Fifth-generation McAllister becomes top leader in family business, AWO


The first half of 2013 was eventful in the life of Brian Buckley McAllister. First it was announced that Buckley, the son of Capt. Brian McAllister and a fifth-generation member of the famous New York tugboat family, was promoted to president of McAllister Towing and Transportation Co. (MT&T), a position his father held since 1984. The elder McAllister remains as chairman of the company founded in 1864 as the Greenpoint Lighterage Co. by Capt. James McAllister.

Then, in May, Buckley was elected chairman of the American Waterways Operators (AWO), the national trade association representing the tugboat, towboat and barge industry.

If addresses mean anything in the tugboat world, then McAllister’s 17 Battery Place location, with New York harbor beckoning out of the 12th-story windows, is a great one. The halls and offices tell the McAllister story and a good portion of the harbor’s history is detailed in a profusion of prints, paintings and vessel models, arranged in a spatial competition between office and museum space.

Eileen McAllister

On a bright brisk afternoon this past spring, Buckley was sitting in the conference room flanked by a model of the z-drive tug Rosemary McAllister, named for his mother.

The view behind him was of shimmering water rendering the Statue of Liberty a dark abstract shape piercing the tremulous light reflecting off the choppy water. Capt. Brian McAllister appeared in the room, hovered for a moment, and said, “It seemed a good time to pass things along, but I’m still here looking after the boys,” and then disappeared.

The boys — there are five of them working in the company — are Buckley, president; Eric, chief financial officer; Capt. A.J. McAllister III, senior vice president of sales; Andrew, vice president, and Capt. Jeffrey McAllister, senior docking pilot in the port of New York.

“I think one of my first jobs was going to work for Arthur Fournier up in Belfast, Maine,” said Buckley. “I can’t remember how old I was, but I was certainly younger than a person should be working on a tugboat. I remember asking if there were any child labor laws that would apply and everyone just laughed and said, ‘Child labor laws don’t apply when your parents own the tugboat.’”

During high school and college, Buckley worked stints at MT&T’s operations in Charleston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Hampton Roads and also in Houma, La., where the company had a fabrication yard and a fleet of crew boats and OSVs.

“At Christmas break during my senior year in college I went to Puerto Rico. And there was one really great trip sometime between my junior and senior year of college that we went through a reasonable sized storm off the Florida Keys, and I thought there are worse things you can do other than staying in school. So I went on to become an attorney and practiced law for four years in California, and got married out there.”

Buckley McAllister graduated from Hamilton College, cum laude, in 1989 and the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, in 1993. He worked for four years as an associate at Hill Betts & Nash LLP, before joining McAllister Towing in 1998 as the company’s vice president and general counsel.

In 1996, McAllister won a legal battle over ownership of the company, saving the company name, and its beloved tugboat and Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat Co. from a sell-off.

“I came home to help out with the split-up of the company in 1997,” said McAllister. “So my wife Beth and I, and our son Rowan, moved back into my room that I had when I was in high school. Aug. 3, 1998, was my first day working for the company. I’d already spent a year working on the split, but that day we all came in and decided what our titles would be, what we were going to pay ourselves, how we were going to run this place. Very, very good people had already been running it for a decade, but that was the date when the McAllister family regained full control of the business. I came in as vice president and general counsel.”

From left, MT&T Chairman Capt. Brian McAllister, President Buckley McAllister and Chief Financial Officer Eric McAllister gather around a model of tug Rosemary McAllister at the company’s New York office.

The first order of business was to upgrade the company’s ferry fleet with a new ferry, the 306-foot P.T. Barnum, named for the famed circus impresario who was one of the original owners of Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat Co. The new ferry was delivered from Eastern Shipbuilding’s Panama City yard in 1999. P.T. Barnum joined Park City and Grand Republic, built in the 1980s. The latter ferry was replaced with a new 300-foot ferry of the same name built at Eastern in 2003.

“At that point it was clear that McAllister was behind in the tractor tug race,” said McAllister. “We went back to Eastern because we had a good relationship with them and we knew that they built good boats.”

Eastern Shipbuilding delivered the 4,650-hp Janet M. McAllister, named for McAllister’s daughter, in 2001, the first of MT&T’s modern z-drive fleet. Then came Vicki M. McAllister, Emily Anne McAllister, A.J. McAllister, Shannon McAllister, Reid McAllister and Gregg McAllister.

“Then we stepped up to 6,000 horsepower with the Rosemary and Andrew,” said McAllister. “The Andrew is up in Portland, and the Rosemary, named for my mom, is on charter to Bay-Houston Towing.”

