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Thomas B. Crowley, Jr. ‘s Webb Institute Awards Honorary Degree Acceptance Speech

Webb Institute presented Mr. Thomas B. Crowley, Jr., CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors at Crowley Maritime (Oakland, CA), with an Honorary Doctorate of Commercial Science degree at Webb Institute’s 119th commencement on Saturday, June 20th.  The following is his speech during graduation, in June 2015:

President Michel, trustees, faculty, graduates, undergrads, and distinguished guests – I am deeply honored and sincerely appreciative of this very special recognition. After learning what it takes to get through Webb yesterday during my tour, I now realize how fortunate I am to get my degree this way. While Math and Engineering interest me, I am not sure I could have mustered up the brain power and discipline it takes to get it done the hard way. I was able to get through a Finance degree and that was plenty challenging. Fortunately there are engineers like you to help people like me develop ideas and run business more efficiently.

Webb is a very special institution. Wall Street has Harvard. Silicon Valley has Stanford and the Maritime Industry has Webb. Your degree carries a lot of prestige and respect. Companies will be looking for you – including Crowley and our naval architecture and engineering firm Jensen. We have hired a significant number of Webb graduates over the years and will continue to do so because Webb engineers are very talented and our engineering consulting services are only going to continue to grow.

While trying to think of something enlightening to share with you today, I reflected on my career so far with a 123-year family business and my own graduation from the University of Washington. And I thought about what I would have liked to have known then that I know now. Here are a few things that came to mind.

Don’t be afraid to learn the business from the bottom up.

When I was a teenager and told my father that I was interested in working for the company, he had me spend my summer vacations pumping sewage tanks, learning to splice line and tie knots and off-loading equipment from barges in the frigid Arctic Ocean – among other things.

While the jobs were not as glamorous as my good buddy the lifeguard or my other friend the golf caddy, these jobs gave me insight and appreciation into the men and women who are in the field today performing the essential work to get the job done for our customers. I will never forget these experiences.

I’m willing to bet that William Webb felt the same way. I understand he started a six-year apprenticeship in his father’s shipyard at age 15, and became manager of the shipyard at age 23 when his father Isaac died unexpectedly. Just as Mr. Webb became leader of the family business at an early age, so too did I. I became CEO of Crowley at age 27 after my father died of cancer. I have to believe that our early experiences learning the business from the bottom up helped us both assume leadership positions at an early age and become better businessmen in the long run.

Never underestimate desire and hard work.

When my grandfather started Crowley Maritime in 1892 in San Francisco, he saved up all his money to buy an 18-foot Whitehall rowboat, which he used to row out into San Francisco Bay to meet incoming tall ships. Crewmembers on these ships would need the boatman service to get themselves and their supplies to and from shore. More often than not, the boatman who arrived at the ship first would get the business. Needless to say my grandfather was in better shape than me and worked hard. Those were much tougher times, but he had the desire to build something for himself and his family and take on the hard work to get it done.

You do not have to be a creative person to engage in creative thinking.

When gold was discovered in the west-central Yukon in 1896 and prospectors from the eastern states rushed to San Francisco to catch vessels heading north to Alaska. My grandfather noticed that crews on whaling ships returning from Alaska had no need for their heavy Arctic clothing and were happy to unload it as soon as they reached the warmer California climate. So he decided to buy all the heavy garments, including boots, coats, leggings made of hides and furs that he could get his hands on and sell them to the prospectors heading north. My grandfather was in the marine transportation business, not retailing. So he found a buyer who would purchase all he had amassed in one transaction. When the buyer was found and the deal was done, my grandfather collected a $900 profit that he used for a down payment on his first 36-foot gas-powered launch boat.

Mr. Webb was also creative thinker and also had ties to gold rush. In the mid-1800s there was a strong demand for new ships to convey prospectors and supplies to and from the goldfields. Clipper ships were seen as ideal for the trade, and in 1851, Mr. Webb built a number of them, including Comet andSwordfish, both of which set sailing speed records for that time.  Freight rates to the goldfields had by this time skyrocketed to such an extent that a ship could pay for its construction with a single voyage. Wow – talk about a return on investment. I wish we could do that today!

Diversification can be a strategic business advantage. 

My grandfather, my father and I have grown the company across a number of business segments – petroleum transportation, harbor ship assist services, naval architecture and marine engineering, ship management , logistics, container shipping, energy support services like heavy-lift tug and barge services, and petroleum distribution and sales in Alaska – we even have gas stations there. And up until about a month ago we owned Titan Salvage – a renowned company that has now been brought together with Svitzer Salvage to form a new global salvage and marine services company called Ardent, of which we now own 50 percent. I mention all of this because we have found that diversification helps smooth out market swings and reduces risk. When one business segment falters, we can often offset the decline with profitability in other segments. While diversification has been beneficial to us, we have also learned the importance of focusing on core business and even exiting businesses that do not fit and share some commonality with that core.

