By Hilary Reeves
Saltchuk Resources, Inc. has announced the purchase of Florida-based Tropical Shipping and Construction Co., Ltd., a Caribbean shipping powerhouse led by Rick Murrell, whose four decades with the company date back to his touting of Tropical’s speedy service to potential Bahamian customers as an owner’s representative in Nassau.
“We have known about the Saltchuk organization for many years, and have always believed we would make a great team. Now it is a reality,” wrote Murrell in a release after the sale was announced. “I believe this is a historical moment for Tropical Shipping. Furthermore, I can’t express enough gratitude to the AGL leadership and organization for their stewardship and thoughtfulness in positioning Tropical and its employees for a long and successful future.”
Murrell is currently in the midst of his second leadership stint with Tropical. After officially retiring as executive chairman of the company in November of 2011, he was again asked to take the reins on Oct. 26, 2012 – 43 years to the day after he was first hired in 1969.
“I put my fishing rods away, and went back to work,” he said.
Murrell was born in Kenya, East Africa to British parents. His father had spent most of his life in Kenya, and met Murrell’s mother there (after she fled the German bombing of Britain) during World War II. He lived in Kenya until his mother sent him to England to attend boarding school when he was 14. As a boy commuting between Africa and England, he made himself one promise: “I was going to go to America and become an American, because I liked the American music,” he laughed. Decades later, Murrell made good on his promise.
The Birdsall family formed Tropical Shipping and Construction in 1962, with its first ship, the M/V Tropic Ace, setting sail for Freeport, Bahamas in 1963. The company added Nassau as a port of call in 1976, and added three vessels during the decade.
Having moved to the Bahamas in 1965, Murrell took a job as an owner’s representative with Tropical in late October, 1969. The position led to a general manager position for Tropical-owned Ted Curry Shipping, which later became Container Terminals, Limited. In 1975, Murrell was asked to move to Florida and after a brief, four-month engagement as a traffic manager, he was asked by the owners to “get back on the street and start selling to get some business.”
“At that point,” Murrell said, “I started overseeing all the sales and the commercial activity.”
Thanks to investments made by the Birdsall family – and the increasing popularity of using containers for shipping – Tropical’s business boomed in the 70’s. The company added ports of call, including Barbados, St Thomas, Trinidad, St. Croix and Tortola, bringing its port total to eight locations. Tropical also added five vessels. “We really jumped on new opportunities, as they became available,” Murrell said.
In 1982, Nicor Corp., an Illinois-based utility company, acquired Tropical. The late 80’s posed its share of challenges for Murrell, who became the company’s chairman and president in 1987. “The biggest challenge was how to reconfigure the fleet in order to allow the company to grow,” Murrell said. “We sold two ships, bought five, and began the process of building two ships: the Tropic Sun and the Tropic Tide,” he said. “That allowed us to grow the business through the ’90s. The Nicor management team was most supportive of the investment capital required by Tropical to accomplish the capacity improvements to the Tropical fleet,” he added.
Tropical began its popular National LCL Pickup Service in 1991, and launched its website in 1997. It also began offering Hurricane Recovery workshops through the Caribbean. Meanwhile, service began to Nevis and other ports, and, in 1993, service to Trinidad was reinstated. The company also began service to Grenada and St. Vincent. Between 1995 and 1999, Tropical added the ports of Providenciales and Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico, Dominica, Saba, and St. Eustatius, and acquired a liner service to the Cayman Islands.
Atlanta-based AGL Resources purchased Nicor in a $2.5 billion deal that was announced in December of 2010, creating the largest natural gas distribution company in the United States. In January of 2011, as part of a planned leadership transition, Murrell stepped down from his role as president and chairman, serving as executive chairman until his official retirement in November of that year. He was called back less than one year later to again fill the role of company CEO.
The Saltchuk connection
“When I came back, the first priority was resetting the company commitment to customers and employees,” Murrell said. “It wasn’t so much fleet-related as resetting the direction of the organization. We really needed to recalibrate our priorities, and this is an ongoing process.”
Murrell said it wasn’t long after his return to Tropical that AGL management requested that he begin searching for the right long term owners for the company.
“AGL asked the management team to work to get that accomplished, to consider various offerings and make sure that the interests of AGL and Tropical were looked after,” Murrell said. “We immediately thought of Saltchuk Resources, and the other various relationships we had formed over the years.”
In 2004, he had traveled to Seattle to meet with Chairman Mark Tabbut and visited the TOTE ships in Tacoma.
“I thought there was some possibility at that time, that Nicor might have been thinking of selling Tropical,” he said. “I was interested then in meeting players who might be a good fit.”
The sale never happened, but Murrell said he continued to stay in touch with Saltchuk and various interested parties over the years.
“There was no question in my mind that the culture of the Saltchuk entity, as our team saw it, was very compatible with our culture.”
“We have had high regard and interest in the Tropical organization for many years and now it is a done deal,” wrote Saltchuk President Tim Engle in the release. “We believe Tropical is a perfect match. They possess all of the values and traits that make our other companies so strong, and they are a leader in the transportation and logistics industry. We can’t wait to get back to Tropical and get to know all the employees better.”
“I’m absolutely delighted,” Murrell said. “I haven’t heard one complaint from any employee, customer or vendor of ours anywhere, so obviously, it’s being well-regarded in the trade and certainly by our employees. For me, on a personal note, I’m elated to be moving from public to private ownership, and we’re delighted that Saltchuk is the owner-to-be.”
Murrell said there are two things he wants people unfamiliar with Tropical to know about the company: it’s “customers-centric” and it’s focused on timely delivery – to the hour, not just the day for ship arrivals.
“We operate on-time over the ocean,” he said. “Before the company was started, shipping rarely operated with any commitment to a fixed arrival time. The Birdsall family led the Tropical team to implement an effective on-time arrival logistics system that set the standards needed by island customers. This mindset was possible due to the Birdsalls having no background as ship owners, just experience as a customer of a shipping line.”
A career come full-circle
Murrell said he is happy in his current role, for as long as he is needed. His father, who died when he was a year old, and is buried in Kenya, unwittingly set the stage for Murrell’s long and storied career in transportation.
“It’s a strange coincidence; my mother [who passed in 1999] never spoke much about my father, and I never knew exactly what he did,” he said. “But when I retired, it was the first time in my working career that I had research time on my hands and I began doing some digging.”
Murrell found that his father’s main business after he left the British Army was transportation. “He ran ox wagons loaded with supplies back and forth to the town where I was born. It’s a strange coincidence, but telling. I feel that working in transportation, I’m in the perfect place. I’m here for as long as Saltchuk wants or needs me,” he concluded.