Unsung Heroes

Unsung Heroes

The best-known names in our industry are those of the shipping lines, other service providers and major importers and exporters. Who doesn’t know the names Maersk, FedEx, Wal-Mart or Caterpillar?

While these “celebrity” companies are easily recognized, only a handful of people who work for these global companies are well-known. So, while our business and the companies that carry out their transactions are dependent on their people, the people themselves are pretty anonymous, at least on the national and global scale.

But the old saying that all business and politics are local is certainly true with respect to the people in our industry. Not many industry people in the eastern half of the country have heard of Jesse Miller; this is also probably true even here in the Pacific Northwest in Portland and Seattle. But in the Los Angeles area, Jesse Miller was well-known indeed.

Early in what is now my 40-year career, I joined Balfour-Guthrie, the U.S. West Coast agent for Hapag-Lloyd in Los Angeles. Jesse, already 20-plus years into his own career, was my boss, and later my good friend.

Jesse started his career in the forwarding and shipping industry in the 1950s in Los Angeles and after a number of years, became a supercargo on the ships of Hamburg America Line, a Hapag-Lloyd precursor company. He spent more than 30 years working for Hapag-Lloyd.

Jesse, who died on July 4 at 83, didn’t just come out of a different age; in many ways, he still lived in a different age. Born in Brooklyn in 1926, he was a child of the Great Depression, and started in our business before container shipping was a figment of the imagination.

It was a man’s world, and the industry reflected this bias. In his early days, referring to a woman as “sweet baby princess” — one of his favorite expressions — might or might not have been well-accepted, but hearing it today sounds totally unacceptable. He meant no harm or insult and didn’t intend to be demeaning, but that’s not the point: Today it is insulting and demeaning, but he used the phrase anyway. That’s just how it was for him.

Back in the day, Jesse worked on the German bulk ships moving cargo between California and Mexico on their way to Europe and South America. Initially, he spoke neither Spanish nor German, but he learned both languages working the ships. Many of the senior executives at Hapag-Lloyd during the 1970s and 1980s learned elements of their trade working those ships with Mr. Miller (it was always “Mr.” for everyone then) 20 years earlier, and Jesse loved to tell stories of those early days.

He could be both profane and profound, often in a single sentence, his New York accent — and attitude — never wavering. The easiest way to describe him was to remind people of the 1970s TV show “Kojak,” but a mix of Kojak and a teddy bear because the character, played to the hilt by Telly Savalas, was too rough looking. His speech once would have been called “colorful.” Today, we’d say it was politically incorrect.

Beneath that exterior, there was soul. To hear him play Mexican love songs on the guitar (learned by ear — he didn’t read music) and sing the songs in Spanish was an ethereal experience, and he could reduce his listeners to tears.

Most of us who have been around this industry for a long time have known their own “Jesse Miller,” the people who added color and spice to a business shrouded in the mystery and exoticness of the sea and foreign lands. There are few of them left, and somehow our business has lost much of its charm and uniqueness as a result.

For those who knew Jesse, you have lost a colleague. For me and many others, we also lost a special friend.

For those of you who never knew him but have your own friends from the early days of our business, stay close to them and don’t miss out on any chance for a chat or a visit.

Our business is not as special as it once was, and one big reason for the change is the slow, inexorable loss of these original, unique characters who trained us, mentored us, provided examples — good and bad — and sent us on our own way.

Good-bye, Jesse Miller, my friend.

Barry Horowitz is the principal of CMS Consulting Services and former general manager of container marketing at the Port of Portland. Contact him at 503-208-2232, or at barryh@cms-cs.com.