Since setting a new course for Tropical, Murrell eyes other opportunities to ride the wave of the future.
By Hilary Reeves
The American Caribbean Maritime Foundation (ACMF) has announced it will honor the career achievements of Saltchuk Senior Vice President and Managing Director Rick Murrell at its 2018 Annual Benefit at the New York Yacht Club in Manhattan on October 18.
The ACMF and its Patron, the Most Honorable Prime Minister of Jamaica Andrew Holness, will spotlight Murrell’s “extraordinary achievement at Tropical Shipping…and throughout (his) legendary career.”
Murrell’s career, which spans more than half a century, “is a beacon of success in shipping circles where (his) leadership is, and has been, an inspiration to industry professionals and those entering the sector,” wrote Geneive Brown Metzger, ACMF president.
As the CEO of Florida-based Tropical Shipping, Murrell successfully helped steer the company to its current home under the Saltchuk umbrella four years ago, a transition that he looks back on with pride.
“From my perspective, I don’t think it could have gone better,” he said. “The best way I can summarize it is to say that the Saltchuk group did everything it said it would prior to the transition, and on the Tropical side, everything the team said it would do has also been accomplished. I don’t think we varied one bit. On both sides, it’s commendable that there were no hidden agendas.”
Murrell retired in December 2017 as President and CEO of Tropical to take on his current role with Saltchuk, which he breaks into three areas of focus: leveraging Saltchuk’s energy line of business, NorthStar Energy, in the Caribbean; working on public sector relationships for both the commercial and humanitarian aspects of the disaster recovery process; and finally, what Murrell calls “envisioning ‘tomorrow-land.’”
He remains Chairman of the Board at Tropical.
“The energy-related part of my work is fairly self-explanatory,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities in the Caribbean and for the Caribbean that we have yet to be a part of. As far as disaster recovery, that’s something I’ve been involved with for a long time.”
Murrell came to disaster recovery after seeing what happened during Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and how devastating a natural disaster could be to the people of the Caribbean.
“I wanted to see if there was a way, from a corporate social-responsibility perspective, that we could minimize the number of people affected by these events and, by doing that, if we could we return our shipping business to normal more quickly.”
According to Murrell, the topic of disaster recovery opens the doors of leaders around the world.
“Building relationships and trying to move things toward a formal understanding is much more difficult in America than it is in the Caribbean. Generally speaking, America is a more litigious society, a lot more cautious in making decisions. A decision that I might be able to get within hours from the British might take weeks or longer to formalize here,” he laughed. “But it’s been fun. I think we’ve made a difference. I’m just a salesman; that’s all I am. But now I have the opportunity to sell all that Saltchuk has to offer.”
But it’s his final area of focus that most excited Murrell: the idea of “tomorrow-land.”
“I’m making it sound very grandiose,” he said. “Really, it’s just pushing to be sensitive to the changes in technology, and what we need to do to maximize our use of tech, Artificial Intelligence (AI), block chain, cyber defenses, outsourcing, etcetera, to maximize our competitiveness as an organization.
“In order to get to ‘tomorrow-land,’ you have to have a vision, a plan, and you have to execute that plan. It’s hard for people to accept that everything we do today is going to change. AI is going to make a huge difference to overall competitiveness. We need to keep up with the changes that are coming so we’re not on the back end, but we’re riding the wave. To use a maritime metaphor, we don’t want to wait until we get a hole in the side of the boat,” he laughed.
Relationships built on trust
Born in Kenya, East Africa to British parents, Murrell moved to the Bahamas in 1965. If America was his first love, surely the Caribbean was his second.
“The people in the Caribbean are wonderful people,” he said. “Within the islands, it’s relationships that matter most. It’s trust. It’s keeping your word. It’s not the almighty dollar. These communities are more than willing to open their hearts, and their reliability and commitment to each other line up perfectly with Saltchuk’s core values.”
Perhaps it’s unsurprising the pride Murrell has in how Tropical has shaped both the islands, and its homeport in Palm Beach.
“Many people don’t understand Tropical’s contribution to the economic growth and job creation in Florida, as well as the Caribbean,” he said. “The relatively small Port of Palm Beach is actually the 12th-largest containerized exporter to foreign locations in the country.”
And Tropical’s revolutionary to-the-hour delivery helped stimulate economic growth in all ports of call.
“Before we went into Anguilla, for example, it was sort of like a beautiful backwater. Once we put a weekly service in, its GDP grew 12 percent. People are shocked to find out that the Caribbean is the fifth-largest buyer of non-oil exports in the world.”
Building a culture of respect
Murrell said he’s most proud of his wife of 36 years and his son, his family. Looking back over his career, his second-most point of pride is keeping his word.
“I kept my word to Saltchuk’s Chairman Mark Tabbutt,” he explained. “I promised him that if ever I heard about Tropical being available for sale that he would be the first person I called. There were strings pulling me in all directions, but I kept my word. I’m also so proud of Tropical, of 47 years of beating all the competitors that came against us in the market we were in.”
Murrell spends his non-working hours out on the crystal waters of South Florida.
“Most of the people I fish with now are half my age,” he laughed.
And while it’s no surprise that Murrell’s lifelong love of American music is still strong, it’s current chart-toppers, not the music of his youth, he most enjoys.
“I don’t like rap,” he said, “but I’m much more current than you might expect. I’m more in tune with today’s music than I am stuff from the past.”
Murrell said he’s always surprised by the great diversity of opportunity and greatness of people he’s encountered throughout his life and career.
“I really do believe that growing up in Africa equipped me to communicate effectively across all nationalities,” he said. “Africans, Arabs, Indians – just the diversity in Kenya…I learned to adapt to whomever I was working with, listening and respecting everyone’s culture and diversity. I truly believe that everyone has something they can contribute, regardless. And everyone’s got an innate desire to do well, no matter what their background.”
Murrell’s “tomorrow-land” is more of a constantly evolving expectation than a far-off utopia that will eventually be reached, but he’s determined to help Saltchuk succeed for as long as he can.
“There’s a story that truly explains my feelings on the importance of innovation, and my thoughts on the future,” he said. “In 1992, Tropical was under great threat from competitors. I had Island Managers saying, ‘We got these big boys coming against us; we’re going to get killed.’ I pulled everybody together into a meeting at the Embassy Suites on PGA Boulevard. I said, ‘There’s a lot of competition out there, and in order for us to survive, we need to do something different. Who here thinks they could work at Tropical, but not know how to work the telephone?’
“Everyone was in agreement that there was no way to hold a job at Tropical Shipping without working a telephone. Then I had Mark Chapman walk in with Compaq laptops for everyone. I said, ‘This is the new telephone. This is the thing that will give us a competitive advantage. You have one year. Work on this, arrange meetings on this, communicate with the islands – our competitors will still be using telex and faxes, and we’ll be so far ahead of them.’
“At the time, the only people I could find using e-mail strategically were IBM and Microsoft. I gave everyone a year to get current and use the computers; we even offered to pay whatever tuition was needed to do it. But I said, ‘If you’re not using this machine consistently one year from today, you will lose your job at Tropical.’ Unfortunately, at the end of the one-year period, our star salesman had failed to pick up the requirements, and he was let go. I’m telling you this story to demonstrate what it takes. I’m pushing Tropical and Saltchuk both to think of the future and put the energy and resources into remaining there.
“From my perspective, business is ever-changing. You have to mold the business today – right now – so that it fits tomorrow.”