By Alex Binkley

When Allister Paterson was named President of Canada Steamship Lines in January, he couldn’t help recall a phone call he placed to CSL as he was leaving his job as head of Seaway Marine Transport in 2011.

With a long track record of senior management positions in the aviation industry including Air Canada, Air New Zealand and Canadian Airlines, Paterson had been a surprise choice in 2007 to become President and CEO of SMT, which had been created to operate the freighters of Algoma Central and Upper Lakes Shipping in a pool. While the arrangement was widely viewed as great business success, it came to an end when Algoma purchased the ULS ships in 2011 and wound down SMT.

“I was sad to be leaving the industry because we had ordered the first new ships and the future looked bright,” he recalls in an interview. In a moment of inspiration, he phoned CSL. “I told them that while they had been a competitor, I liked the way they operated.” There wasn’t a job available at the time and Paterson returned to the aviation business.

However his phone call had not been forgotten. “They reached out to me a few years later.” At the time, Paterson was working in Helsinki as Chief Commercial Officer for FinnAir. “I was having a good time in Finland and I wasn’t looking to leave.” However, Rod Jones, President and CEO of CSL Group, was persuasive. “It was a big decision to come back to the maritime industry.”

The attraction of CSL is “it has a societal conscience,” he says. “If the company has an advantage, it’s the focus on philanthropic activities, the environment and the health and well-being of its employees.”

During his time at SMT, Paterson was widely credited with talking publicly about the industry’s economic benefits and environmental advantages, something too few executives in the industry do on a regular basis. Transport observers credit his time in the consumer oriented airline business for showing him that maritime shipping industry executives needed to make the industry’s case to the public and not just government regulators. “I was passionate about the business but we weren’t in a position to tell our story very well.”

In his absence, there were some major developments that enhanced the industry’s ability to tell its story, he notes. First was the Martin Associates study on the economic importance of the Seaway-Great Lakes system which said the industry creates 227,000 jobs in Canada and the United States and produces business revenues of $35 billion a year while serving a market of 100 million people. Additionally, shipping in the region contributes $4.6 billion in federal, state/province and local taxes every year. This year, another report by Martin Associates pointed to more than $7 billion in asset renewal and infrastructure improvements in Seaway-Great Lakes system including more than $700 million in new ships. The upgrades create jobs and enhance the maritime sector’s ability to deliver the goods. On top of that is the maritime industry’s green message about reducing fuel emissions and measures to protect the Great Lakes, Paterson adds.

He credits the creation of Marine Delivers for helping deliver the message. “I’m a big advocate of Marine Delivers because it gives us a co-ordinated, proactive and reactive industry voice.”

Paterson says he realizes the competition among the Great Lakes shipping companies inhibited the companies in the past from speaking with a common voice on issues. But that’s no reason for the lines not to develop common opinions to present to the public and governments. A united stand is what finally convinced the federal government to remove the 25 per cent duty on new ships because they would create jobs in Canada operating and maintaining them. “A high tide raises all boats.”

The industry will face plenty of challenges in the future and it has to be ready to present its case, Paterson insists. He won’t shy away from speaking out. One of Paterson’s missions since his appointment was to meet all the CSL employees. “I spent the first 90 days looking, listening and learning.” He went on the ships and the other work places talking to employees about their jobs. His message as he went was “he wants to run a solid business, do things well, aim for operational excellence of safe and environmentally sound vessels. He wants people to strive to improve their performance as well. This is no rocket science.”

A key point on priorities is that “The office supports the fleet in the goal of better serving the customers for our ships.” CSL shouldn’t be about the corporate structure, but the service it provides. He also tried to instill in the employees his openness to ideas from them for improving the company’s operation. “I want people who aren’t intimidated. If someone has a great idea, let’s hear about it.”

With the introductory phase of the new job behind him, Paterson wants to become active in looking for ways to make CSL and the Great Lakes-Seaway maritime sector more productive. “We are competing against the land-based modes. Road and rail can operate for 12 months while we’re shut down for the winter. We need to discuss making short sea shipping more efficient.”

Then there is the bigger topic of convincing the whole transportation sector to work more co-operatively. “There are all sorts of discussions we could be having about overlaps among the modes.” While there will always be vigorous competition with the other modes on inland services, the industry “should be giving the issue some big picture thought. It would make the economy more efficient, which would help everyone.”

Paterson admits that when he steps on board a ship, he feels intimidated by the complex of machines that make a vessel operate. “I’m astounded by what our people can do to make the ships run.” He recalled being on board in the winter when a diver performed underwater welding.

Early in his term, CSL received CSL St-Laurent, the last of the company’s six Trillium Class ships. It also marked the company’s conclusion for now of an ambitious program to renew its Great Lakes and Americas fleet with 11 new vessels. At the time, Paterson described the Trillium Class as the product of “the labour and ingenuity of a vast number of employees, partners and suppliers who saw CSL’s newbuild program through from design to delivery, as well as the support of the Canadian and Quebec governments.”

CSL St-Laurent and Welland, both bulk carriers, went to work hauling grain from Thunder Bay to St. Lawrence River ports. With Paterson once again extolling the benefits of marine transportation, the industry has gained a persuasive voice. Maybe this time, he will gain a wider audience among shippers, governments and the rest of the transportation industry.