Ted Ruhly was surprised when Yankee Manager Lou Piniella walked out to the mound, took the ball away from Dennis Rasmussen and signaled with his left arm for Dave Righetti, his ace relief pitcher.

Mr. Ruhly, president of Moller Steamship Co., which operates Maersk Line, was sitting in the mezzanine section of Yankee Stadium with Don C. Becker, publisher and president of The Journal of Commerce. Both were rooting for the Detroit Tigers. Mr. Ruhly grew up in Michigan. Mr. Becker grew up in San Francisco but became a Tiger fan during his stint as president of the Detroit Free Press. He was in Detroit the year the Tigers won the World Series.Sitting with these diehard Tiger fans were Jeff Kleinman, vice president- advertising for The Journal of Commerce, and me. We were rooting for the Yankees.

Mr. Ruhly, Mr. Becker and Mr. Kleinman all know more about baseball than I. Mr. Becker was a catcher for three years in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, playing pro ball in such choice spots as Waco, Texas and Billings, Mont. Mr. Kleinman was a pitcher and outfielder on his college team. Mr. Ruhly was a pitcher and third baseman in high school and, from his comments during the game, probably had been a decent hitter.

"Easler (designated hitter for the Yankees) can take the ball to the left or the right, so you can't pitch away from him," Mr. Ruhly observed in the fourth inning. "You've got to overpower him or surprise him." Walt Terrell, the Tiger pitcher, should have been listening. He went outside with the ball and the left-handed-hitting Easler promptly went with the pitch to left field for a single.

But it made little sense to Mr. Ruhly when Piniella replaced Rasmussen with Righetti. It was the top of the ninth inning. The Yankees were ahead 3 to 1. There were two away. But the Tigers had men on first and second base.

"Two outs, two runs ahead and you don't let the kid finish the game?" Mr. Ruhly wondered aloud in disbelief. "How are you going to build confidence in the kid? It's a long season."

Everyone agreed, but Mr. Becker was smiling. He knew Righetti had been erratic lately and probably thought this might be the chance for the Tigers to go ahead. Mr. Becker almost got his wish.

The first batter Righetti faced promptly hit a single and drove in a run. The score was now 3-to-2 in favor of the Yankees. But the next hitter batted the ball to Willie Randolph, the Yankee second baseman. He threw to first and the game was over. The Yankees won, ending an eight-game losing streak.

I hadn't been surprised that Lou Piniella had gone with Righetti. Piniella was looking over his shoulder at his boss, the mercurial George Steinbrenner. When you have a boss like Mr. Steinbrenner, a cover-your-backside management philosophy permeates the entire organization. Going with Righetti was the safest thing to do if Piniella wanted to avoid the boss's wrath.

I mentioned this later to Mr. Ruhly, as he and I were being driven back to our homes in NewJersey. "No one can manage if he's always looking over his shoulder," he said.

And that's how we got into a discussion of management. As one of the more suc cessful executives in the shipping industry, Mr. Ruhly's comments might be instructive.

"I call it the five-easy-finger approach to ocean transportation management," he says, stretching out his long legs in the limousine and raising his hand to show four long fingers and a thumb. "One, you sell on time. Two, you get the cargo aboard the ship on time. Three, you get the cargo off the ship on time. Four, you deliver the cargo to the customer on time. And five, and most important, you get paid on time."

By "selling on time," Mr. Ruhly means several things. Maersk, the Danish steamship line founded in 1903, has one of the best on-time delivery records of any ocean carrier in the world. Its ships are in and out of port on time more than 80 percent of the time.

But to effectively sell "on time," Mr. Ruhly must convince his own people of the importance of maintaining schedules, and Maersk must sell the customers on the importance of getting their cargo to the ships on time. And

neither the customer nor Maersk must be too upset if the ship leaves without them if the cargo is late.

"To make 'on time' work, from an equipment point of view," Mr. Ruhly says, "it is essential that your ships have some extra knots in them so you can make up time if weather or some other unforeseen and uncontrollable event puts you behind schedule. To operate a weekly service from Kobe to Tacoma with five ships at a cruise speed of 22 knots, you must have vessels capable of 24 to 25 knots - just in case time must be made up."

