Jim Black, President and CEO, Moran Shipping Agencies

As head of North America's largest independent ship agency, Black likes to keep things simple. Clients like it that way too.

Jim Black

By The Maritime Executive 08-28-2018 03:44:00

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2018 edition.)

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in the ethnically diverse city of Fall River, Massachusetts, about 50 miles south of Boston. My father was a bricklayer, my mom a homemaker. I’m the baby of seven – three brothers and three sisters. Within a mile of our house were five Catholic churches – two Irish, one French, one Portuguese and one Polish. We were all taught by Catholic nuns through high school. I went on to college at the University of Massachusetts/Dartmouth, within 15 miles of home. I worked pretty much full-time while going to school, finishing in five years with a major in Business Administration and a focus on Management.

What attracted you to the maritime business?

My oldest brother, Bob, rescued me from a career in restaurant management when he introduced me to the world of ship agency. Within a month I was hooked.

Moran Shipping has a fascinating history of innovation and growth, going back more than 80 years. Tell us about that.

Moran was founded in 1937 by James Francis Moran as J.F. Moran Company (Custom House Broker, Freight Forwarder & Steamship Agency). My brother Bob went to work for J.F. Moran Co. in 1962. Jim Moran had passed away in 1959, and his brother Ed was the new owner. In the late 1960s, a decision was made to incorporate Moran Shipping Agencies as separate from J. F. Moran. When Ed Moran passed away in 1970, my brother Bob purchased the company from the Moran family estate. At that time, MSA had offices in Providence, Boston and Portland, Maine.

In the 1960s and 1970s a majority of Moran’s business was with American flag tanker companies like Keystone Shipping, Trinidad Corp., Mathieson Tankers and Ogden Marine, to name a few. These tankers (mostly older jumbo T-2s) were discharging heating oil and gasoline in New England ports – products that were refined in Texas or Louisiana. In January 1975, Bob visited a friend in Houston. While there he decided to say hello to the C.J. Thibodeaux Co., who were the agents handling the loading of the T-2s. While talking with the owners of Thibodeaux, Bob mentioned his desire to expand Moran outside New England, and a deal was in the making. After a few months of due diligence, an agreement was reached and a target date of July 1, 1975 set for the opening of Moran-Thibodeaux.

You were instrumental in the subsequent expansion of the Houston office, correct?

Yes. Bob had me on a fast track from the very beginning. After six months of agency work in New England ports (mostly the Providence area), he sent me to the newly opened J. F. Moran office at Logan Airport in Boston. I was Export Manager and eventually became a Custom House Broker.

However, when Bob tried to recruit someone in the company to move to Houston, no one wanted to go. Instead, I packed my car and drove to Houston in early June 1975. In hindsight, it was probably the best decision for Bob, for me and for the company. Expansion had begun! Over the next 15 years we opened offices in key ports like New Orleans, Galveston, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale.

What do you consider your most important achievement?

Overseeing the successful expansion of Moran Shipping in the Gulf of Mexico and Florida. 

How many offices and employees are there?

Moran has 18 offices in the U.S. as well as exclusive sales reps in both London and Athens. We employ 145 people.

What’s your secret?

I like to keep things simple. I tell my boarding agents to imagine if they owned the vessel themselves and it was positioned in a foreign port, wouldn’t you be very concerned about your investment? Then, imagine being a crewmember far from home. Wouldn’t you like to have a friendly person help with your concerns? Tied into this simplicity is one very important word: Communication. A good agent doesn’t wait for their client to search for information. They provide it timely and consistently. Another key is to be involved in your port community, taking an active role in local maritime organizations.

Is there any connection between Moran Shipping and Moran Towing & Transportation?

No. There’s never been a connection to Moran Towing (just a coincidental “Yankee” name). Bob decided to keep the Moran identity after he purchased the company because he had already been marketing that name successfully for several years, and it was well-known in New England and New York.

What does a ship’s agent do?
A ship’s agent handles the logistics of getting a deepwater vessel in and out of port. Picture a wheel with several spokes, each representing a service provider as a component of a port call – pilots, tugs, line-handlers, USCG, CBP, terminal, port authority, cargo consignee or shipper, etc. These spokes are connected to a hub. The agent is the hub of the port call. All parties rely on the agent to place orders and/or keep them up-to-date as to the disposition of the vessel. Agents also husband the crew. They pay local vendors on behalf of owners and charterers. They issue bills of lading.

