Dream Job on the Mississippi River
Walter Kristiansen '63 runs a tugboat company at the nexus of global commerce. For this Wagner English major and seasoned corporate executive, it's the best job ever.
Story by Laura Barlament
Photographs by Jackson Hill
At 8 a.m. on a sunny, warm Thursday in September, Walter Kristiansen '63 leaves his home in Covington, Louisiana, to make the 40-mile drive into New Orleans. For 24 miles, he is on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway — the world's longest bridge over water. The vast flat expanse of lake sparkles, spreading from horizon to horizon.
The headquarters of E. N. Bisso & Sons, the century-old tugboat company over which Kristiansen presides, sits at the causeway's end in Metairie, just north of New Orleans itself. This has been Kristiansen's daily commute for the past 15 years. Although he's pushing 70, he doesn't have plans to give it up any time soon.
“I just love what I do,” he says in his deep smoker's growl. “People ask me when I'm going to retire, and I say, 'When it's not fun anymore.'”
Kristiansen was an English major at Wagner College, and he exercised his passion for the stage through his participation in the Varsity Players student theater group. He jokes constantly, flashing a manic grin reminiscent of actor Jack Nicholson: sly and sideways, with eyebrows pointing upward. His first job after graduating from college was with a summer stock theater company.
But life on the sea was in his blood. His father was a tugboat captain on the New York Harbor, and Walter made his first trip on a tug at age 2. He took his first job as a tugboat deckhand in 1958, when he was a student at Tottenville High School on Staten Island. After graduating from Wagner, he served as an officer aboard a U.S. Navy ocean tug. He worked for one of the nation's biggest towboat companies, McAllister, and for many years was a vice president for Amoco, in charge of domestic marine transportation.
But being president and CEO of E. N. Bisso & Sons Inc., he says, is “in many ways a dream job.”
E. N. Bisso & Sons is one of the three major tugboat companies operating on the Lower Mississippi — the world's busiest port complex, according to the Port of New Orleans, with more than 6,000 ocean vessels moving through the area annually. About 15 years ago, the Bisso family decided to hire “professional management” (Kristiansen puts the phrase into self-deprecating quotation marks) instead of running the company themselves. That's when Kristiansen came on board. He and his wife, Gail Jantz Kristiansen '67, recently retired from an award-winning teaching career, moved to southern Louisiana and became, in his words, “born-again New Orleanians.”
The company headquarters is located in a four-story gray office building shared with a dentist, an insurance broker, and other run-of-the-mill businesses. When you cross E. N. Bisso's threshold, however, there's no doubt about where you are: Every room is neat as a pin, and ornamented with boat models, boat photographs, boat paintings, and nautical paraphernalia. Large windows look out on Lake Pontchartrain, flat and glistening as far as the eye can see.
Five years ago at this time, this tidy world was turned upside down. The offices were heavily damaged during Hurricane Katrina; they finally returned to them about six months later, when they were still stripped down to the studs (a tornado had hit their temporary office space).
Nevertheless, the company never stopped operations throughout the chaos. Proudly, Kristiansen remarks that every tugboat crew stayed with the ships they were assisting and successfully kept them afloat. Almost every company employee showed up for work, whether they were scheduled for duty or not, so that the boats actually had extra crew on hand. Even Bisso's general counsel, Mike Vitt, who had given up a tugboat captain's career to go into law, piloted one of the tugs throughout the storm so that more boats could be on hand to help. During the storm and its aftermath, each tug operated independently, doing whatever they saw that needed to be done. They distributed food, water, and fuel; they put out fires; they evacuated about 90 people. The Kristiansens were housing up to 10 flooded-out employees; others found temporary quarters on the tugboats themselves.
“The time leading up to the storm, during the storm, and in the weeks and months after the storm showed me the dedication of employees to each other, and therefore to the company,” Kristiansen wrote in his company newsletter at the end of August. “I personally learned some lessons, the most important being to stay out of the way, let the highly qualified, professional and caring employees do what has to be done, and just make sure they get what they need.”
At his desktop computer, Kristiansen tracks a wide variety of daily statistics that impact upon the business.
The factors he watches range from the numbers and types of ships entering the Mississippi River, to the price of fuel, to the river level. Why the river level? It affects the speed of the current, which affects the number of tugboats needed to perform a given job.
It's not enough, however, for Kristiansen to keep his eye on the local scene. Bisso sits at a critical point in the global trade nexus. The Lower Mississippi is the access point for the 14,500-mile Mid-America inland waterway system, leading to the enormous grain fields of the Midwest. That means Kristiansen is watching factors such as the wheat harvest in Australia, which affects U.S. wheat exports, and the amount of business he can expect to receive from dry bulk cargo ships. He watches rainfall levels in Central America. They determine the water level in the Panama Canal, and thus its accessibility to ships moving in from the Pacific.
