conflict Analysis & Resolution! But really, it all starts with listening. We make extensive use within AWO of member working groups where we bring subject matter experts together to really dig into an issue and make recommendations.

Then we have an Executive Committee that includes chairs from each of the regions and each of the industry sectors – Inland Dry, Inland Liquid, Harbor Services and Coastal. It’s been very effective for ensuring a breadth of perspective as we consider issues.

And, finally, our Board. Sometimes when people hear we have a Board of Directors with 60 members, they say, “Oh my gosh, how can that possibly work?” Well, it actually works really well because it’s so broadly representative. When the Board passes judgment on something, that 60-member group really is a proxy for the whole industry.

So that's how we do it.

Safety has always been a priority at AWO, and its Responsible Carrier Program (RCP) was way ahead of its time when introduced in 1994. Tell us about that and how it eventually led to the USCG’s Subchapter M program.

The development of the RCP was very much a desire to do two things. From a corporate responsibility standpoint, it was the industry saying, “We can do better. We can be safer for the people on our boats, for the environment, for the people we share the waterways with, and how can we best do that?”

Interwoven with that was what I would call enlightened self-interest. We wanted to be masters of our own destiny. We didn't want to wait for the Coast Guard or Congress to say, “You can do better and we're going to tell you how to do better” because we know this business best. So the RCP was approved by our Board in 1994, nearly 30 years ago, and initially was something you committed to voluntarily.

Then the question of third-party audits came up. Should RCP compliance be certified by an outside auditor? In 1998, our Board said yes. By the year 2000, third-party audited compliance with the RCP had become a condition of membership in AWO.

Through all that experience, we saw what could be accomplished on a voluntary basis – crew fatalities and injuries going down, oil spills going down, accidents going down. The industry was getting safer. We also saw the limitations of voluntary action – folks who didn't want to do it and whose customers didn't want to hold their feet to the fire. We didn't have a level playing field. We were only as safe as the weakest link on the waterways.

Enlightened self-interest again came into play. Because towing vessels were uninspected, we faced the specter of dual Coast Guard and OSHA jurisdiction. Plus the term “uninspected” made it sound like we were an unregulated and unsafe industry. That was not something we wanted hanging over us in the court of public opinion.

So the same philosophy that led to the development of the RCP led in late 2003 to our Board of Directors saying, “Yes, let's go to the Coast Guard and tell them we will support you in seeking new authority from Congress to establish an inspection regime for towing vessels. And by the way, we want to work with you to make it happen.”

Congress passed the law in 2004. In 2016, Subchapter M came into force. Where does the RCP come in? Unique among Coast Guard inspection regimes, Subchapter M includes a Towing Safety Management System option for compliance, which gives a company with a Coast Guard-approved TSMS more flexibility in how surveys and inspections are conducted. And that helps the Coast Guard direct its scarce resources in more risk-based ways.

RCP is now a Coast Guard-accepted safety management system under Subchapter M and a great example of the private sector leading the way to raise safety standards across the industry. It’s also a great example of industry/government cooperation – a real win-win.

Amazing. It’s those diplomatic skills at work that you once planned to use in the Foreign Service! So tell us, how do you see the future of the industry? We've got decarbonization and digitalization and sustainability and AI and all kinds of challenges. Where do you see this industry going in the years ahead?

I’m really bullish on the future. Our industry has never been more relevant. When we talk about something like national security, we’ve had a massive realization over the last few years that we’ve got to control our own supply chain, whether we're talking about great power competition with China or lessons learned from the pandemic where we saw massive spikes in rates in the international fleet. We didn't see that in the domestic transportation industry because these are our vessels. We own them.

When we talk about nearshoring, it’s hugely important to realize we've got a nearshore, domestic marine transportation industry right here, and folks understand its importance today in a way that may have sounded more academic in the past. Now it feels pretty darn real.

Sustainability. I think there's a huge opportunity for our industry on the sustainability front. Now, I'm not Pollyanna. This is a profoundly disruptive change. It’s one thing to go from single-hull vessels to double-hull vessels and put another layer of containment around liquid cargo. It's another thing entirely to think about all the possible alternative fuels that could make sense for different applications in the tugboat, towboat and barge industry.

But let's remember that our industry is already a massive contributor to the solution from a sustainability standpoint, and it was really gratifying to see the Biden Administration's Inter-Agency Transportation Decarbonization Blueprint recognize that and say one way to help support decarbonization and lower the carbon footprint of the transportation system as a whole is to put more cargo on the water.

But we can do more. We can be a big part of the supply chain for alternative fuels, and we can continue to improve the efficiency of our own vessels. This is where things like digitization and AI come into play. How can we operate more efficiently? We don't want to be queued up at locks. We don't want to be processing imports or transporting cargo in suboptimized ways, burning more fuel, taking more time. There are efficiency and money-saving benefits to optimizing our infrastructure and our vessels, and there are sustainability benefits as well.

What's your biggest challenge right now?

I think it's to continually look for ways to work smarter and better. You realize at a certain point that you can't just say “More” – “Oh, we need more resources or more people, or people need to work more.” We need to work creatively and identify where the opportunities are.

Where do we have existing partners we can work with more effectively? Where are there folks we haven't partnered with that we should? I'm a great believer in focusing on what we can influence and what we can control and being clear-eyed about what we can't and not beating our head against the wall.

For example, we just went through the experience of not having a Speaker of the House for three weeks, so Congress was unable to legislate. Well, that didn't mean our work on Capitol Hill stopped. No, that meant there were a lot of staff who were perfectly happy to have a meeting and get educated about the Jones Act or other parts of our agenda. They needed something to do. So we had a fantastically productive three-week period where we got out there and we did all kinds of educating.

My Dad always used to say, “You're going to have to take the bad of whatever your situation is. It's there. So you might as well embrace the good. Where’s the upside? Where’s the opportunity in this situation?” And that’s what I try to do.

Awesome. You’ve given our readers a great overview of the industry and its vital contributions and future challenges. Any final thoughts about what we've left out and what else we should know about Jennifer Carpenter and the AWO?

Well, you've heard me say I think our industry is just more relevant than it's ever been and I’m very bullish on the future. Do we have challenges? Absolutely. Whether we're talking sustainability, workforce, extreme weather, it’s important to nimbly address the things that are before us now while playing the long game, creating the conditions for long-term success.

As for me, I would just say I love what I do. One of the things I did when I first became President & CEO, I sent a video message to all AWO members and said how humbled and honored I was by the opportunity to serve you in this way. I have a passion for this industry. I have respect and admiration and genuine affection for the people who make their living in it.

So I’m just thankful I have the opportunity to play the role that I do in telling the industry’s story. I get up every day and say, “Hey, thank you that I'm here. What can I do today to make things better for our members, for our staff and just for people?” It feels good. 

Tony Munoz is Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of The Maritime Executive.

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