How does ship agency differ from ship management?

A simple explanation would be that a ship management company directs the vessel voyage-to-voyage.  A ship agent is hired by the ship management company to direct/oversee a particular port call.

Who are your main customers?

As agents we represent just about all major ship owners and charterers. Handling more than 10,000 vessel movements annually will usually expose you to just about everyone. We enjoy a very good reputation among Greek shipowners. I make it a point to visit Athens/Piraeus every year. There’s nothing like a “face-to-face” to build confidence and trust. I have many great friends in Athens. 

Are you the sole owner of the company?

Ownership of Moran transferred to my brothers Bill, Mike and me in 1986 when my brother Bob retired.  In 1992 we split the corporate structure and Bill became sole owner of J. F. Moran Co. Mike and I became owners of Moran Shipping Agencies with equal shares. Mike retired in 2004. However, he remains my partner.

In 2007 Moran purchased the former Rhode Island Medical Society Building in Providence, which had been vacant for nearly 20 years, and transformed it into its new, LEED-certified headquarters. Tell us about that. 

The Rhode Island Medical Society Building is one of the few buildings to be both listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings and to have Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. Most unique about the project is it demonstrates that green building and historic preservation are not mutually exclusive. Also exceptional is the use of two geothermal wells (the only ones in downtown Providence) to heat and cool the building with renewable energy. One of the wells in this urban center is 1,800 feet deep, amazing when one considers the Empire State building stands at 1,300 feet. Other innovative features include a bioretention facility that uses a rain garden to handle property storm water.

Most appealing to Moran was that the LEED approach created a healthy work environment for our employees, including lots of natural light and low VOCs in building materials, paint, fabric, even the furniture. State-of-the-art climate management software and fresh air intake technology also set the building apart. The adaptive reuse has created an energy efficient home for Moran in Rhode Island that gives employees access to a vibrant, walkable urban core where innovation best thrives.

How would you describe the corporate culture?

Our corporate culture can’t be described in a single word or phrase. It reflects our core values as a family-owned company and incorporates traditional characteristics that have contributed to our success over the past 80+ years. These include safety, integrity and accountability. Our corporate culture also reflects our stature in the maritime industry as innovation leaders and as caring for our employees and their work environment.

What is your vision for the company?

As agents, my vision is to constantly provide a premium service to both vessel and crew. And, while standing on the shoulders of our agency work, continue to expand the traditional scope of ship agency by diversifying into new, innovative services provided to the maritime community: Hub Agency, PSA (Pollution Safety Advisors), Maritime Security, Cyber Awareness/Security and Offshore Logistics Services. It's symbiotic: These new services are possible due to our agency experience, and these services in turn make us better agents.

What is your biggest challenge?

Our biggest challenge continues to be receiving fair compensation for the responsibilities entrusted to an agent. Shipowners and charterers must acknowledge this. An agent is tasked with the local coordination of a port call. One mistake or oversight could lead to hours of delay, equating to tens of thousands of dollars lost. Yet owners continually argue with agents over a few hundred dollars for an agency fee.

What kind of manager are you?

I like to be hands-on. I believe that our customers feel very comfortable in calling me personally with their problems or concerns.

What drives you? What’s your passion?

My passion is a love for this industry and, especially, finding simple solutions for what some might deem to be complex problems.

You have many outside interests and charitable involvements. Tell us about some of them.

I stay involved with many maritime organizations, serving as a board member or committee chair for West Gulf Maritime Association, Greater Houston Port Bureau, Association of Ship Brokers & Agents and a few more. Away from work, I am President/Chair of the St. Pius X High School Foundation Board in Houston. I am a firm believer in parochial education, especially at the high school preparatory level.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I’m a big sports fan. Played my fair share of baseball and basketball when I was in school. I still love to follow both professional and college sports. But my real obsession is golf. I play just about every weekend – and then some!

Have you read any good books lately?

I’m not the reader I used to be. Most of my reading is done with magazines like yours. – MarEx

Jack O’Connell is Senior Editor of The Maritime Executive.

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