Half the walls in Thomas B. Crowley's spacious office on the 48th floor of 101 California St. are covered with oriental teakwood. The other half are 10- foot-high window panes overlooking San Francisco Bay. Below, piers along the Embarcadero jut out into the bay, Alcatraz is in plain view and the pyramid-shaped Transamerica building stands resolutely to the left.

It's an appropriately commanding view for the 72-year-old chairman and president of the Crowley Maritime Corp.As Mr. Crowley talks with John Davies, our West Coast editor, and me, he fidgets with a red Swiss Army knife, opening and closing it. He's modest about his accomplishments. His fleet numbers over 400 oceangoing and harbor/river barges, containerships, tugs, passenger and support vessels. Crowley vessels move up and down the West Coast, out to Hawaii, around the Gulf. The company moves cargo between the East Coast and the Caribbean and now is beginning a new service down to South America.

Asked if he considers himself more of an entrepreneur than a shipowner he relies, I don't speak French. He gets the laugh he expects and shifts the conversation to the disastrous state of the U.S. maritime industry and away

from himself.

''A lot of people in the country just don't know what the American merchant marine is," he says, his pale blue eyes opening wide to express his distress. They think it is part of the United States Marines. Something has to be done about it. We are no longer an isolated island nation. A quarter of our gross national product is involved in imports and exports. Without a capable, competitive merchant fleet, that would be too much of our economy being controlled by the ships of other countries.

When I suggest that perhaps the industry itself, including labor, bears some of the blame for the current state of the merchant marine because of its repeated failure to support a unified position on most congressional legislation, he nods his head in apparent agreement. But then he quickly adds that the reason his company and the handful of other U.S.-flag companies still around have survived so far is that we have looked out for ourselves.

With white hair, a trim body of medium stature and a good-looking tan face that smiles easily, Tom Crowley is a man you can't help but like.

His father, Thomas Bannon Crowley Sr., started the company back in 1890 navigating an 18-foot Whitehall, a slight, swift craft in which he carried passengers and goods between the waterfront and incoming sailing vessels. These were rugged times on the San Francisco waterfront, and it took someone equally rugged and tough-minded to not only survive but prosper. Soon with expansions, mergers and purchases, Tom Crowley Sr. was the dominant tugboat operator.

My father wanted me to go to Stanford (University) and I did that to please him for a while, Mr. Crowley said, looking out at San Francisco harbor. But I knew what I was going to be and after two years, I left and began working for my father as a deckhand.

His father soon moved him into the accounting department, then to sales, then to operations and finally into management.

Mr. Crowley stops talking and moves over to pick up a pair of binoculars on the shelf behind his desk. Looking through them into the harbor, he is excited. Look at that. He hands me the binoculars. A huge aircraft carrier steaming through the bay. Hundreds of decked-out sailors are top deck standing at parade rest.

Under the son, Crowley Maritime became a major national company. How did you do that, I ask. You just look for things to do that serve the customers, Mr. Crowley says. "Do you consider yourself more of a shipowner who is a businessman or a businessman who owns ships," John Davies interjects. You won't have many ships unless you're a businessman, Mr. Crowley replies.

He then asks me about someone in the industry. He searches his memory for a name. I suggest a couple of people. No, that's not it, he says. He tries again. He gives me a first name and I supply the last.

Do you know him? Mr. Crowley asks, playing with his knife again. Sure, I reply. I remind him that he and the other man had shared a speaking engagement in New York a couple years ago. Yes, yes, that's right, he says.

For a few minutes we talk about other things. Then Mr. Crowley brings up the man's name again, mispronouncing it. I give the correct pronunciation. He's an excellent businessman, in my opinion, I say.

Later in the day, I ask another San Francisco maritime executive about the person Mr. Crowley brought up. The rumor is, the executive says, that Tom Crowley is interested in hiring him.

The walls of Mr. Crowley's office are half oriental teak and half filled with windows overlooking San Francisco Bay. Mr. Crowley is a bit like that, too. In the shipping industry you had better be.

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