After 30 years with the Marquette Transportation Company in Paducah, Kentucky, John Eckstein has taken on the role of Executive Chairman of Marquette and delegated his duties as CEO to the company’s President, Damon Judd.
In this exclusive Q&A web, we ask Eckstein to talk about his experiences over the past decades with one of the largest providers of sea transport solutions in the country.
Marquette has three operations with a strategic mix of vessels operating on the latest marine technology and equipment. Founded in 1978, the company’s River unit now has a fleet of more than 50 liners and more than 800 dry cargo vessels. In 2007, Marquette added its Gulf Inland unit (formerly Eckstein Marine) and its Offshore unit (formerly HLC Tugs) to provide a seamless transportation experience for our customers.
Marine Log (ML): What have been the biggest challenges you have faced over the past 30 years?
John Eckstein (JE): There are many that come to mind when you look back on our history as a company and the market cycles we had to survive to get where we are today. In this business, we are all affected by a number of factors that are completely beyond our control: weather, global crops, dynamic operating conditions, and global trade, to name a few. In addition, there is a unique complexity of our markets that goes beyond the economic fluctuations of all companies. However, the most persistent challenge for Marquette is the volatility we see in our river business because we have a strong focus on covered hopper transportation that is tied to the grain markets.
Our constant focus on creating a successful business despite this challenge is probably one of our greatest competitive advantages in our market. In the early 1990s, when most boat operators were looking for charter work in areas with less seasonality and more stability, we decided to focus on the grain business. We have offered our customers the value proposition of total flexibility. When they were busy we operated enough equipment to keep their barges moving, and when they slowed down we hung up boats and waited for them to be employed again. Sometimes we went from 50% of our fleet to 100% and back to 50%, all in the same month.
It was not an easy task then and is not easier now, but it is at the heart of who we are as a company. Our success, despite this challenge, was fueled by an incredible team on land, paired with the best seafarers in the business. They all understand the mission and work together to safely run our business and support our long-term customer partnerships.
Eckstein, third from left, with a group of Marquette staff. Photo credit: Marquette Transportation Company
ML: What do you see as the big challenges for the future?
IS: Maintaining the quality of seafarers. The strength of Marquette has and always will be our high quality seafarers. It’s very hard work and our crews are away from home for 30 days at a time. It takes a special person to start this business on the deck and work your way into the wheelhouse, navigating 40+ cargoes of over 80,000 tons of product on an ever-changing river system or pushing 1,000 feet of tow into the canal. Our onshore team has an incredible respect for our seafarers. As an industry, it is critical that we continue to invest in training the next generation of seafarers regardless of economic fluctuations.
As a country, we need to increase our investments in the aging infrastructure of our inland waterways. Our waterways give American farmers and businesses a significant economic advantage as we bring bulk commodities to market and provide vital inputs to factories along the river system via the safest, most efficient, and environmentally friendly mode of transport available.
Today almost half of our nation’s 242 castles are over 70 years old! As a country, if we don’t increase infrastructure funding for our country’s locks and dams, we will throw away our competitive advantage as we watch countries like China invest billions to support infrastructure improvements around the world.
ML: The technical revolution and all the things that could be thrown together as digitization have had an impact on all other segments of the maritime industry. How long does it take to reach the rivers, or have they already?
IS: When I first took over Marquette we still relied on ship operators to call the boats and the latest technology was the boats’ ability to fax their orders to the office. It is easy to look at the hull age of the industry’s tug fleet and conclude that technological improvements have been slow to affect the internal market. However, this is a misunderstanding.
While many of the fundamentals of our business remain the same, the tools and systems that support our seafarers and our business continue to evolve with technology. Things like communications, electronic cards, and preventive maintenance systems have all been greatly improved, to name a few. I believe all of the big companies in our industry are investing heavily in technology to bring better information and real-time analytics to our seafarers and coastal teams.
ML: Earlier this year, Marquette received its fifth and final boat in a 6,600 hp series. C&C Marine and Repair triple sterndrive tug boats. What can you tell us about these ships and do you have any other big projects in the works that you can tell us about?
IS: We are very pleased with the quality of the construction at C&C Marine. While our experience shows that sterndrives do not provide a measurable increase in performance going north, the steering and maneuverability going south is impressive. There is a learning curve to operating and maintaining this style of ship, however, and our team handled these dynamics superbly. While we love having a few sterndrives in our fleet, we don’t think they will ever replace conventional boats inland. There are still many segments of our business where a traditional boat is a better fit at this point, such as B. the larger horsepower boats that can handle heavy haulage towards the north.
ML: How did Marquette approach the issues that come with COVID-19, which is an essential business?
IS: While COVID-19 has created challenges, I think companies operating in marine markets were better equipped to face those challenges than many other industries. By their very nature, our markets require companies to adapt to rapidly changing conditions and develop the ability to respond to crises. At Marquette, we were able to use this muscle memory to change our operating procedures very quickly to protect our teams while maintaining service to our customers.
Some of the key elements for us have been emphasizing the importance of excellent communication, making sure we have the appropriate infrastructure to support the remotely working office members, and making a commitment that we address all COVID-19 concerns to our seafarers that result, make their ship completely transparent. I am very proud of the way our teams responded to the challenges of COVID-19 with teamwork, agility, and a sense of duty, and proud of the role our industry plays in supporting the US economy and global food supply.