MarPro Profile: Brian Buckley McAllister
It’s not every “tugboat magnate” who is willing to show up at work in full Halloween costume, nor capable of running a NYC marathon in under 4 hours – decked out in Harry Potter wizard regalia, complete with hat, cape and wand – while wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of a life-long friend who is fighting cancer. But that’s Brian Buckley McAllister, the fifth generation of his family to lead McAllister Towing.
In fact Buckley and his brother (and co-owner) Eric, Chief Financial Officer, are one of the few family members to not hold a maritime degree, pilot or captain’s license.
“I’m qualified to run a photo copier,” Buckley joked.
This isn’t to say Buckley lacks either seafaring experience, or professional degrees. As a teen and later, while in college, Buckley worked as a deckhand on McAllister tugs operating out of a variety of ports, and transited the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico several times. He memorably spent part of that tutelage under the supervision of legendary tugboat Capt. Arthur Fournier, on Penobscot Bay. “I think the time spent on board a vessel is important. It taught me the value of hard work. It taught me how to work with people from different backgrounds and regions of the country. It taught me the importance of respecting a chain of command, and doing what the Captain asked, as quickly as possible. When my son turned 15, I got him a TWIC [Transportation Worker Identification Credential] card and sent him up to Maine to work with Authur’s son, Capt. Brian Fournier.”
Even more important, experience as deckhand provides an awareness of how an administrative decision can impact seafarers, and, says Buckley, “that’s good experience for any of the leaders in the maritime industry to have.” That experience has served McAllister well in his service on a variety of industry boards and organizations, including a recent term as chairman of the American Waterways Organization (AWO).
His apprenticeship also taught McAllister that “the backbone of our company is our captains and crews. These are the people providing services to our customers, and it’s important to keep their perspective in mind when working back in the office.”
After getting his feet wet in the business, Buckley went on to graduate cum laude in 1989 from Hamilton College in New York, also earning a law degree in 1993 from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. He is a member of the bar in New York, California and a number of federal jurisdictions. After graduating, litigation between the two co-owners of McAllister Towing precluded Buckley and Eric from going to work for the family business. Instead, Eric went off to GE, while Buckley stayed in California, where he worked for four years as an associate for Hill Betts & Nash LLP, handling federal litigation and some admiralty law.
“It’s always tough to raise kids who might feel they have a burden to go into the family business, but my brother and I had the odd advantage to establish outside careers and then make the choice to go back into the family business,” says Buckley. Both sons returned home in 1997 to help their father take back the traditional business and sole ownership of the company. “After that, I came into the office to start solving problems and help put new deals together, and we’ve never looked back.”
Fifteen years after formally joining the company in 1998 as general counsel and vice president, his father transferred ownership to both sons, naming Buckley President. Forty seven may seem young to carry the weight of a 150 year-old company. But Buckley McAllister has already helped to save his family’s company once, and he’s more than prepared to do it again, should the need arise.
He’s also got a wealth of experience passed down from preceding generations over the century and a half his family’s company has been in continuous operation. That’s history visitors can feel and see, literally, when visiting the company headquarters at 17 Battery Place in New York City.
The offices are studded with ship models, maps, drawings, a photo collection that harks back to one of founder James McAllister in 1864, and an expansive collection of oil paintings by renowned maritime artists like Oswald Brett, William Muller and John Nobel. “I think it is a testament to the importance of history and tradition in this business.”
In a speech given in September at the company’s 150th birthday celebration, Buckley attributed its longevity to “safety, working hard to anticipate and meet the future needs of customers, and having great people supporting this company,” including generations of some employee families. Maritime Professional spoke recently at length with Buckley about the challenges facing his company and the tug industry in general.
A 150-year Tradition
“It’s certainly a big tradition to live up to; some of our customers have been with us for generations. It’s a pretty great opportunity to try and live up to the tradition of serving those customers well. It’s certainly nice to work in a business that is not solely focused on the bottom-line for a single quarter, but is also governed to some degree by sentimental principle. I got a lot of feedback from employees who have devoted their career to working for the company about how proud it makes them to be connected to the organization.”
Resilience seems to be on the lips of the entire industry, and Buckley is no exception. He wants his company, industry and infrastructure to be resilient. “I plagiarized the word from the Coast Guard,” he joked, adding in a more serious vein, “After Hurricane Sandy, consumers in the New York area saw what can happen if the supply chains they depend on get interrupted.’
