Business View Magazine interviews Jason Kelly, EVP of Moran Shipping Agencies, Inc., as part of our focus on Best Practices in the Maritime Industry.
Family-based, forward-moving Moran Shipping Agencies is celebrating 80 years of steamship agency excellence, this year. From humble beginnings in Providence, Rhode Island in 1937, the company is now the largest independent steamship agency in North America. Principals in the company credit its success to the long-term support of loyal and valued clients, superb vendors, and dedicated employees who strive to give their best every day.
Executive Vice President of Moran Shipping Agencies, Jason Kelly, talks passionately about the family business and its exciting growth vision. “I’m so proud to work at this company. I hope my enthusiasm comes through… sometimes I think I don’t do it justice.”
Moran Shipping Agencies started out as a customs broker, freight forwarder, and shipping agent. Decades of success led to expansion throughout New England. In 1970, the company was purchased by F. Robert Black. Kelly explains the family dynamic, “Our brand is quality, and the brand was so good that Bob Black kept the Moran name rather than change it. The Black family still owns Moran’s and there are a lot of us here. Bob (my mother’s brother) retired in 1985, his brother Michael retired in 2005, but is still Chairman, and his youngest brother, James Black is now CEO and President.”
In the ‘70s, Bob expanded the company outside New England, down to the Gulf of Mexico. When he retired in the ‘80s, his brothers expanded even further, to the west coast of the U.S. and other areas of the Gulf. Moran also has international sales offices in London, U.K. and Piraeus, Greece, as well as over 20 brick-and-mortar offices in major ports down the east coast from Maine through Florida, along the Gulf Coast, and in northern and southern California. Moran handles mostly commercial vessels, from oil tankers to dry-bulk vessels, and cruise ships.
Current CEO and President, Jim Black, states, “Our mission as ship agents is to ensure a safe, secure, and cost-effective port call for every vessel the company represents. Sustainable approaches in commercial shipping are critical. Moran strongly supports achieving best practices in safety, security, and environmental stewardship.” Problems with invasive species and carbon emissions cause great concern in the shipping industry. Some of these issues have turned into opportunities. For example, Moran is exploring a partnership with the University of Rhode Island in ballast water testing for invasive species. They also have a safety and pollution company to increase safety and security of fossil fuel loading and unloading at terminals; and a maritime security company that helps ship owners and terminals meet UN standards from the International Maritime Organization.
In 2000, Moran embarked on a robust initiative to become more global. The company became ISO certified, and started investing heavily in technology. Kelly notes, “We also took on a diversification strategy of investing in other areas within the marine sector, in the blue tech sector. We’re a very innovative company. In blue tech, we recently started a maritime cyber security company and hired specialist Captain Alexander Soukhanov and his team to provide ship owners with boots-on-the-ground maritime cyber assurance exercises, including penetration testing to see where vulnerabilities lie. We’re very excited about it.”
When Moran moved its headquarters to downtown Providence from an industrial park, it embraced a green building initiative. Kelly says, “We have one of only a few historic buildings, individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with Gold LEED certification. That means low VOCs, geo-thermal heating and cooling, air filtration systems; even the furniture is more environmentally-friendly. That appealed to us because it created a very healthy work environment for our employees.” The building has been recognized nationally, and proves that historic preservation and green building technology are not mutually exclusive. A few years later, Moran built its sister headquarters in Houston to similar LEED standards – another facility that is extremely healthy for employees.
The company values its 200 full-time and 300 contract workers as a tremendous asset, and is incredibly progressive in the areas of HR policies, training, and support for academic efforts. “Moran’s reputation for quality comes from the great work of our experienced and committed team,” says Black. “Our employee turnover is minimal.” The average manager has worked there for over 20 years; some over 40 years. Kelly has been with the company for 23 years and still feels like a “newbie” at times.
Safety is of paramount importance. Moran has a VP based in Texas, who is a global thought leader in safety issues, and employees are well trained in that area through the ISO system. Kelly says, “We’ve got a perfectly sized company; big enough to compete with the largest supply chain experts in the world, but small enough at under 500 employees, with a family relationship-based approach that benefits our clients immensely.”
On the regulatory front, ship owners and others in the marine sector believe that a uniform application of environmental standards is best for the industry. Black acknowledges, “We, along with other industry leaders, support global standards in commercial shipping. Important environmental standards will only work if applied evenly, creating a level playing field. Patchwork regulation hinders advancement.”
The company’s documented procedures and work instructions on vessel husbandry, vessel movements, and ship agency are unequalled in the industry. Kelly reports, “We’ve provided a tremendous amount of training in that regard. We cost a little more than our competitors, but it’s necessary with the amount of effort we put into quality, IT services, training – if you look at the core business of agency, this is what differentiates us. The fact you can pick up the phone and call the owner of the company at 2 AM is another thing that’s unusual.”
Moran’s services transcend the traditional scope of shipping agencies. Kelly says, “Most of our competitors – large or small – have been unable to do this. We provide compliance services and UN maritime security, cyber security, and safety and pollution consulting for terminals. When ships come to port, we are like the general contractor of the port call. We coordinate the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, the pilots, the tugs, the lines, and a multiplicity of other vendors we hire on behalf of the ship owner. Our award-winning vendor procurement program ensures our clients are getting the highest standards.”
When it comes to long-term partnerships, Black says, “Strong relationships with our clients and vendors are based on years of trust.” As ship agents, they partner with terminal operators, pilots’ associations throughout the States, and major tug companies, including Foss Maritime, Suderman & Young, and McAllister Towing. These are all extremely important vendors. The government is also a vendor, so relationships with the U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and Agriculture are key.
The current trajectory of the company does not include global expansion. Kelly explains, “We feel we can’t ensure the quality we’re known for in countries where we don’t have a local presence. In the 2020s, we’d like to still be the largest ship agent in North America, and have the new businesses we’re working on – maritime cyber, ballast water, safety and pollution – and be far enough along to be considered leaders in those segments, as well.
In addition, Moran Shipping Agencies wants blue tech innovators to know: “We’re looking for partners with a synergy between what we do and what they do. Ocean clusters, the blue tech economy, hold some of the most promise in commercialization and economic development. Our view of diversification and our ability to leverage our brand and partnerships could be strategically important to other companies. We’d like to make those connections.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Moran Shipping Agencies, Inc.
WHAT: Largest independent steamship agency in North America, directly serving over 100 ports
WHERE: Headquarters in Providence, Rhode Island and Houston, Texas