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Jamaican-born Waynette Harris took her career at TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico from temporary to team lead.

By Hilary Reeves

Waynette Harris gives great advice.

“You can’t always control your circumstances, but if you learn to choose the right attitude, it makes a world of difference,” she said.

Harris, a team lead for TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico’s Shipment Services group, learned the value of a positive outlook early on. She grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, raised by her grandmother, Roslyn McDonald.

Harris sits and smiles at her desk at TOTE Maritime in Jacksonville
Harris at her desk at TOTE Maritime in Jacksonville

“My grandmother raised me from the age of two, and I am the person I am today because of her,” Harris explained. “She taught me to trust God at a very young age, work hard, and do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.”

After an inspiring school trip to an emergency room when she was 17, Harris decided to pursue nursing – a field very much in line with her caring personality.

“I changed my mind after taking on all the science subjects in school,” she laughed.

Instead, Harris set her sights on business, graduating from college and emigrating to the United States in 1992 with her husband, Wendel; they met when she was just 16.

“My husband and his family moved into the same subdivision I lived in,” she said. “He would try to have a conversation every time I walked by his house, and at first I didn’t like him because I thought he was a bit rude and we had nothing in common. We got officially introduced by a family friend at age 17, and we developed a friendship. The rest is history.”

Ten years after arriving in the States, Harris was working for a financial advisor and was just two months away from taking her Series 7 exam to become an Investment Broker when the stock market downturn of 2002 forced her out of her job.

“I decided I would take a temp job until I figured out how to get back into the investment field,” she said. “The temp position landed me at what was then called Sea Star Line, and 12 years later I am still here.”

Harris began her career at Sea Star Line, now known as TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, as a documenter, which provided her a great deal of much-needed knowledge about the industry.

The Shipment Services team is responsible for documenting all cargo that sails on each vessel weekly – an average of 1,600 shipments – creating the bills of lading and invoices. Once all invoices are created, the team is responsible for getting all invoices out to the customers, which the company uses to measure DSO (Days Sales Outstanding). Harris was named team lead six years ago, managing nine others.

“I’ve held a few different positions (within the team),” she said, “I did all the Custom Manifest Arrival notices, and then moved on to being the Invoice Specialist. I became so good at the invoices, they followed me, even to my position as lead. The greatest challenge was just learning how to manage so many different personalities, especially at a time when our business is growing so much and the quality of work still needs to be at its very best to keep the customer satisfied.”

Harris smiles next to a tower of shipping containersHarris said she stayed on at TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico because of the company’s commitment to the community and the family atmosphere.

“It felt right,” she said, “and I believe it was the right place for me to be. I have not regretted a day of being here. I have gained so much knowledge and friendships that will last a lifetime, and most of all I enjoy what I do. I love the fact that no day is ever the same. I’ve learned to persevere through good times and bad.”

Harris and Wendel have been married for 26 years and have three children: Terryann, a surgical nurse, Trudyann, an account manager, and Troy, who is still deciding on a career path.

“I am also the proud nana of an adorable granddaughter, Daniya, who has become the most important part of the family,” she said.

While Harris wouldn’t change a thing about her past – “I don’t believe I would be who I am today if not for my past experiences” – she said that if she could do anything else, she’d have fun attending cosmetology school.

“I love doing my own hair, and I want to be more creative, so I think that would be real cool to do,” she said. “(Women should) pursue something that they are passionate about. If you do what you are passionate about, you will succeed naturally. Life is too short!”

She said she’s most proud of her relationship with God, her family, and that being able to supervise a successful team at TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico and being a part of a growing company gives her a sense of satisfaction. Her department has maintained a 98-percent error ratio for the past three years. This year, she’s been challenged to strive for 99 percent.

Harris smiles, wearing a safety vest, with container cranes in the background
Harris stands in front of the cranes at TOTE Maritime’s Jaxport terminal

“We need to ensure all invoices going out are accurate so we can collect timely payment,” she explained. “It seemed unattainable when it was first mentioned, because our customers have such complex contracts which makes it a bit more difficult for us, but we have a very resilient team and always rise to each challenge.”

And 24 years after leaving Jamaica, Harris is planning her first trip back to the island next year. Her final nugget of advice:

“I have learned that leadership is the ability to obtain followers. John Maxwell said it best: ‘If you are leading and no one is following, you are only taking a walk.’ I keep that close to my heart and try to lead by example.”