Janet is on charter to Bay-Houston Towing and Shannon is chartered to Suderman & Young Towing, both Houston-based companies operated by G&H Towing. A.J. McAllister and Emily Ann McAllister are FiFi-1 certified tugs on contract to the Cove Point LNG terminal on Chesapeake Bay. All of the above ASD vessels were designed by Jensen Maritime Consultants of Seattle.

“The key thing for us is listening to our customers and trying to anticipate what their needs are and figuring out how to take care of them,” McAllister’s president said.

The past four years have been hard on those customers, especially in the deep-sea market, which took a big hit in the economic crash. But the shipyards, particularly in Asia, continue to deliver ships, creating a global inventory of vessels that, for the present, outstrips the need.

“The shipyards are continuing to deliver vessels and the companies that have vessels that are just 15 years old are scrapping them,” said McAllister. “You have these large fleets of vessels and there’s just too much capacity chasing the cargo. It’s going to take a long time for that market to find an equilibrium. So even as the trade routes rebound, there is so much capacity that companies such as OSG can’t get out from under the burden of debt that they have. And we just saw OSG go bankrupt, which is unfortunate.”

The subject of short-sea shipping seems to creep into every conversation related to the Panama Canal’s expansion project. The construction is slated for completion in 2014, but the wild speculation of a continuous stream of container vessels flooding the East Coast terminals of a few years ago has been tamed by reality. “I’m optimistic but it’s going to take a lot of work,” said McAllister. “It would be great if it happened and it makes a lot of economic sense.”

McAllister pointed out that one major problem facing short-sea shipping is the blunt economic competition between water and road commercial transportation. Simply put, it costs more to load and unload a lift-on, lift-off barge than it does a truck. “It has to do with the stevedoring cost,” said McAllister. “You get charged for a maritime lift if it’s going onto a barge and that maritime lift is a much higher cost than the gate fee for lifting onto a truck.”

McAllister cites one of MT&T’s customers, Columbia Coastal Transport, as a good example of the dilemma faced by short-sea shipping. MT&T operates the barge tow for Columbia Coastal’s container barge service from Norfolk, Va., to Baltimore and Philadelphia.

“Ultimately Columbia Coastal is the best example. They’re running this business the best they can, but the trucks are getting the vast majority of cargo that’s using the I-95 corridor. If you’re driving on I-95 you see a lot of ocean containers. They’re getting the bulk of the cargo and that is ultimately determined by raw economics.”

McAllister’s Staten Island yard.

Increasingly, natural disaster is muscling with economics for front-page attention. This spring, the bird’s eye view of Battery Park from McAllister’s conference room revealed a disheveled swath of uprooted earth and tangled tree limbs punctuated by backhoes and enclosed in chain link. Hurricane Sandy’s pressure wash of Lower Manhattan last October rendered several buildings, including 17 Battery Place, uninhabitable for months. MT&T employees were displaced from their offices until mid-March, but the company’s New York fleet, operating from its Staten Island yard, tugged on through it all.

“The good news is that our tugs and ferries were able to operate throughout the storm without a hitch,” said McAllister. “Phone systems were down but we were able to maintain contact with the Coast Guard through VHF radio throughout the crisis. For me, what it really highlights is that resiliency is a critical aspect of our operations, and resiliency is something we are going to keep in mind every time we design our systems or make investments in our business.

“The teamwork in New York harbor is fantastic. When you look at how much damage there was to shoreside infrastructure and how quickly the harbor was returned to operational, it is really heroic. And it makes me extremely proud to be in the maritime industry to think of all of the sacrifices that all of the deck-plate folks did to keep the harbor running.”

Prompted by Morton Bouchard of Bouchard Transportation, McAllister joined AWO shortly after joining MT&T. “Morty Bouchard called me and said, ‘Bucky you’ve got to get involved with the AWO. It’s a good organization for the industry.’ So I started attending meetings and getting involved and ultimately joined the board about five years ago.” From there the progression ascends to Atlantic region vice chairman, Atlantic region chairman, vice chairman and chairman.

McAllister’s election to chairman of the AWO comes at a demanding time for the marine industry. Perhaps the hottest topic crowding the offices and pilothouses of the industry is the looming Subchapter M towing inspection regulations that are mired in uncertainty and creating anxiety over the cost of compliance. Another topic concerns the capricious nature of the Mississippi River system, running at flood one year, plunging toward coulee status the next. Mark Twain would surely have something to say on this subject.

“In the last year, probably one of the biggest issues the AWO worked on is the low water issues in the Mississippi River,” McAllister said. “That was a very dramatic event for the whole industry and a very complicated policy issue with many stakeholders.”

