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Marlins project manager keeping his eye on the industry’s changing horizon

Ben Christian took career risks on the road to the spring project launch of the world’s first LNG containerships

By Hilary Reeves

To sea, or not to sea – that was the question for Ben Christian.

Raised in Des Moines, a Seattle suburb situated alongside the calm, lapping waters of the Puget Sound, the project manager tasked with overseeing the build of TOTE’s new Marlin-class vessels – the largest capital project in the history of Saltchuk – chose an uncommon place to further his education after high school: the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York.

“That was kind of the first big, on-my-own decision,” he said.

Ben Christian stands in front of one of the unpainted sections of the Marlin Class ships.
Christian stands in front of one of the unpainted sections of the Marlin Class ships.

Watching his sister attend the Naval Academy Prep School and Coast Guard Academy, Christian knew he was interested in both the maritime industry and the military, but wasn’t sure which he wanted to pursue.

“With a Kings Point education, I knew I would be eligible to become a military officer in any branch of the military, or a merchant mariner on any U.S. Flag vessel. I saw Kings Point as a way to go to sea as a Cadet and see what it was all about before making a final decision.”

Christian’s education at Kings Point required him to spend the equivalent of a year at sea. He split four months aboard two different ships traveling between the west coast of the United States, Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and a handful ports in Asia, then went back into the classroom for four months before working aboard three additional ships for the next eight months.

The variety of assignments proved advantageous for Christian. “You really get a feel for different companies – the company culture and safety culture – and you really see the difference in how different operators act and what your career options are,” he explained. “The second part of that sea year, I was given more responsibility. I really started to feel like it was something I could do. There’s this whole confidence aspect to the sea-year experience. It really opened my eyes.”

After graduation, Christian first sailed as a civilian deck officer for the Military Sealift Command’s auxiliary ships, and then for the Alaskan Tanker Company. He said that although he thoroughly enjoyed his time on the water – the scale, the tangible results of a job well done, and especially the travel – he knew he could leverage his experience to produce an even greater positive impact on the industry. He applied to and was accepted at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“I think the decision came as a result of following my passions. It was a sacrifice to walk away from a good job to spend two years not making a lot of money – and not just not making it, but spending it,” he laughed. “But I wanted to learn the business side. What I was most interested in all along was the bigger picture. Foster was the bridge between what I learned on the sailing side and getting the technical business skills I needed to put it into practice somewhere else.”

An internship with Totem Ocean Trailer Express while he was a student at Kings Point, and a familiarity with Saltchuk, led him to seek them out again while he was finishing his graduate degree. He said he knew he wanted to pursue a position somewhere within the Saltchuk family of maritime companies.

“For me, it was a matter of, ‘How do I get in front of the right people?’ The timing worked out really well. I’d made enough connections at Saltchuk to find out there was going to be an opening there as opposed to Totem Ocean or Foss.”

Specializing in finance while at the business school, Christian was hired at Saltchuk as a senior financial analyst. He was officially back on land, and the realization was bittersweet.

“I kind of saw that there were two different paths,” he explained. “For me, personally, there were a lot more opportunities on the analytical side. My job at Saltchuk was a really great thing to do right after business school. It was the best job possible. I got a lot of exposure to the senior management of the company. I got to really understand the decision-making process and the values of the company.”

A majority of what Christian was doing at Saltchuk involved Maritime Capital Reviews.

“Any significant capital requests from the operating companies have to be approved by Saltchuk,” he explained. “I was exposed to the hard-asset side of the business, really digging into the business strategy, because these big decisions set the direction of where we were going to go as a company. Seeing how Saltchuk allocates capital was fascinating.”

The Marlin era

Christian spent two years privy to Saltchuk’s strategic decisions before he was tapped by TOTE to do the financial analysis for a project that would convert Totem Ocean’s two Orca-class vessels to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG).

“I helped out on an earlier stage than the final capital review,” he said. “I did the same for the Marlin project [the first new-build LNG ships in the world, currently under construction in San Diego]. That carried over to working with the TOTE executive team, and then the operating team, trying to understand and account for all the things that would have to change with the new fuel.”

Christian was selected to oversee the Marlin build and moved to San Diego in the early months of 2013. As project manager for TOTE Shipholdings, he will also lead the conversion of Totem Ocean’s Orca-class vessels and the LNG fuel supply for both classes.

Christian stands in front of Marlin Class hull #495 at the General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard in San Diego.
Christian stands in front of Marlin Class hull #495 at the General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard in San Diego.

“Vendor selection and oversight is my primary function,” he said. “I gather a whole slew of info and opinions about what we need for the project, and figure out who is out there to help us accomplish our goals. Once selected, I make sure we are getting the performance that meets our high standards. I enjoy integrating and balancing the financial, technical, operational, and legal considerations. I’m very excited to see these projects that I was so interested in and very excited about come to life, and to see them through.”

John Parrott is the President of Totem Ocean Trailer Express, also a graduate of King’s Point, and spent more than 10 years at sea before earning his MBA. He said Christian’s skill set is completely in line with the training he received at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

“The focus is now on creating industry leaders,” he said. “You go to sea to become a mariner, and you go to business school to learn the art of business. This is very much in line with the mission of the Merchant Marine Academy. Ben has stepped up in his role and showed his ability to be a leader.

“At this stage of his career, he can say he’s been the project manager on a groundbreaking project,” Parrott continued. “Whether you’re looking at Saltchuk, or the transportation industry as a whole, it’s fabulous. He’s done an unbelievable job juggling all the facets of this project, whether it’s dealing with the yard, the construction, contracting with LNG suppliers, preparing for the Orca conversions, speaking with the EPA…there’s a huge, broad scope on this project and he’s really stepped up to the challenge. Any of (Saltchuk’s) operating companies would have hired Ben, and he chose to take a risk in order to change the industry for the better.”

Christian said he has always felt positively about how LNG can and will effect the maritime industry. TOTE and shipbuilder General Dynamics NASSCO expect to launch the first of the Marlin-class, a 764-foot LNG vessel in San Diego this April. The ship will enter into service for TOTE Maritime’s Sea Star Line during the fourth quarter of 2015. The second ship is expected to launch in August and enter into service during the first quarter of 2016.

Meanwhile, the Orca-class vessels are expected to be brought out of service for conversion one at a time beginning later this year at a shipyard yet to be chosen.

“I followed the trade press and followed the industry information specific to the maritime use of LNG and alternative fuels in general,” he said. “I always had an idea of what the potential was and I was excited about the possibility. It was a really difficult decision-making process, in terms of whether to convert the Orcas and make the switch with the Marlins. It was pretty clear what the environmental benefits are, but the whole other side of ‘Okay, there’s no infrastructure right now…’ For the TOTE team to have the foresight to look beyond that was and is really impressive.”

Christian said he’s unsure what he will do after the Marlins enter into service, but he hopes to stay within the Saltchuk family.

“My experience here has taught me so much. That we at TOTE, with a two-ship fleet in the Pacific Northwest could go out there and lead the industry to find solutions for emissions reduction – that really speaks to the attitude of the whole organization. People (working for Saltchuk) don’t expect for things to be easy, for solutions to be handed to them by someone else. I think that comes from the company’s origins in Alaska, and I’m proud to have done my part to help carry on the tradition.”
Video of the launch of the first Marlin vessel, christened Isla Bella, April 18, 2015.