By Tom Peters

When Sam Chodos emigated from a small village in Lithuania to Canada, becoming a respected fixture in the marine industry wasn’t foremost on his mind. The driving force behind his move to this country, much like thousands of others who came to Canadian shores, was to build a better life for himself and his family. “He wanted to get away from the East Block and anti-semitism. We are a Jewish family and it wasn’t exactly all rosy there,’ said Sam’s grandson, Andrew Chodos (pictured).

The elder Chodos put his hand to many trades in Montreal and eventually opened a tavern. His tavern was frequented by longshoremen and sailors who sparked Sam’s interest in the marine industry.

In 1931 he founded Empire Stevedoring and since opening business at Bickerdike Terminal, which Sam leased from the Port of Montreal and which is still under lease to Empire, the company quickly moved forward, establishing itself as a well-respected and reliable waterfront labour force. Sam’s son Ted took the reins as President and CEO of Empire in 1975 and when he passed away, his son Andrew took over the top job.

The company has flourished under the three generations of the Chodos family and now operates in the Canadian ports of Montreal, which is the company’s largest port; Halifax and Sheet Harbour, NS; Saint John, NB; Toronto and Thunder Bay, ON. In the U.S. Empire is in Houston, New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Over the years Empire has developed long associations with a number of ports where it operates. Its association with the U.S. ports has been ongoing for over 35 years, said Andrew Chodos. The company’s first U.S. port was Houston when Empire, back in the day, did a cross-contract with an American firm involving the Algerian state shipping line CNAN, said Chodos. “We partnered with someone in Houston and that is how we got there,” he said.

Empire has been in Halifax for over 40 years and leases a shed at Ocean Terminals. Empire’s relationship with the Halifax port community has earned it high marks. “Empire Stevedoring and its dedicated staff have a long history of excellent service to their customers in the port of Halifax,” said Richard Moore, President and CEO, Halifax Employers Association. “We are very happy to have Empire Stevedoring and Furncan Marine as fixtures in this port and members of our association. It is only through good service and a reliable workforce that we are able to attract new customers and retain the ones we have and Empire succeeds at providing both,” he said.

In Saint John, Empire has held the contract to handle potash for the past 32 years. That business has been a bit slow this year since PotashCorp. closed its mine in Sussex, NB in January, which “was a surprise to just about everybody,” said Chodos. However, he said Canpotex Ltd., a premier potash exporter and an offshore marketing and logistics company, is now using the port facility in Saint John to export potash from Western Canada.

During a period of expansion, Empire acquired the assets of Furnace Whithy in Halifax, a shipping agent and stevedoring firm. That company has been operating as Furncan Marine, predominately as shipping agents in both Halifax and Saint John since 1976.

As a diverse stevedoring company, Empire handles all types of cargo with an emphasis on breakbulk and project cargoes. “We do a lot of project work, rail cars, locomotives, etc. You name it and we will load it or discharge it from any Canadian or American port. Project work has been one of our specialties,” Chodos said, noting that Empire will soon be handling components for the new Champlain Bridge in Montreal.

Empire does handle some containers, approximately 125,000 annually, but mainly from one carrier. “We only have one real container liner and that is Oceanex domestic service,” said Chodos. St. John’s, Nfld. based Oceanex operates ro/ro ships which carry containers. Their vessels are “normal size” which suits Empire. The company has no plans to try and service the mega container ships that are becoming more commonplace at North American ports. “We always look, but the big container business is not quite our bailiwick right now, but you never know if the opportunity arises,” said Chodos.

In Atlantic Canada, the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council has identified approximately $125 billion worth of mega projects for the region that have either started or are planned. Those projects mean a lot of products and components will move by marine mode and Empire hopes to get some of the action.

The company already handles such items as pipe, rails, machinery and such over Halifax and mainly at Ocean Terminals, although it has done some heavy lift work at the port’s Richmond Terminals. A third terminal in Nova Scotia where Empire is establishing a presence is the port of Sheet Harbour. Empire has worked “a few small ships there and we are preparing ourselves for project cargo in Sheet Harbour, as well as Halifax,” Chodos said.

Being in a position to handle these various cargoes requires continuous upgrades in equipment. Over the past five years Empire has invested approximately $5 million, renewing heavy duty container handling forklifts and machinery to accommodate odd size and heavy lift cargoes. Empire has also increased its capacity to handle steel coils, plates and pipe, plus has added equipment to handle containers more efficiently and safer.

Moving forward, Chodos sees a number of challenges impacting his industry such as the general downturn of the global economy, low commodity prices, a decrease in the global trade of metals and steel products, import duties on steel from China which is hampering business in the U.S., and the collapse of the oil and gas industries.

But Empire’s top man apparently is not dwelling on the negative and is optimistic for growth. “In Montreal we want to handle more steel and with Oceanex our big company, we want to see that container/roro business grow. We also want to see more growth in the Maritimes with project cargoes and, down South, in the Gulf, we want to see more growth in steel and metals,” he said.

Empire isn’t the largest stevedoring firm in the country, but it remains busy handling approximately a million metric tonnes of bulk cargo, about 125,000 TEUs and approximately 800,000 MT of general cargo, annually. Through it all, Andrew Chodos is excited about the work he and his company do.

“Ever since I was a kid, my dad would introduce me to customers or I would see them at various functions. They were people from all over the globe which makes our business a very people-oriented business,” he said. As well, he is excited about being constantly “exposed to a very dedicated staff that are kind of the last of the Mohicans that work crazy hours under very strenuous conditions. So I like the exposure to all these folks, and over the years have met quite a few personalities (characters) in the industry who keep us all hopping and exposing us to new ideas and projects,” he added.

And Chodos is proud of the fact Empire remains a family-owned and -operated business and where size may not always count. “We are not the biggest, we are just the best,” he emphatically states.