Diversification can also be a career development and personal fulfillment strategy.   

As you begin your careers, you will want to ask yourself:  “Do I want to do the same thing my entire career, or do I want to leverage what I know to learn and take on new roles and responsibilities? As I look around the Crowley organization I see that the people who have advanced their careers the farthest and who seem to be more fulfilled professionally are those who have taken advantage of opportunities to move into, out of and between different roles. We’ve had engineers work on salvage projects, sealifts to the North Slope of Alaska, expeditionary logistics operations in places like Haiti, shipyard construction management projects, and much more. We’ve seen employees with engineering backgrounds move into vessel operations and/or collaborate with Crowley vessel operators.

Here at Webb you are learning this firsthand with your winter work programs. This is great way to diversify your learnings, apply theory in practice, and round out your education.

Don’t let that stop at Webb, keep it up as your develop career.

Relocated Jensen to P17 in Seattle – love to be there with the boats and go out on a job.

The role of science and engineering in the field of ship design is as important – if not more important today – than it was when Mr. Webb founded Webb Institute in 1889.

Mr. Webb often attributed his reputation and success to his attention to detail, as he was born into an era when shipbuilding was considered as much an art as science. As a recognized mathematician, he brought new levels of professionalism to the craft through his combining art of design with the discipline of careful mathematical calculation. His attention to detail and high standards for naval architecture and engineering continue throughout the industry today.

Now, instead of designing some of the fastest and most successful sailing packets and clipper ships ever built, and some of the largest and most celebrated steamboats and steamships of the 1800s as Mr. Webb did, we are designing double hulled tankers, LNG fueled ships, equipment to work at extreme ocean depths, and from what I saw yesterday autonomous boats that will (hopefully) transit the Atlantic with nothing but ingenuity and sunshine.

Vessel designs of the future will feature fuel efficiency, reduced carbon emissions and even renewable energy sources – things Mr. Webb could never have dreamed of. You are going to be helping to drive this evolution. It is a very exciting time.    

Our most important assets are our people.

When I started out as CEO back in the 90s, I used to immerse myself in our operations and in our marine assets – our ships, tugs, barges and the like. Today, I am far more focused on people and organizational development and direction. Most of our competitors either have, or can copy, the latest and greatest vessels, equipment and other physical assets, but they don’t always have the best and brightest people to operate them safely and efficiently. By hiring the most talented people in the industry – like you here today – getting them on the right seat on the bus, and then fostering their professional growth throughout their working careers with us, we develop a high level of expertise and value for our customers. This is particularly evident at our Jensen Maritime subsidiary, which has grown significantly over the past 5 years both in terms of new naval architecture and engineering hires and in the quantity and quality of work. Crowley – People Who Know is not just a slogan. It is a key differentiator for us that our customers recognize.

Continuing education should be a lifetime pursuit. 

Mr. Webb obviously knew the value of an education as could be seen when he founded the institute and provided the academy with an endowment with the intent that it be self-supporting in perpetuity. He wanted Webb to serve not only as an educational institution for future naval architects, but also as a place for aged shipbuilders who could share their knowledge with the younger generation. At Crowley we embrace education, and have goals for all of our employees to achieve a certain number of training hours each year. Our people sharpen their safety, operational, technical, managerial, and financial skills, among others. As for the young people coming into the industry who will be the lifeblood of our company, we provide scholarships, internships and mentoring to get them off on the right foot. High performance is one of our core values. It should also be one of yours. Continuing education will play an important role in that endeavor.

Now let me leave you with a final thought about persistence – and I’m sure you’ve heard this from your parents and teachers growing up …

Just because something has never been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

When the Costa Concordia cruise ship tragically ran aground in Giglio, Italy a few years ago, we were one of nine other companies who submitted a proposal to remove the ship from its tenuous position on the rocks of an ecologically sensitive marine habitat. All of the other salvors wanted to cut the ship up and carry it away in pieces. We were the only company to submit a plan to refloat the ship in one piece. Critics said we were crazy and that it couldn’t be done. But with a lot of extraordinary engineering, planning, project management and hard work by the international team we put together, we were able to successfully parbuckle and refloat the ship and tow her away. It was a monumental achievement – the largest, most complex salvage operation in history – made possible by the fact that we challenged conventional wisdom that the project was impossible.

Keep that in mind as you leave here today. As engineers I believe you are natural and learned problem solvers and that you will accomplish some extraordinary things during your careers. Know that we are counting on you. The industry is counting on you.

Once again, thank you for this very special recognition today and for allowing me to come and share some thoughts with you. I have truly enjoyed my time here, and wish you all great success.