Van Kent, Tropical: ‘We’re always the first to arrive after a storm, and we not only help our employees but also provide help to entire communities. You don’t see that from a lot of other companies.’
Van Kent’s mother worked two jobs to send him to Christian Brothers High School, an all-boys Catholic school run by Lasallian Brothers located in Kent’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.
“They all wore black robes with white collars and they were tough,” he laughed. “She thought sending me there would keep me out of trouble as a teenager and it did. It taught me values that have been applicable my whole life, as well as how to work closely in team environments.”
Born and raised in Memphis, Kent spent summers on his grandfather’s farm in nearby Mississippi. Growing up, he changed his mind often about what he wanted to be.
“I started with the idea of becoming a garbage man at the ripe old age of five,” he said. “I also gave some thought to becoming a weatherman, a basketball coach, and a veterinarian.”
His first job though was as a cashier at a Kroger. He eventually moved into the office at the front of the store and supervised front-end operations.
“I worked at Kroger for four years and made a lot of good friends,” he said. “Anyone who’s ever worked in a grocery store knows that a lot of things happen behind the scenes that could easily be made into a sitcom.”
Kent’s spent most of his career in Human Resources working for manufacturing companies, including American Greetings, Thomas & Betts, and Pirelli North America.
“American Greetings was located in a small Arkansas town of 6,500, he said. “We had 3,000 employees in a one-million-square-foot manufacturing plant and warehouse. As you can imagine, with 3,000 employees a lot goes on around the clock.”
While working for American Greetings, Kent pursued his master’s degree.
“AG was one of the first companies to offer a tuition reimbursement plan,” he said. “Back in the ’80s, there were no online colleges and I drove 70 miles each way after work two nights a week for three years and completed my degree. Today, I encourage everyone to take advantage of Tropical Shipping’s education program. There are many colleges around our locations, as well as multiple online colleges that make it easy for working people. It might take some time to complete your degree but it will be well worth it in the long-term.”
Kent’s career path led to multiple moves (and many new friends) throughout the South.
“I’ve lived in Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, South Carolina, and now Florida.
Friends in need
In 2005, Kent moved to Florida to join Tropical Shipping in Human Resources. He’s now Vice President of Customer Service, Inland Transportation, Traffic, and Continuous Improvement.
“I started at Tropical the day after Hurricane Wilma and I had never experienced a hurricane or the chaos it causes afterward,” he said. “I drove down from South Carolina on I-95, and the closer I got to West Palm Beach, the more frequently I saw long lines of cars sitting at the exits. Eventually, I needed gas and found out those long lines led to the gas stations. I sat for 45 minutes before I got gas. I arrived in the afternoon to find that the hotel I was staying at had no power – and that lasted for three days and nights. It also didn’t have a generator to run the air conditioning, which made for some hot nights.”
Kent said he met a lot of people during those three days while he was sitting in the lobby or outside by the pool at night.
“Listening to their hurricane stories made me wonder what I had gotten myself into,” he laughed. “Most grocery stores were closed for days and those that were open had very few groceries. During my first two days at Tropical, I lived on vending machine food and I handed out ice and containers of water to our employees. That immediately taught me how much our friends on the islands do need our help after storms. Water and ice are like gold after a hurricane.”
Kent said nothing makes him prouder than watching Tropical step up and support the people of the Caribbean in times of crisis.
“We do an unbelievable job in preparing for hurricanes and immediately after,” he said. “We’re always the first to arrive after a storm, and we not only help our employees but also provide help to entire communities. You don’t see that from a lot of other companies. Again, it shows how Tropical cares about people.”
Kent said the best and most challenging thing about his job are the same: every day is different.
“With such a diverse team, we deal with customers, truck and train vendors, and every other department in Tropical to ensure our ships are on time and arrive safely,” he said. “The constant change and working with people who are passionate about their jobs is what separates working at Tropical versus all of the other places I’ve worked. Everyone from the top down genuinely cares about our customers and each other. In my position, I also work with management at TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico and Shoreside Logistics, and both organizations have great people who also care about their customers and employees. I think this trait among Saltchuk companies is what makes Saltchuk a unique organization and why Tropical was a perfect fit when we joined the Saltchuk family of companies.”
Kent also leads Tropical’s Continuous Improvement (CI) initiatives, a four-year-old program featuring projects that target improving the company’s operational performance, reducing costs, and enhancing the customer experience.
“We’ve had some great projects during the past four years,” he said. “One, led by Dave Hearl, our Inland Transportation Director, eventually granted us the ability to pull double 40-foot containers on the Florida turnpike. After several presentations to the Florida Department of Transportation during three years and hundreds of emails, we received approval in 2019. We saved more than $1 million in trucking costs and reduced our carbon emissions by 1,480 metric tons. As we add more twin chassis to our fleet, we’ll continue to recognize more savings and a bigger reduction in carbon emissions.”
Kent said much of the technology introduced into Tropical now is through the CI projects.
“Our IT team has developed handheld applications using smartphones to take pictures of our containers for gating and loading purposes, as well as capturing documents that feed directly into TLink, our main operating system,” he said.
Also, Tropical is experimenting with a robot that is on loan to inventory the company’s warehouse in Miami, as well as locate missing cargo. Kent said his team has identified 11 projects for 2020 that will have a tremendous impact on our company and customers.
“These range from a new, more customer-friendly website providing e-services to our customers to automated equipment tracking that will allow us to follow our equipment everywhere it goes and to eventually implement a demurrage program in the United States,” he continued. “It’s been rewarding to watch cross-functional teams who are affected by a process come together to develop a solution that fits everyone’s needs. We have employees from all locations including the ports coming together as one team. Our CI initiatives will continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of our customers and our operational requirements, and the rules and regulations affecting the shipping industry will continue to change especially with green initiatives. Shipping is very much a compliance-driven industry and always will be.”
Professionally, Kent said he’s proud of many things, including watching team members at all levels of Tropical develop and succeed.
“I’ve always been one to learn from anything that didn’t go as planned and continue to move forward. I am a glass-half-full person,” he said. “Some people are happy where they are and that is great and others want to move up within the organization. We owe it to both groups to continue to develop their skills and give them the tools they need to succeed.”
He’s also proud of the Tropical Trucking team “for their commitment and hard work to maintain a safe work environment.”
“This team of men and women drive each day throughout South Florida, which has a population of 6 million people. They provide suggestions for safety issues and work well together to support our safety initiatives. As a result, we were recently awarded the highest award for our trucking safety record by the Palm Beach County Safety Council.”
Kent said he’s extremely proud of all of the Tropical teams this year.
“During the COVID-19 outbreak, most of our employees began working from home, and they’ve continued to provide outstanding service to our customers. We haven’t received any complaints from customers relating to our service, which is a true testament to the commitment of our employees to the communities we serve. I also want to recognize what a great job our Operational and Support teams have done during this time, as they are on the ground each day doing what they do to ensure our customers receive their cargo on time.”
Personally, Kent’s proud of his family: his wife and two grown children.
“I enjoy working in my yard. It is full of plants, shrubs, and trees that are indigenous to Florida and it gives me an escape from day-to-day life,” he said. “I enjoy wild-hog hunting and an occasional alligator hunt in Florida – for the record, we eat everything that we harvest. I also enjoy fishing when I can and traveling with my wife and kids throughout the year. I’m currently hooked on exploring Europe.”
At home, he said he drives his wife crazy feeding the squirrels, wild cats, and a variety of birds with feeders throughout their yard.
“In summary, people are the same wherever you go,” he laughed. “We all need to be kinder to one another, respect each other and the environment, and help those who are in need.”