Six new container vessels specifically designed for Tropical’s ports of call mark the largest shipbuilding program in Jeff Fiser’s storied career with the company.
By Hilary Reeves
On the morning of his first interview at Tropical Shipping, Jeff Fiser dressed carefully in a suit and tie. It was 1993, and the basketball coach turned shipping ace desperately needed to find a way to stay in Florida as his current employer, Sea-Land, had just announced the move of its Americas Division from Fort Lauderdale to New Jersey.
“I was married to a girl from Kentucky – she wanted absolutely nothing to do with New Jersey,” he laughed. “The first thing I noticed when I arrived for my interview with Tropical was that no one else in the office was dressed in a suit. On the contrary, everyone I interviewed with was dressed very informally, which wasn’t at all the norm in our business at the time.”
Fiser’s career at Tropical eventually led him to the company’s helm: he was named President and CEO in 2015. Two-and-a-half decades after that first interview, he said it’s that same pioneering spirit – that willingness to break with convention – that keeps Tropical on top.
“Since the company’s beginning 56 years ago, Tropical has had three key ingredients that have contributed to our success: our unique vessels designed specifically for the islands; our relationships with our customers; and the quality of our people.”
Two Tropical tours
The eldest of four boys, Fiser was born in Ohio. His father’s career as an Air Force pilot made it difficult to put down roots.
“We moved every couple of years,” he said. “Two of my favorite places we lived were Panama and Fort Walton Beach, Florida, where I went to high school.”
Fiser graduated from the University of South Florida in 1981 with a degree in education. His career began as a math teacher and basketball coach, but after a few years, he returned to the University to pursue his MBA, graduating in 1987 and on the hunt for career opportunities that could support a family.
“Sea-Land came to campus and I interviewed for their management training program and was fortunate to be selected,” he said. “The program gave me the opportunity to learn the business inside and out. I worked in sales, operations, finance, marketing, yield management, and trade management.”
Fiser was hired on at Tropical after Sea-Land’s Americas Division moved in 1993 and was settling in, halfway through his second year with the company, when he received a phone call.
“It was an old contact at Sea-Land telling me that they had consolidated their operations in Charlotte, North Carolina and asking me if I would consider coming back. I was still married to that girl from Kentucky,” he laughed, “and she’d never had the opportunity to live near family, so I took the job and we spent five wonderful years in Charlotte.”
Until he said, Maersk bought Sea-Land in 2000. Not only was Fiser’s position again moving to New Jersey, but the Danes were planning to run the company’s day-to-day operations from Copenhagen.
“When Rick (Murrell) called and asked me to come back to Tropical, I jumped at the chance.”
Fiser’s second stint at Tropical lasted until 2011 when parent company Nicor decided to sell to AGL and then-president Rick Murrell retired. Predictably, Tropical’s new President cleaned house.
“I was fired,” he said, “and I never imagined I’d be back. I had logged eight months at a small carrier in Fort Pierce with service to the Bahamas by the time Rick called.”
It wasn’t long before AGL asked Murrell to come back as president and re-right Tropical.
“He told them, ‘I’ll come back as long as you let me re-hire three people.’ One of those people was me. Mark Chapman, our VP of Business Operations, was another. We came back to Tropical in 2012, but it took a few weeks from Rick’s hiring for us to become official employees again. In the interim, I became the ‘breakfast guy’ and Mark was the ‘lunch guy.’ We met with Rick three or four times a week while we figured out how to turn things around.”
Big investment, bigger return
In 2014, Tropical joined the Saltchuk family of companies and was subsequently granted something the company has needed for decades: a big investment into new vessels.
“We were on the market for years before AGL came along,” Fiser explained. “Nicor wasn’t about to invest in any new ships. These six new ships are a very big deal. Our plan moving forward is to get our new vessels into the fleet, and improve our on-time reliability and service to our customers and teams in the islands.”
The new ships should do the trick, Fiser explained. The $150-million investment allows the company to discontinue its use of four charter vessels, vessels that are slow and not designed for the islands Tropical serves. Replacing the charters are four brand-new 1,100-TEU Hope class vessels that sail at a clip of 20 knots and each feature two cranes built right on board, as many island ports lack this essential tool. The Tropic Hope and Tropic Island went into service earlier this year. The Tropic Jewel and Tropic Lissette are due to arrive during the summer months.
The two smaller vessels, the Tropic Freedom and the Tropic Gem, are 300-TEU Freedom class ships and feature two cranes each, and a ramp. The ships are specially designed to dock in just 12-feet of water – a necessity for service to Turks and Caicos.
“Saltchuk has given us the opportunity to build six vessels specifically designed for our markets, the largest shipbuilding program in our history and long overdue.”
Third time’s the charm
Married to his “Kentucky girl” Lois Ann for 36 years now, Fiser has a son and two daughters – and recently became a grandfather to a little boy and a little girl.
“Family is very important to all of us and we spend a lot of time together,” he said.
As far as Tropical’s future course, Fiser’s plan is similar to the one set in motion by his friend and colleague Rick Murrell all those years ago:
“With the new ships, our reliability and service will return to the levels that our customers have come to expect, and we’ll continue to automate manual processes and drive efficiencies through continuous improvement and good management,” he concluded. “Being part of the Saltchuk family has been a positive change for us – having owners who understand our business and are willing to invest in the business is very good for our future. For me, the third time really was the charm.”