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Keyla van Heyningen had been Tropical’s St. Maarten Island Manager for only a day when Category 5 Hurricane Irma crippled the island.

By Hilary Reeves

In 2015, Keyla van Heyningen was managing a produce company that imported goods from the Dominican Republic to St. Maarten when she received a phone call asking her to return to Tropical Shipping as the island’s Sales Manager. She gladly accepted.

“When the former island manager departed in 2017, I was given an opportunity to be the acting Island Manager until the company found a candidate for the job,” she said. “After a few months, I decided to apply for the position, although I felt I probably wouldn’t qualify since one of the requirements was to have an MBA. What I did know was that I had the knowledge, passion, and drive to get the job done – I like a challenge. What I didn’t know was exactly how challenging it would be.”

Van Heyningen had been Tropical’s St. Maarten Island Manager for only a day when Hurricane Irma – then a Category 5 storm with 180 mile-per-hour winds – made landfall on the island on September 6, 2017.

“Irma was not my idea of a challenge,” she said. “It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Not being familiar with exactly what my position required of me in that situation, I just decided that my staff and customers needed all my attention.”

Less than a year later, the company’s warehouse on the island was destroyed by fire, adding to the severity of Van Heyningen and her team’s situation.

“It was another major setback,” she said, “but I was resolute that if we survived Irma, we could also survive the fire. Again, first and foremost, I needed to be strong for my staff and my customers.”

Island people

Putting others first was not exactly an untried exercise for Van Heyningen when Irma blew ashore. The seventh of 10 children, she was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to St. Maarten in her early teens.

“For those unfamiliar with the island, there is a Dutch side (Sint Maarten) and a French side (Saint-Martin),” she explained. “I grew up on the French side. At the time, I wanted to be a translator since I was very good with languages, or a marriage counselor. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to continue my studies. I had to quit school at a young age to assist my mother in raising my siblings.”

Van Heyningen’s first job was working part-time at the same restaurant as her mother, The Mini Club. She was 15 years old, and by 16 was working full-time.

“I loved working there because I got the opportunity to meet a lot of people from our community, government, a lot of tourists, and many of the ‘island people.’”

She even met her husband at The Mini Club – he would come in for dinner with his family.

“We’re still happily married and will be celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary in June.”

She transitioned from restaurant life to retail, which in turn led her to shipping. After working as a sales representative at another shipping agency, she started working at Tropical as a Sales Coordinator in 2004, working her way up to Sales Representative and then becoming the Sales Manager.

“When I joined the company, I was the first-ever Sales Coordinator on St. Maarten and no one knew what a Sales Coordinator was supposed to do. I decided to learn everyone’s job until someone explained to me what I was hired to do. And I did – except for accounting, of course,” she laughed.

Van Heyningen left the company in 2009 to manage the produce company, then came back and eventually accepted that fateful position of Island Manager.

“I was born to be in shipping,” she said. “The day-to day challenges, being able to help the customers with their logistics, making sure that our customers leave the office happy…like I always say, ‘There’s never a boring moment in shipping.’”

‘The best service possible’

While she sometimes wishes she could have attended college, Van Heyningen is a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.

“I’m most proud of my children – two girls and a boy, ages 25, 22, and 20,” she said. “Presently they are all attending college in The Netherlands. I’m proud that my husband and I are able to provide them with the opportunity to get a college degree. Even though I didn’t take a traditional route, I’m proud I was able to grow my career by having a passion to learn and applying a solid work ethic to everything I put my mind to.”

And she aspires to teach others the work ethic and customer service skills she has learned over the years.

“I believe in healthy and fruitful business relationships,” she said. “One of the ways we can improve that is by going the extra mile for our customers and showing them how much we appreciate their support. They choose to invest in our product, so it’s our job to provide them with the best service possible.”

Tropical Shipping’s Mentoring Program
Tropical Shipping’s Mentoring Program (TSMP) was conceived as part of the company’s overall leadership development process with the goals of building the leadership skills necessary to adapt, change and remain relevant into the future, and building a pipeline of leaders to fill future needs, creating leadership depth at Tropical.
Mentors and Protégés are paired annually, beginning in February and ending in October, and meet every two weeks.
Keyla van Heyningen participated in the Mentoring Program last year soon after her promotion to Island Manager. She was one of four people chosen for the program last year and was paired for six months with Maria del Mar Rodriguez, Regional Manager, Hispaniola.
“She and I have a very good relationship, and our islands are closer to each other so it was a very good fit,” said van Heyningen. “As a new Island Manager, we focused on me learning how to read my reports, how to improve my customer service teamwork, their communication skills, and how to work as a cohesive team. Thanks to the program, I can say that I’ve grown tremendously as an Island Manager.”

Tropical manager plans

Van Heyningen hopes to eventually become the Regional Manager for her region.

“When making plans I try to make sure that they are goal oriented and attainable,” she said. “I am here to stay and will retire from Tropical. The second time around is the best. I would just like to take this opportunity to thank my managers for believing in me and trusting me to do the job I was hired to do. Thank you Mark Lopez and Tim Martin. I would also like to thank my team for being my backbone, for their support and hard work.”

She sees a dynamic shift on the horizon in the coming years: changing faces and “new blood” injected into the company.

“I truly believe that with Saltchuk as a driving force in safety and family standards, Tropical Shipping is becoming more and more appealing to the next generation,” she concluded. “This strengthens our reach in market.  With new vessels and new people, the sky is the limit. I also admire the fact that Tropical invests in their people through training and development. I believe we’ll have a very powerful new generation.”

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.