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The Peace Corps led Vermont native Renee La Grenade to St. Lucia; she joined Tropical days before the company’s first shipment to the island

By Hilary Reeves

Native New Englander Renee La Grenade still remembers the morning she decided to leave her life in Vermont behind. Driving slowly through a treacherous snow storm to her job as a dental hygienist, she heard a radio advertisement for the Peace Corps.

“I decided to apply, which was a huge leap of faith, since I had never left home (before),” she said. “I drove 200 miles through another blinding snow storm to Boston for my interview and was advised that there were two dental hygienist positions open in the Caribbean; one in Dominica, the other in St. Lucia. I chose St. Lucia, and that one choice led me to a new life I could never have imagined.”

La Grenade is the Assistant Vice President of Seven Seas Insurance Company, an insurance company specializing in cargo insurance and part of the Saltchuk group of companies.

Young Renee on the beautiful island of St. Lucia in 1991 with Windjammer Landing in the background
Renee on the beautiful island of St. Lucia in 1991 with Windjammer Landing in the background

In the early stage of her professional life, Renee was among the first to work for Tropical Shipping in St. Lucia, hired days before the newly formed company dispatched its first ship to the island. After serving in the Corps, a career in shipping wasn’t even on her radar. She returned to Vermont, but had “fallen in love” with the Caribbean and searched for a way to move back. As luck would have it, she was contacted by a dental hygienist who lived in Barbados. “She wanted to leave, but had to find her replacement, so once again, the stars were shining in my favor and I was able to return to the islands.”

La Grenade worked in Barbados for several years. During a visit to St. Lucia, she met up with a professor who had taught her at the University of Vermont. “He was working with an organization called Project Hope and they had established a regional dental hygiene program based in St. Lucia,” she explained. “They were looking for someone to take over the program, and I was very happy to move back.”

Younger Renee in her office when she served as Tropical’s island manager in St. Lucia.
Renee in her office when she served as Tropical’s island manager in St. Lucia. “There were very few women within the Caribbean shipping community in the early days, and I was considered somewhat of an anomaly.”

La Grenade did move back, and soon after married her husband, Michael, who grew up on the island. Unfortunately, the program she had been hired to run lost its funding. Jobs in St. Lucia were scarce, especially in dentistry.  When La Grenade was approached with the offer of a secretarial position by a local businessman who was establishing a new car dealership and had agreed to represent an American shipping company starting a brand new service to the island, she accepted. “His new showroom and offices were not yet completed, and he was temporarily operating out of a hotel room,” she said. “On my first day of work, I reported to Room 1 at the Red Lion Hotel, Tropical Shipping’s first office in St. Lucia. It was the same week Tropical started service to the island.”

Although La Grenade was hired as a secretary, she soon realized that most of her duties would revolve around shipping functions. Manifests and Bills of Landing were FedExed from Florida every week for distribution, customers came knocking on the door for their deliveries, equipment inventories had to be monitored, receivables had to be collected and soon, she was a full-time representative for Tropical

Renee and Rick Murrell holding the Salesperson Extraordinaire Award
Renee and Rick Murrell, Tropical CEO, in 1988. She received the Salesperson Extraordinaire Award for being a top sales performer, managing her territory effectively and consistently scoring high in reaching her goals.

The business grew quickly,” she said. “We increased volumes from three to 33 containers in just three weeks, and I served as Tropical’s island manager for the next five years. There were very few women within the Caribbean shipping community in the early days, and I was considered somewhat of an anomaly. Because my perspective was only from the destination side of the business, I needed to better understand the U.S. side, and in 1989 my husband and I relocated to West Palm Beach.”

While in Florida, La Grenade managed the company’s Customer Service Department. In 1993, shortly after the birth of her daughter, she was asked to move back to St. Lucia.

“This was an exciting time; there were wonderful opportunities to participate in several new initiatives that Tropical sponsored. The Disaster Preparedness Program was introduced as collaboration between the public and private sectors to respond before, during, and after disasters, and I had the privilege of being the first private sector chairperson for the Transportation Committee with the National Emergency Management Organization.”

La Grenade also served on the Board of the Directors for the St Lucia Air and Seaports Authority and helped launch the “Caribbean Free Stay Program” in St. Lucia. Tropical developed this program to help Caribbean governments grow their tourism sectors by marketing to cruise ship passengers a stay-over return to the islands.

Castries, the capital of St. Lucia, glows yellow from night lights.
Castries, the capital of St. Lucia, is the largest city on the island with a population of approximately 20,000.

“St. Lucia manufactures very little, so almost everyone imports something at one time or another. When working for Tropical in the islands, the company becomes part of your identity. It’s like a badge worn with much pride.”

In 2004, La Grenade moved with her family back to Florida, where she managed the company’s Platinum and Interline Departments. In 2008, an opportunity presented itself, and she joined Seven Seas Insurance as its first Sales and Underwriting Manager.

“When we built our home in St. Lucia, we imported all of our building materials, and much to our dismay, when we opened the containers that housed roofing tiles shipped from Venezuela, we found that the pallets had shifted and 90 percent of the tiles were broken. Seven Seas promptly settled my claim and we were able to replace the roofing materials to complete our home just before the rainy season arrived.”

A mountain towers above a village in Pitons and Soufriere in St. Lucia.
The Pitons tower above the historic town of Soufriere in St. Lucia, two of the most recognized historic landmarks on the island

From that point on, La Grenade said she passionately promoted Seven Seas. When the opportunity presented itself, she was excited to join the company and obtained her 2-20 General Lines Property and Casualty license. In 2013, she became the Assistant Vice President of Seven Seas.

“Seven Seas truly understands what the customer goes through when they experience a loss and the impact that it can have on their business,” she concluded. “The majority of Seven Seas customers are small, less-than-container-load importers. Customers in the islands don’t have the luxury of going to a Home Depot or Wal-Mart to replace missing or damaged items. They typically have to start the buying cycle over, which can take weeks or even months, and a loss can ultimately result in a customer going out of business.

“Our group at Seven Seas works diligently to ensure that we provide not only the most responsive claim service, but one with a sensitive and insightful approach. Seven Seas has made a name within the cargo insurance industry by responding quickly and fairly. Our customers know they can rely on Seven Seas.”

La Grenade’s career within the shipping and logistics industry now spans 33 years.

“I was married and started my career with the organization the same year, so the anniversaries are easy to remember,” she joked, adding that she, Michael, and daughter Nicole, who recently graduated from Florida International University, split their time between their loved ones in Vermont, St. Lucia and of course Florida.

La Grenade smiles in a Tropical warehouseWhen planning for the future of shipping in the Caribbean, La Grenade said that as the United States goes, so the Caribbean.

“The business environment in the Caribbean remains very closely linked to the business environment in the U.S.,” she concluded. “Therefore, economic conditions including tourism and construction are closely monitored.  I learned a saying when I first moved to St. Lucia that goes, ‘When the U.S. sneezes, the Caribbean catches a cold.’  I would venture to say this analogy is as true today as it was 33 years ago.”