The criticism of maintaining such a high on-time frequency is the expense. Operating ships at higher knots increases the fuel cost. Sailing without loads that are late reduces revenue. Mr. Ruhly discounts both.

"We've found that by keeping to our schedules, we actually reduce expenses," Mr. Ruhly says. "That is even more true now that the ship operator is becoming increasingly responsible for the movement of the container among all the modes. Cost-efficient distribution management requires that a load be where it's supposed to be when it's supposed to be there. Otherwise your labor cost increases, you have increased equipment imbalance, which adds to cost, and, most important, you have customer dissatisfaction, which can affect the bottom line more than anything else."

Getting the cargo to the ship on time also takes cooperation from the customer. To Mr. Ruhly's surprise, Maersk has found that customers see to it that containers destined for Maersk ships are moved before containers are moved for other lines.

"We've sold our customers on the fact that we will leave port on time. Not only do they not want to miss the boat, so to speak, but they see the advantage to themselves in our maintaining our schedules. When Sears Roebuck advertises it's going to have a major sale of wicker furniture from China, those ads usually go into production about the same time our ships are supposed to leave port in Hong Kong. Sears cannot afford to have a lot of its customers disappointed."

Mr. Ruhly not only keeps the company's ships on schedule, but he is just as disciplined about his own personal schedule. Each morning he is up at 4 a.m., no matter when he goes to bed the night before. He drives to work, which gets him in around 5:30 in the morning.

"If I need to call our head office in Denmark, the early start allows me to converse with them before lunch. It also gives me a quiet time if I need to have an early meeting with my people and not interfer with their work day."

When Mr. Ruhly travels, he usually attempts to keep to this schedule. ''Whatever office I am in, I usually meet half of the staff in the morning and the other half in the afternoon and then go out with customers at night. Usually the Maersk people are pretty happy to see me leave so they can catch up their sleep. I just have found over the years that I don't need much sleep."

It takes a very efficient organization to get the cargo off the ship on time and to the customer on time, number three and four on Mr. Ruhly's five- easy-finger approach to ocean transportation management.

To make money in a low-profit industry like ocean container shipping, you've got to keep your costs down, Mr. Ruhly says. "Running a lean operation

keeps costs down down. And we at Maersk believe in operating lean. But that won't work, especially when you are service oriented as we are, unless you hire the best people available for each and every position, from the janitor on up. I attempt to personally meet with every management-level person we hire.

"We also train our people to be functional in all facets of the business, he added. If a decision must be made and someone isn't around, another manager can step in and intelligently take over and make the proper decision to get everything done on time.

Ted Ruhly started his transportation career in 1950 with the Middle Atlantic Transportation Co., a trucking company based in Detroit that served the Midwest and New England.

As we passed through the Lincoln Tunnel into New Jersey, I asked Mr. Ruhly why so many successful executives in the containership industry had their start in trucking. To be effective in trucking, you probably have to be more flexible and responsive to the marketplace than any other mode. Is that kind of training useful and transferable in the containership business?

''Of course," he said. "But even more important than that, trucking prepares you to make decisions. Managers, especially at the executive level, often get gun shy about making decisions. They fear the consequences. But making decisions is what it's all about to be an executive. When you are a manager in trucking, you're making dozens of decisions a day. If you make a wrong decision, and you're bound to, you quickly get used to making another decision to correct it. International ocean transportation is a very dynamic business. Things are always changing. You must adjust to those changes. You adjust by making decisions and making them quickly."

As we pulled up to my home and I started to get out, Mr. Ruhly held onto my hand.

You forgot the last but most important element of my five easy finger approach to ocean transportation management. You've got to get paid on time. But I've found that's easiest when you do everything on time for the customer. If you take care of the customer, the customer usually takes care of you.

As I stood beside the car, I decided to ask him one last question. "When you played baseball, what kind of hitter were you?

Mr. Ruhly looked at me hard a moment and I wondered if he was going to be modest and not really answer the question.

"Well, I could hit. Being a pitcher, I knew pretty much what was being thrown at me. And anticipating the kind of pitch you're going to get usually guarantees that you hit it pretty well. But I was always a sucker for a curve, especially from a journalist.

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