Ben Ostroff: ‘I believe in giving decision-making power to the people closest to the operation.’
In the weeks following the completion of Ben Ostroff’s first semester at Pitzer College—a top-ranked liberal arts school near Los Angeles where Ostroff was planning to study sociology and psychology—he had an epiphany.
“I realized I didn’t want to be in school,” he said, laughing. “I wanted to go get a job and find out what I really wanted to do with my life.”
Ostroff moved north into an apartment complex in San Rafael with his then-girlfriend, now-wife Molly, and landed a job as a stock boy at Pottery Barn. One night, hanging out in the complex’s common area, he met a tug captain in need of a deckhand.
“He offered $10 an hour—more than I was making at the time.”
Two decades later, Ostroff is a proud graduate of Cal Maritime, a tug captain in his own right, and the General Manager of Starlight Marine, a position he’s held since the company joined the Saltchuk family a little more than a year ago.
“A lot of folks in president or GM-type roles are Type-A. Me, I don’t need to be in charge. I just like getting it done for the mariners and the customers and making sure everyone is taken care of.”
Expecting the unexpected
Ostroff was born in New York and adopted as a baby. His father went to medical school at Cornell University but was offered a position at the University of California in San Francisco when Ostroff was still young. He’s lived in California for most of his life, his adolescence sprinkled with painful memories resulting from his inability to conform.
“I didn’t know what to do with my life when I left Pitzer,” he said. “I’d agreed to college because that was what was expected, but when I met that tug captain, I was at a loss.”
Ostroff said the deckhand job was just the opportunity he needed at the time.
“My father got a sailboat when I was five years old, and I remember competing on a race team at summer camp in Maine, but my real passion for the industry ignited during that first stint as a deckhand.”
“I found I loved working on the water, loved that it wasn’t a typical office job. It was actually one of my captains, Sidney Fruit, now at Foss, who said, ‘You’re too smart for this crap. Why don’t you get out of here and go to college?”
Still chafing against the idea of traditional college, Ostroff took a chance and enrolled in Cal Maritime in 2000. He graduated in 2004 and immediately went to work for Crowly on offshore tugs in Alaska and up and down the west coast.
“There was kind of a natural progression to my resume,” Ostroff said. “I started offshore. Then I went to work on the oil tankers. Then I had children and wanted to be closer to home, so I took a job with Baydelta (Marine).”
Ostroff explained it was a friend he’d run into at a wedding who convinced him to “get on the drill rigs,” a nickname for the deep-water oil rigs dotting the Gulf of Mexico. He ended up earning his Dynamic Positioning (DP) certification and became a Dynamic Positioning Operator (DPO) for two organizations, responsible for keeping a vessel in the same geographic spot, despite the wind, waves, current, and other environmental factors.
“In 2016, three of the rigs got laid up, and we got laid off,” he said. “I called up another buddy who worked for Centerline (Logistics Corp). I told him I was looking for a job, but only if Centerline was willing to take me on as a port captain and operations manager. He agreed. When the Starlight vessels went to Saltchuk (in 2021), I expressed interest in becoming a General Manager to Jason Childs, and he took a huge chance on me. Now here I am, a year or so later.”
“I want Starlight set up so that the next leader can be plugged right in so the company doesn’t have to start from scratch, so that we have all the policies and procedures in place…that’s what I’m working toward right now.”
A renewed commitment to safety
Centerline’s harbor ship assist operations in California—operating under the names Millennium and Starlight—joined Saltchuk Marine in December of 2020 and integrated with the company’s existing California fleet in January of last year, about the time Ostroff was appointed GM.
“A year ago today was my last day off,” he said, laughing. “But in all seriousness, I love this job. I don’t even know if I could put into words why. I have an amazing team who trust me to make this work. I appreciate their trust and work my hardest to maintain that trust.”
One of the changes Ostroff’s welcomed in the last year is a renewed commitment to safety.
“When I was on the drill rigs with Transocean, they had an amazing safety culture that was personalized to each individual. In other words, they made each person feel like they mattered, and their contributions and the steps they took to stay safe were in line with overall goals,” he said. “When I moved to Centerline, I tried to adopt that mindset, but there were a lot of roadblocks. When we moved under Saltchuk Marine, I realized leadership thought about safety the way I did, which was amazing. Creating a strong safety culture at Starlight has been a wonderful experience. Being able to create a family-type atmosphere is important, and it’s important to the guys.”
Ostroff said he’s most proud of his two boys, ages 15 and 13. He counts himself a huge motorcycle enthusiast and, someday soon, hopes to escape to his cabin in Pinecrest near Yosemite, where his family enjoys skiing, mountain biking, and target practice. His single bucket-list item: driving his motorcycle from California to the Florida Keys and back.
“Professionally, I’m most proud of the culture we’re building here,” he said. “We’re not 100-percent there yet, but we’re well on our way.”
He said he’s ambitious when he thinks of the company’s future.
“I want to help expand Starlight,” he said. “I don’t know what that would look like yet, but first we need to get a place I call, ‘plug and play.’ I want Starlight set up so that the next leader can be plugged right in so the company doesn’t have to start from scratch, so that we have all the policies and procedures in place…that’s what I’m working toward right now.”
And while he said he sometimes misses being out on the water, his long-term goals for Starlight are more important.
“Stability,” he echoed, “and also trying to get the mariners to take ownership of their jobs and vessels and want to have a say in how things operate. I believe in giving decision-making power to the people closest to the operation. That sense of ownership—that’s what we’re working on right now.”