He watches weather patterns throughout the Gulf and the Atlantic. While most of Bisso's business is conducted along the 230 miles of the Mississippi that ocean-going ships can navigate, sometimes Bisso's crews range much farther afield. In early September, one Bisso tugboat is en route to Tampico, Mexico, where it will pick up a barge, to be loaded with parts for an oil refinery, and then take it all the way up the Atlantic Coast and through the St. Lawrence Seaway, to Detroit.
But all of that is just normal shipping business. What also makes the job fun are the calls that really come from out of the blue. For example, Kristiansen recently heard from a producer at the History Channel developing a new reality show in which comedian Daniel Lawrence Whitney, better known as Larry the Cable Guy, travels the country trying out various jobs. They were interested in an episode set on a tugboat. In January, the TV medical drama House will shoot an episode on a Bisso tugboat. The producers of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button looked at shooting that movie's tugboat scene on a Bisso boat. They ended up choosing another company, but Bisso's executive vice president and chief salesman, Bill McDonald, had lunch with Hollywood power couple Brad Pitt (Benjamin Button's star) and Angelina Jolie in the process.
“You never know what kind of a call you'll get,” Kristiansen comments.
Just about 8 miles south of the Metairie office, just upriver from New Orleans's Audubon Zoo, lies E. N. Bisso's waterfront property.
At this linchpin of international trade, a bright blue sky smiles down on a quiet, almost sleepy scene along the wide, brown Mississippi River. The old and the new, the homey and the high-tech have achieved a pleasant blend here: an older building with a welcoming front porch and wood-paneled rooms hosts the crew lunchroom, named “Jimmy's Place” for the recently retired cook who put in 50 years with Bisso. The new cook, a young woman named Dee, enthusiastically greets “Mr. Walter” and declares that she hopes to be working there for 50 years, too.
In another room, lined with books and maps and wooden cabinets, Vice President Bill Summers oversees maintenance and repair of the company's 16 boats. These range from the Captain Albert, a meticulously maintained 1931 beauty with teak decks, to three brand-new “z-drive” tugboats — the latest in tugboat propulsion technology, each coming with an $8.5 million price tag. Over the past 15 years, Kristiansen has led the company to invest $30 million in new equipment — largely paid for in cash, he notes.
Across the driveway, in a plain, metal-sided building, high-tech meets tradition in the dispatching room. An array of monitors and computers gives the dispatcher real-time data about all of the traffic along the Mississippi.
Outside, an array of shiny red boats sits at the dock. Kristiansen proudly points out the Vera Bisso, which stands out because of its unusual wheelhouse shape, with huge windows angling up and down. The 1999 vintage boat is the company's own unique design, with every care taken for crew comfort and safety, including extra width for stability, a square front end that prevents damage to ships the tug is assisting, extra head space in the mechanical rooms, larger-than-average portholes, six rudders for extra maneuverability, and automatic winches controlled from the wheelhouse so that the deckhand doesn't have to do dangerous rope handling.
Today, however, the Vera Bisso is out for repairs to its generator, and the Susan W. is on tap for a quick job assisting an outgoing ship at the Cargill grain facility just upriver.
Kristiansen fought for Cargill's business a few years ago and earned a contract with the multinational agricultural giant, giving E. N. Bisso about a quarter of the grain business on the river. Besides oil, grain transportation is the biggest part of the shipping business on the Lower Mississippi. Barges bring the grain down the river from the Midwest. Daily, Bisso tugboats assist the giant ocean-going cargo ships arriving at and departing from the Cargill dock and taking that grain around the world.
Business is pretty good for a small player in the midst of the global trading nexus, especially considering all of the forces arrayed against them over the past five years: the nation's costliest natural disaster, the Great Recession, and the new man-made disaster affecting this area, the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20 and massive oil spill in the Gulf. This event — ruinous for industries like fishing and tourism — has not negatively affected shipping operations on the Mississippi, Kristiansen says, praising the Coast Guard's decision to keep shipping up and running. “The fact that we kept shipping going helped to minimize the [economic] damage,” he says. In fact, his company gained some business cleaning the oil off ocean vessels before they entered the shipping channels.
But in general, Kristiansen says his biggest worries are neither weather nor other large-scale disasters. Currently, his main challenges are finding enough qualified personnel to operate the tugs, and dealing with what he sees as unreasonable government regulations — such as being required to submit to the EPA a regular report of “incidental discharges,” which even includes rainwater that hit a tugboat's deck.
At E. N. Bisso, Kristiansen has found a place where he can put a lifetime's worth of skills, experience, and talents into practice in a constantly changing, challenging environment.
“These crazy people,” he says, referring to the owners, “put a company into my hands and let me run it, without any interference. I got to hire all of the staff. I get to set all of the salaries. … They might say, 'Well, how are you going to pay for it?' If I can pay for it, I can do it. I'm pursuing what I consider noble goals. We don't have a 'safety officer.' We have a safety culture. Our record speaks for itself. Our liability insurance premiums have not been raised in 16 years, because we have such a clean record. I got to build a boat like the Vera Bisso. They said, 'Will it increase our business?' I said, 'No. But I'm looking to the future of this company.'”
That future, he hopes, will include him for a long time to come.