Here's a question for maritime history buffs:

Name a company with $1 billion in annual revenue that has had only two chief executive officers in 96 years of business.One tip: It is still going strong!

If you answered Crowley Maritime, you're right. If you have another answer, I'd like to know about it.

Offhand, I can't think of anything - company or country - that two people have run for nearly a century.

Thomas B. Crowley, 73, the current chairman and chief executive officer of Crowley Maritime, visited The Journal of Commerce offices last week. The San Francisco Bay area native appeared fit and healthy and had only recently returned from a skiing holiday. He's also an avid pilot.

Tom Crowley's father, also named Thomas, began the company in 1892 when he was 14, buying a Whitehall class rowboat for use as a water taxi on San Francisco Bay. The senior Mr. Crowley died at age 92 in 1970, after having worked his last 37 years with his son building the company. Young Tom worked such long hours that he was 52 before he married.

Today, Crowley Maritime is one of the most diversified maritime companies in the world, operating to South America, Asia, Europe, Puerto Rico, Alaska and Hawaii, mostly in specialized niches. The company has more than 40 subsidiaries.

What brought Tom Crowley to our office was the end of a long and bitter dispute between Crowley Maritime and the International Longshoremen's Association.

Last November, Crowley and the ILA - under the leadership of John Bowers, the peppery successor to Teddy Gleason - decided to bury the hatchet.

Stan Erickson, editor of this newspaper, invited Mr. Crowley and Mr. Bowers to come to our office to pose shaking hands.

Mr. Crowley, who was in the East for a board meeting, brought along Leo Collar, his president and chief operating officer; Bill Bru, former chairman of United States Lines andnew president of Crowley's all-important Atlantic division (where 70 percent of its revenue comes from); and Dick Simpson, vice president of marketing.

John Bowers came alone.

After the picture-taking (during which one of the onlookers commented: Now there's a couple of hot-headed Irishmen), we adjourned to the conference room for box lunches.

Box lunches! exclaimed Mr. Bowers, good-naturedly, wait till I tell the boys I was out with the big guys and we had box lunches!

Dick Simpson whispered that senior Crowley management frequently brown- bagged during meetings.

So much for stereotypes.

Most of what ensued has either already been reported in The Journal of Commerce or was off the record. But two major themes emerged:

1. In Mr. Crowley's view, the maritime business is going to be very difficult for the foreseeable future.

2. The ILA, under Mr. Bowers, understands this and wants to work with management because in the long run that will be in the best interest of the union.

Leo Collar said afterward that Mr. Bowers was a breath of fresh air. I'd heard the same thing last summer from Tony Tozzoli, head of the New York Shipping Association, and Jim Costello, owner of Universal Terminals, who have negotiated with both Mr. Gleason and Mr. Bowers.

John Bowers seems to understand the need for respect on both sides, and he handles himself well with an outgoing style and good sense of humor.

Several years ago, during a visit to Toyota's headquarters in Japan, I was exposed to the harmony that exists between Japanese management and unions.

I was there on a mission for the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce to tell Japanese automakers that they would be welcome in southeast Michigan despite what they might have assumed from the well-publicized beating of a Chinese man who some Detroit auto workers mistakenly thought to be Japanese.

When I met with Toyota's general manager, he was accompanied by the president of the company union. Interested in the apparent close relationship between the two leaders, I asked a number of questions about productivity. In the previous decade, I was told, Toyota had tripled its production while the work force remained constant.

We have experienced hard times in the past and know that if the company does not do well we will not do well, the union leader said. That is why we work closely with management. The results have been very good. Our workers now almost make as much as American workers.

(That was 1984. Today, Japanese auto workers make more, but in real buying power Americans are still better off.)

There is no doubt that the climate of respect between labor and management has been fundamental to Japan's success. Too often in this country adversarial relationships have been allowed to fester too long. Fortunately, more union leaders and management are recognizing that their fortunes are indeed intertwined.

So hats off to John Bowers and Tom Crowley for building a fresh relationship based on mutual respect and practical sense.