Following the floods of 2011, the water level in the Mississippi River dropped quickly and dramatically during the 2012 drought, especially at Thebes Gap, the geological break point between the upper and lower Mississippi, located between St. Louis, Mo., and Cairo, Ill. As the water dropped, rock pinnacles reared their heads, first slowing and then threatening to halt commercial navigation in the winter of 2012.

“The AWO went to the Army Corps of Engineers and said, ‘Let’s see what we can do here.’ And between October and January, the Corps targeted those rock pinnacles as an issue that they were going to tackle. And even in this environment of serious, budgetary constraint, the Corps was able to green light that project.”

The Corps dredged, blasted, dredged and released water into the river from nearby lakes to keep river commerce flowing, an amazing feat when you consider the glacial pace of the Corps and the “do nothing but squabble” nature of Washington.

“If you take a look at how hard it is for the Army Corps of Engineers to move ahead with some of the lock and dam projects they’ve got, that was really miraculous,” said McAllister. “They blasted them out and added two feet of draft to the Mississippi River at that location. And that was one of the pinch points.”

Ask someone on the waterfront or on a workboat what they think of the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card and you may get a response more suited to the subject of a tick. The AWO spotted one aspect of the TWIC card renewal process that seemed, not just silly, but onerous on marine industry people, especially those who resided far from a decreasing number of TWIC card centers.

“The AWO spotted that as an issue and began the legwork with elected officials to eliminate the need for a second trip to a TWIC center to get fingerprinted and pick up the card,” said McAllister. “And despite the gridlock you hear about in D.C., the AWO was able to get that legislation passed. So that’s another milestone to be proud of. I think there are over 2 million TWIC cards out there. When you count all those second trips it’s a stunning number of trips.”

McAllister keeps a personal, signed letter he received from Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire thanking him for bringing the AWO and mariners’ issues to her attention. The senator introduced a bill to direct the Department of Homeland Security to reform the TWIC enrollment process to require only one visit.

“I was one of many people working on this but it is something when a U.S. senator responds with a letter like this in response to having sponsored the bill that eliminated the second TWIC card center visit,” McAllister said.

The senator expressed her support for the inclusion of a ballast water standard in the Coast Guard reauthorization bill, another issue with which AWO is concerned.

“The EPA is now on their second round of Vessel General Permit regulations,” said McAllister. “Related to that is the issue of ballast water standards and no discharge zones (NDZ). Some of these environmental regulations put a burden on maritime commerce, and at a certain level they can affect the seaworthiness of a vessel because of storage issues and configuring the storage in multiple tanks.”

McAllister pointed out the efficiency, cost and environmental benefits of short-sea shipping on a ton-per-mile basis as compared to commercial truck transportation, especially in a congested urban environment such as the Interstate 95 corridor, connecting the tip of Florida with the Canadian border in Maine.

“But part of that efficiency is having operational parameters that are workable,” said McAllister. “Some types of regulations have had to be suspended because it’s not even possible to comply with them. It’s not a product of bad intentions. It just calls for a lot more educating and working through the best ways to make our industry efficient while recognizing the environmental stewardship that our industry represents.

“There’s no doubt that the New York harbor today is a lot different than when I was growing up. I think that everyone would say that the improvement in the environmental conditions in the harbor is a great thing. It’s something we all want to continue to improve, period.”

Building on the environmental benefits that the marine industry offers to commercial transportation, McAllister points out that the industry is a good provider of good jobs. MT&T is a member of the Marine Response Alliance (MRA), teamed up with Crowley Maritime, Titan Salvage, Marine Hazard Response, and Marine Pollution Control, to respond to maritime emergencies. McAllister stated that developing a work force that not only provides better service to McAllister’s customers, but also is trained and ready to work within the MRA to respond to different contingencies — 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy to wit — is of great benefit to the port.

“Those are big issues that express themselves differently in different parts of the country but those will be the issues that I will be concerned with,” he said. “For the AWO, the best thing we can do is to educate policy makers about the consequences of the various types of decisions that they might make. On a national and regional level, more familiarity with the reality of vessel operations and the need to enhance maritime commerce helps to make sure that the legal framework within which we’re working is reasonable, workable and effective.”

Big issues they are, but a president of a modern tugboat company still has a fleet to run. Capt. Brian McAllister and Eric joined Buckley in the conference room for a family photo with the model of the tug Rosemary McAllister. The trio launched into a jocular conversation revolving around the 5,150-hp ASD Eric M. McAllister, under construction at Senesco Marine of North Kingston, R.I. A sister vessel to Eric, also designed by Jensen Maritime, is rumored to be named Buckley McAllister.

By Professional Mariner Staff