Interesting times

Interesting times

If you look carefully, the facades are still there - Cunard, Norton Lilly, Kerr Steamship, United States Lines. But for the most part, the days when lower Manhattan was the center of the shipping universe survive only in memory.

One of those who recalls that era is Arthur Novacek. It was 58 years ago this summer when he stepped out of the Bowling Green subway station and reported for his first day of work as a management trainee at Isbrandtsen Lines at 26 Broadway.

Isbrandtsen is long gone, as is the sidewalk window that the company's idiosyncratic chief executive decorated to promote his shipping line or other pet causes. Novacek is still around and has published a very readable memoir, One Step Ahead, which provides a sense of how the industry has changed in the last six decades.

Novacek now is chairman of Eller & Co., the Florida stevedore whose effort to oust its Miami business partner snowballed into the ridiculous DP World controversy. But for most of his career, he worked on the carrier side of the business, first with Isbrandtsen, then with Grace Line, Transamerica Trailer Transport, Seatrain, Navieras de Puerto Rico and Moram Agencies.

Not surprising, his story discusses his successes and accomplishments, but it's tempered by the candid acknowledgement of mistakes and disappointments of the kind that accompany any long career.

When Novacek joined the industry as an ambitious young graduate of Kings Point, shipping was a tradition-bound business, well-lubricated by Whitehall Club martinis. U.S.-flag carriers were still riding high, and container ships hadn't yet appeared.

Novacek had a front-row seat for Grace Line's pioneering attempt in 1959 to bring container service to South America (it flopped when Venezuelan longshoremen refused to handle the boxes). Later, he had a hand in two notable developments in containerization - TTT's roll-on, roll-off container service to Puerto Rico and later, at Seatrain, the first landbridge container service.

Some of his most interesting adventures in the shipping business came in the late 1970s when he headed Moram Agencies, which represented Soviet Union carriers when they aggressively expanded into U.S. trade routes. The Cold War was still on, and many of Novacek's former U.S.-flag colleagues regarded his work with the rate-cutting Soviet lines as apostasy or worse.

Novacek's stint at Moram was cut short in 1980 after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the Inter-national Longshoremen's Association refused to work Soviet ships, effectively scuttling the U.S. service.

He admits that he sometimes felt conflicted but felt an obligation to explain their position as well as possible. Looking back, he says his efforts may have contributed to the later opening of the Soviet economy. And he wryly adds, "I should have charged substantial public relations fees, as Washington lobbyists do today."

Joseph Bonney is editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at (973) 848-7139, or at jbonney@joc.com.