Paul Stevens: ‘I somehow fell in love with the industry.’
Paul Stevens never imagined a career in the maritime industry. A quintessential “gentle giant,” his imposing presence and breezy charisma belie his quiet Jersey upbringing.
“New Jersey was a great place to grow up. The school system was great. But let’s just say it’s a great place to be from,” he joked.
Born in Brooklyn, Stevens lived in New Jersey until his father’s position at Johnson & Johnson took the family to Southern California. He finished high school there, then graduated from the University of San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. He went on to attend the American Graduate School of International Management – now part of the Arizona State University program – and received his master’s degree in International Management.
“(I went to graduate school because) I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I wasn’t quite ready to go to work.”
Ready or not, it wasn’t long before Matson came calling. The shipping giant offered Stevens a sales job for Matson Navigation in Southern California – but that wasn’t what sealed the deal.
“The job came with a car,” he laughed. “It wasn’t even that nice of a car, but I figured between the company car and getting to stay in California, I’d accept the job and then figure out what I wanted to do later.”
Stevens spent the following 27 years at Matson, eventually named the company’s executive vice president.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but I came in at a time when they were expanding. There was a lot of upward mobility for people. I was fortunate enough to have great mentors and be able to take advantage of it.”
Toward the end of his tenure with the company, Matson Navigation and Saltchuk partnered in a joint shipping venture to Puerto Rico: Sea Star Line.
“I was on the Board of Directors of Sea Star and got a chance to become very familiar with the Saltchuk family of companies – especially TOTE,” Stevens explained. Meanwhile, he said he felt things were changing at Matson.
“Mark Tabbutt gave me a call at my office in San Francisco and said, ‘Why don’t you come work for us?’ I was 50 years old. My wife and I flew up to Seattle, and by the end of the weekend, she asked, ‘How could you not go to work for these people?’”
Foss Maritime, ‘retirement,’ and an honorary doctorate
Stevens joined Saltchuk in 2003 and was soon named president and CEO of Foss Maritime.
“I took over the Foss operation, grew the business, sold and bought some companies. We built barges and ships to support the war effort and our operations in South America.”
Professionally, the transition was an easy one, he said, but personally, there were challenges.
“My youngest daughter was going into high school…it was a difficult transition for a couple of years. But I had the opportunity to do a lot over my 13 years at Foss. It was a really exciting time to work in the marine services business.”
Stevens retired effective Jan. 1, 2017 – but he wasn’t finished working.
“The basic message was, ‘We’ve got some things here that you’re an expert in.’ I was asked to stay on as a Senior Vice President and Managing Director, and that’s what I did.”
When Young Brothers needed a steady hand to help through a leadership transition and find the company’s next CEO, Stevens stepped up, moving to Hawaii for the next six months and hiring the company’s current CEO, Jay Ana.
“I’ve spent more than 40 years in maritime, and it’s all because I was offered a good job in Southern California with a company car. I somehow fell in love with the industry.”
Somewhere along the way, Stevens also fell in love with Cal Maritime, the only maritime academy on the West Coast and part of the California State school system.
“If you take a look at the makeup of Foss, we have a tremendous number of employees who went to Cal Maritime. As a result, I started getting involved as a member of the Foundation Board.”
Stevens began working closely with Tom Cropper, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and president of Cal Maritime, on fundraising and other aspects of recruitment, retention, and job placement after graduation.
“We just focused on how to make the school better,” Stevens explained. “Foss is a big contributor to Cal Maritime – as we should be. It’s the only maritime academy on the West Coast and a huge source of employment for us.”
Early in 2020, Stevens got a call that he was among the first recipients of honorary degrees awarded by the school.
“I got a call that was, like, ‘We’ve submitted your name to the Regents of the California State University system to receive an honorary doctorate, and it’s been approved – we just need to award it at a public event.’ But then COVID hit.”
In May, Stevens received his Doctor of Letters at Cal Maritime’s 2021 Commencement.
“I can’t say enough about how humbling it was. I have a feeling I’ll be connected to that school in one way or another for the rest of my life.”
Paying it forward
Closer to home, Stevens said he’s a “huge fan” of the new Maritime High School that opened this year outside of Seattle.
“I feel very passionately that we’ve failed our young people by telling everyone that they need to go to college. Think about this – 25 percent of all college graduates come from the California systems. Do you know which two schools have the highest rates of post-graduation employment? Cal Maritime and Poly Tech in San Luis Obispo – both schools where you learn an actual trade. The truth is, you can go to high school, become a sailor, and don’t have to go to college. You can work in an industry that pays well, that’s drug-free. This early indoctrination into the maritime business is a marvelous idea. It’s great for kids who don’t know what to do. For a lot of kids, they don’t want to go to college, but they don’t know what other options are out there.”
Looking back on his career, Stevens said he doesn’t have too many business regrets.
“But at the end of the day, I spent a lot of time away from my family. Sometimes I’ll ask myself, ‘Did I really have to go on that trip? Would I have been better off staying home? Maybe. Thankfully, my wife was always very supportive.”
Stevens said he’s most proud of how he’s been able to help people along the way – and his family.
“It’s a combination of things. I felt I was good at helping to develop people, helping them grow. On the family front, I have three beautiful daughters. None are in jail. Two are happily married. One is happily independent. I have a super-positive relationship with all my kids and my grandchildren. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Blessed and lucky
Stevens said he’s all about work-life balance now: “it’s family, it’s travel, it’s golf, it’s friends,” he laughed. “When you work for 45 years, you have to figure out a way to enjoy those things too. Having worked in corporate environments – a lot of the guys I worked with were workaholics. At Saltchuk, these guys work hard, but they play hard too. That’s always impressed me. They have a great balance. Family was just as important as work. I think the younger generations today are doing a better job at this than my generation.”
Looking to the future, he said the transfer of leadership should be top-of-mind across the maritime industry and beyond.
“Succession-planning is a big challenge for any company. One of the things that troubles me is all this work-from-home. How do you find the next generation of leaders if you can’t even see them in action?”
Looking back, Stevens is shocked at how far he’s come.
“Having gone in with no expectations that I was going to stay (in the industry), ending up where I am today is a shocker. Someone asked me once, ‘What is luck? I think it’s where opportunity and hard work come together. I sit here today at almost 69 years old, very blessed, to be honest with you. And very lucky. Blessed and lucky.”