January 6, 2004
Jon Hemingway, CEO and president of Carrix and SSA Marine and their affiliated companies, goes one to one with Sid Cass
Despite being born into the family that owns the company, is it true to say that your current role was neither planned nor a foregone conclusion?
True. I was born in Seattle. While at the University of Washington Business School, I worked as an accountant in my junior and senior year as, at that time, being a CPA was the surest path to employment in Seattle. During my senior year I became certified as a CPA and also obtained a licence to sell real estate.
I was then accepted by the university's law school and, while there, I was fortunate to be offered a summer job by the law firm Bogle &Gates - I think they needed a shortstop for their softball team. Upon graduation in 1982, they offered me a full-time role.
I really enjoyed practising law and thought I had found my lifetime vocation. But in 1985, at the age of 27, just after my grandfather had passed away, I was approached by my uncle who asked if I would join the family stevedoring business.
At that time the company had recently been renamed from Seattle Stevedores to Stevedoring Services of America, known as SSA.
I had no knowledge of anything about stevedoring but my uncle was persuasive, and it was my grandfather's wish that someday I would work in the business. I decided to give it a try, as I could always go back to practicing law if it didn't work out. So I joined the company as its general counsel (lawyer).
In that role I became involved in business development, including forming a joint venture with John Gray of Pacific Rail Services to operate rail ramps on behalf of the major US railroads, which led to the formation of Rail Management Services.
In 1989, we reorganised the business and I took on the responsibility for business development and administration. In that role I became involved in the purchase and integration of Carolina Stevedoring, Seaco and Ryan Walsh on the US east coast.
This hardened out focus from a west coast stevedoring and terminal operator view to a national perspective, as we became the largest employer of longshore labour in the US. Two years later, upon my uncle's retirement, I assumed his duties as CEO of the organisation - together with the rest of the management team that leads the company today.
Your promotion path was rapid, but it must have been very interesting with the changes taking place. Interesting is probably an understatement, but we have certainly witnessed some momentous changes. For example, in 1995 we initiated the development of international operations, including the creation of Manzanillo International Terminal in Colon, Panama.
In 1999, Matson Navigation and SSA formed SSA Terminals. The following year we reorganised SSA Marine into three operating divisions and branded its IT operation Tideworks Technology, which has now become one of the world's largest providers of information systems software and integration to the port industry. Today, my role is to direct the strategic direction and daily operations of Carrix.
If you were to ask if I had any regrets in my time with the company, one would be that I missed not having the chance to work in operations when I started with the business. What has been your greatest motivating force?
Our goal is to grow the business for the benefit of our employees and shareholders - in that order. I don't have an operating background, so I have the greatest respect for what our employees do and what they bring to the company. As CEO, my highest priority is developing people and enabling them to do their job and not just focussing on financial aspects. It may be strange for someone with a financial background, but I don't spend a lot of time reviewing financial matters. The company's key managers are very good at that, so I don't feel it is an effective use of my time to just concentrate on budgets and results.
Being a service company in a demanding industry, you have to ask a lot of our people - thus only way we can fulfil our commitments is by providing our people with the very best support we can, and this I see as being my most important motivation. Not one customer pays our company a penny for what I do - it's what all our employees do that counts. So my business strategic focus is all about building our capabilities so we can score even more runs, rather than analysing and concentrating on why we scored runs in the past.
My background in financial and legal matters has helped me do my job here but what I am proudest of, is that with all our changes, our company is still led with the same great group of people with almost no turnover among our employees. What do you do when not working?
For the last 20 years, our four children have meant that free time has been family time. During the spring, summer and autumn months, they play and we watch baseball and soccer, so we're somewhat slaves to our children's athletic schedule in those months. I also enjoy windsurfing, although it has suffered from neglect of late.
What really pleases me though, is that in the winter months, the kids share our passion for being in the mountains and skiing.