“One of the clear messages from the Coast Guard and the federal government is to make sure we have resilient ports and strong supply chains to support our economy. We are dependent on port infrastructure to support the well-being of the city, and we need to make investments there to support the city.” Resilient infrastructure, he adds, is expensive and doesn’t provide a short-term ROI, “but those are the types of investments that are important for the maritime industry.”
Much of Buckley’s work with industry organizations, like the AWO, Coast Guard and Area Maritime Security Committee, is focused on creating resiliency and pushing the concept forward. He is particularly proud that his company stayed up and running through 9/11, the great Blackout and Hurricane Sandy.
Changes Facing the Tug Business
According to Buckley, shipping is “going through a revolution.” More cargo is being brought in on fewer, bigger ships. By World War II, about 30,000 ships traveled to NY harbor annually. By 1950, it had dropped to 15,000/year; by 1970, 8,000 ships/year; and in 2014, “we’re looking at under 5,000 ships,” says Buckley. “There is an increasing efficiency in the whole supply chain, which has had the effect of needing fewer but more powerful tugs, so ultimately we’ll have less work.” Tractor tugs and the ATB have “revolutionized” the industry, he says. “We need to be able to provide more power to these customers – Z drive tractor tugs can handle larger ships more efficiently versus conventional tugs and provide a greater safety margin. We need to figure out ways to be more efficient ourselves. Meanwhile, we have grown our business by moving into other ports and places up and down the eastern seaboard.”
Changes to the maritime business include additional layers of regulatory scrutiny. “In the last 10 years, between the TWIC regulation and various different environmental regulations coming through and the advent of subchapter M, which will be a new vessel inspection regime for tugs, we’re seeing a pretty rapid culture change in the industry.”
“It calls for a different approach to doing business, and it’s going to require more adaptation on our part.” And that creates another major challenge, managing change in the industry. Another aspect of regulation that concerns Buckley is making sure operators aren’t forced to run a gauntlet of conflicting local laws. He wants to see interstate commerce issues addressed via “workable, science-based” federal laws to simplify compliance, versus a weave of conflicting and sometimes unachievable, local and states laws.
AWO Service and Current Priorities
One of the basic issues facing the industry is meeting the nation’s changing transportation needs, and ensuring that laws and regulations are needed, and workable, says Buckley. An example of how AWO can have an impact is the time it invested, along with other maritime organizations, after the Macondo incident. “At that point, there was a reaction on Capitol Hill that included dozens of different bills that might have been passed to change various aspects of admiralty law and oil spill liability law, some of which would have changed laws dramatically and been unfair to vessel owners.” Buckley, among others, testified before Congress. “Ultimately, Congress decided to leave the law as it was, so in essence, we were successful. Reason prevailed.”
He counts among the organization’s successes during his tenure as Chairman, passage of the WRDA bill, helping to reshape the organization in order to better enable it to educate and lobby congress and others on positions of importance to AWO members.
Going forward, Buckley says AWO’s top priorities will include making sure WRDA gets funded, enhancing the waterway infrastructure, advocating on behalf of the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act to set a uniform standard to help protect the environment, advocating for the Jones Act and shepherding in subchapter M.
And speaking of Subchapter M, Buckley said this should be high on the list of things to get ready for. There will be a training element, and operators will need to familiarize crews. He anticipates that there will be some equipment requirement, but doubts it will force any one out of business. “The AWO Chairman will have a busy year the year subchapter M comes out.”
Starting the Next 150 Years
“We’re always looking to react to changes in the marketplace. One immediate challenge is to balance the increase in power of our fleet with the fact that the overall number of ship arrivals are declining. For me, that means listening to the customers to figure out what they will need. The three boats we constructed this year are a pretty good example of what we are doing to anticipate changes in the industry and be prepared for it.” One area Buckley has his eye on is wind farms. “It could be one of the big developments, and it will obviously require very new technology.” With that in mind, McAllister has purchased a crew boat in anticipation of future contracts. “It’s an example of the manageable gambles we take to expand the type of services we can provide.”
“I have a great job. I feel very lucky to have it. I can take satisfaction that my family has done a lot to provide good jobs for a lot of hard working U.S. mariners out on the water. And in the last 15 years, I think our company has noticeably improved working conditions and service levels in the ports on the East Coast. I can’t claim the credit for that, but I would say it is a real motivator,” says Buckley. My Dad’s motto was to ‘Keep the Flag flying!’ I see no reason to change that. My Dad intends to die with his ‘boots on,’ as they say, and I wouldn’t do it any differently. It is in our blood.”
(As published in the 4Q 2014 edition of Maritime Professional - www.maritimeprofessional.com)