MCLEAN'S LEGACY

MCLEAN'S LEGACY

Forget the containers. Forget the ships. Forget the terminals and gantry cranes and straddle carriers and all the other intermodal gadgetry that has so transformed the shipping industry during the last 45 years. The most lasting impact of Malcom McLean, the father of containerization, was not in equipment but in the people he hired and trained. McLean started the container revolution, but his proteges carried it out.

Those proteges were there in large numbers at McLean's funeral service last Wednesday in New York. It was a prosperous, well-dressed, predominantly gray-haired crowd, heavily sprinkled with current or former top executives, and it's safe to say that there won't be another gathering like this one. No one else in the industry had or has the stature of Malcom McLean. No one else inspired such loyalty or affection on such a large scale.In his eulogy, naval architect Charles Cushing said McLean had an 'uncanny ability to select and surround himself with very talented people,' and that he gave them the freedom to do their jobs.

Helen Bentley, the former Maryland congresswoman and Federal Maritime Commission chairman, noted that at any large gathering of shipping people, chances are that 'at least half of them started their careers with Sea-Land or McLean.'

Indeed, there's hardly a person in the industry who, if he or she didn't work for McLean, worked with someone who learned the business under him at McLean Trucking, Sea-Land Service, United States Lines or Trailer Bridge.

Of those companies, the biggest impact came from the men and women -- mostly men -- who came up through Sea-Land when McLean was running the company. That generation of executives has begun to retire during the last several years, but they're still prominent.

Why is the industry so full of ex-Sea-Landers? The first reason is that during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, while many U.S. liner shipping companies were retrenching, Sea-Land was expanding. Unlike bulk shipping companies, which tend to attract risk-takers, most liner operators of the era were conservative and tradition-bound. Those tendencies were reinforced by the government's operating-subsidy system, which discouraged U.S.-flag companies from seeking new routes.

With Sea-Land, McLean broke the mold. His company was selling a new concept -- his concept -- and he was determined to hire the best people available to get it off the ground.

In interviews with JoC Week after McLean's death, almost everyone mentioned his emphasis on recruitment and training. 'There was a constant search for talent,' said R. Kenneth Johns, a maritime consultant who joined McLean as a trainee in 1957 and rose to become president of Sea-Land.

Many of McLean's recruits came straight out of college. Others came from the trucking industry, which had a different perspective. Unlike ocean shipping, trucking isn't a business that pays much attention to history or tradition. As far as I'm aware, no Joseph Conrad or Richard Henry Dana has emerged to produce great literature about trucking. (Country music doesn't count.)

Transportation people who learned their trade in trucking tend to have a down-to-earth understanding of costs and customer needs. McLean, who had built McLean Trucking Co. into the nation's second-largest less-than-truckload carrier, brought that attitude into shipping.

Paul F. Richardson, a former Sea-Land executive, recalls that when he was hired by McLean Trucking as a management trainee after graduating from Boston University in 1952, he immediately was given two weeks of truck-driving school, then sent on the road for six months as a driver. He later worked in other departments, and the hands-on training program gave him a thorough understanding of cost-based pricing.

Although McLean's proteges put an indelible stamp on international shipping, the real beneficiaries have been and continue to be transportation users. McLean and his proteges knew that instinctively.

Richardson recalls that, during Sea-Land's cash-strapped early days, the company was trying to convince bankers to lend $35 million for ship conversions. On the morning of a key meeting with the bankers, The New York Times carried an analysis saying that containerization would never work because the benefits went to the shipper. When the bankers asked about the article, Richardson said he replied, 'Yes, it's true that the economic benefits go to the shipper. That's why it will be successful. What better marketing device could you have?'

Joseph Bonney is deputy editor of JoC Week. He can be reached at (973) 848-7139, or via e-mail at jbonney

oc.com.