Dixon: ‘It’s been supremely rewarding to me already.’
By Hilary Reeves
Captain Jeff Dixon spent 27 years on active duty in the United States Coast Guard before joining TOTE Services almost two years ago. He assumed the role of President following the retirement of Rear Admiral Phil Greene, Jr. in January.
“It’s been a fast ride so far,” he said.
Dixon grew up an only child on Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida. His father was a Vietnam veteran near the end of his career. His mother, he said, passed away from cancer when he was 10.
“My first sort of introduction to the Coast Guard was right around that time – a fourth-grade field trip to a Coast Guard station where I got a good look at a Cutter. Looking back, it was only a 210-foot Cutter, but at the time it seemed huge and really caught my interest,” he laughed. “My dad was military, so I was accustomed to the idea of one day being in the military. But the ships were pretty intriguing.”
Dixon enrolled in the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut, majoring in Management and Economics. Most of his early career was spent afloat.
“Wherever I went, I had so much fun,” he said. “I worked on two Coast Guard patrol boats in South Florida during the early years, chasing drug runners and smugglers. We did a lot of interdictions.”
He met his wife in Miami over Spring Break 1999.
“We actually met the spring before I moved to D.C. to go to Coast Guard headquarters for my staff assignment,” he laughed. “I found out she lived in Baltimore for nursing school.”
The couple married in 2001 after Dixon was assigned to the Coast Guard’s Office of International Affairs.
Dixon counts his time in Washington, D.C. among the most fascinatingly spent of his career.
“The Coast Guard sends teams all over the world to train countries in keeping a Coast Guard, and as diplomatic envoys where the Department of Defense is unwelcome,” he explained. “I was sent by the Department of State as part of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Program to Georgia – the country –and to Azerbaijan. I was also part of a U.S. delegation to the European Union.”
As Dixon was the only person among a group of senior American diplomats in uniform, the EU dignitaries congratulated him with a handshake.
“They assumed I was in charge,” he laughed. “The experience was great because it really taught me the value of how our Coast Guard is viewed.”
According to Dixon, many small countries employ Coast Guards rather than Navies.
“A Navy is really expensive,” he explained. “A Coast Guard provides search and rescue, law enforcement, fishery enforcement – things that have economic value. The Department of Defense can’t go into a lot of countries around the world, but we can send a Coast Guard Cutter in. We’re non-threatening. We coordinate and act as a team on a national stage.”
After a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese jet off Hainan Island, “the first that went in were Coasties.”
Dixon earned his MPA from George Washington University and was involved in the Coast Guard’s fleet recapitalization program. His wife and daughter moved with him from D.C. to Kodiak, Alaska, and he went back to sea.
“That was my wife’s first military move. While we were out there we found out she was pregnant again. She’s a runner, and we’d always run around the base there together. One day I beat her, and she said, ‘that’s not right,’” he laughed. “She’s usually faster than me. We went to the doctor there, and at the 15-week sonogram appointment found out it was twins.”
Dixon looks back on that tour as “amazing.”
“It was incredible to find out about my boys, and to get these 80-day deployments to the Bering Sea, but at the end of the day, I couldn’t bear seeing my wife on the pier with my two-year-old daughter in her pink coat, the double stroller with the boys, and our Labrador and know I was leaving them for almost three months.”
Cognizant of the needs of his growing family, Dixon decided to pursue Sector assignments – he would still be deployed, but not at sea for months on end. His first post was Moorhead City, North Carolina, then back to D.C.
“In D.C. I was Chief of Operations for all the Coast Guard’s specialized forces: they ranged from high-end tactical to pollution response, and even law enforcement detachments – we’d send them all over the world.”
Dixon made Captain and moved to Sector New York to begin as the Deputy Sector Commander in 2013. Two years later, he moved the family to Jacksonville and took over as Captain of the Port.
“That’s really the first time I encountered a Saltchuk company,” he said. “The Admiral asked me to handle all the next-of-kin coordination between the Coast Guard, TOTE, and the families after the sinking of the El Faro. I was so impressed with the integrity, the transparency, the compassion TOTE showed the families.”
In 2017, Dixon decided to retire as a Section Commander in Jacksonville.
“I just kept thinking about the El Faro, and decided it was time to try something new,” he said. “I called (former President) Phil Greene for some advice on networking; it turned out one of their long-time vice presidents was retiring and they ended up offering me the position.”
Dixon describes being “taken” with TOTE from the beginning.
“The alignment of TOTE’s core values was so easy for me,” he said. “TOTE is very similar to the Coast Guard in terms of culture. I work with such amazing people. I just love coming to work.”
Dixon took over as president on Jan. 4, 2019 and is one of several TOTE leaders who’ve assumed an executive leadership position within the TOTE family of companies during the past year. Driven by a lifelong commitment to safety, service, and integrity, he was well positioned to take on the responsibilities of a company that manages nearly 30 vessels and close to four million man-hours.
His first goal: ride all the TOTE ships.
“I’ve ridden the Midnight Sun, the Isla Bella, and most recently the North Star from Anchorage to Tacoma,” he said. “I’m identifying areas where we can better support them.”
The recent completion of the annual ABS audit, updating the company’s Safety Management System, and further polishing of a Safety, Quality, and Environmental Affairs policy statement have made time fly. Perhaps the most important deliverable on the horizon surrounds the fleet conversion to Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).
“There’s a lot of mystery that surrounds the concept of LNG as a fuel,” he said. “Once you get past the requirements for temperature, it’s incredibly efficient. The crews I’ve interacted with just rave about it.”
Being first – in anything – requires additional investment, Dixon said.
“Everyone else gets to learn from your mistakes,” he said. “But we’ve had tremendous success. TOTE and Saltchuk have a lot to be proud of.”
One challenge on the horizon – the Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act, a federal law that regulates maritime commerce in the United States.
“It’s critical for us to continue to understand the importance of the Jones Act to TOTE and Saltchuk – and everyone who’s part of the Saltchuk family of companies,” he said.
Among other things, the Jones Act requires goods ferried between U.S. ports to be carried on ships built, owned and operated by U.S. citizens. Critics cite additional expense and complications surrounding disaster relief.
“The reality is that the Jones Act is a critical element of national economic security. Those facts, and the real need for a robust U.S. maritime industry, need to be highlighted at every opportunity,” he concluded.
Dixon also expressed excitement at the competition for vessel construction and management of the new Maritime Administration school ships.
“We’d love to be a part of benefitting decades of maritime trainees to come,” he said. “In terms of overall goals, we want to improve the product we deliver to our customers and grow strategically in the commercial and government market space.”
Dixon is the first to admit the similarities between his Coast Guard career and his new role with TOTE Services – but said he isn’t one to dwell.
“I’m not one who spends much time thinking about where I’ve been – I would summarize my career so far by saying that I’m proud of my 27 years of Coast Guard ‘service to others,’” he said. “In the president role, you really work for a lot of people. You work for the employees and you’re making decisions for the long-term health of the company. For me, it’s about taking pride in that service every day.”
Dixon said he knew his new role would be less about the wining and dining, and more about getting alongside his employees.
“It’s been supremely rewarding to me already,” he concluded. “This is the best place I could’ve ended up. I feel very fortunate.”