At this year’s Inland Marine Expo (IMX), five past recipients of the event’s 40 Under 40 Award gathered to discuss their experience that led up to receiving the award, where the maritime industry has taken them since and what their vision for the industry is for the future.
Mike Breslin, director of safety and sustainability for The American Waterways Operators (AWO) and a 40 Under 40 recipient in 2019, moderated the panel, which included Tim Parker III, president and CEO of Parker Towing Company; Kent Furlong, president of Hines Furlong Line; James Fowler, managing director of Cooper Marine and executive vice president of Blakeley Boatworks; Kasey Eckstein, president of Eckstein Trade & Transport and Eckstein Fleeting Services; and Tracy Zea, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc. (WCI).
Breslin first asked each of the panelists to talk about how they got into the industry and what they were doing when they received the 40 Under 40 award.
Parker, a 2018 recipient, started out with Parker Towing in 2005. His grandfather founded the company in 1940.
“I was just learning the business and trying to understand all aspects of the maritime industry, the dos and don’ts, and making lots of mistakes along the way,” Parker said.
Furlong, also a 2018 recipient, started Hines Furlong Line in June of 2004. He represents the fifth generation of the Williams, Hines and Furlong families in the maritime industry. Looking back to five years ago, Furlong said not a lot has changed, outside of the size of his company.
“I was still the president of Hines Furlong Line, but things were a little easier then, because I just had barges,” he said. “We operate a lot of boats now, so my hair is a little thinner. Historically, this has been an older person’s business. When I got into it 20 years ago, I was the youngest person in the room. I’m still sometimes the youngest person in the room. I just turned 40, so it’s not the case every time now.”
Fowler focused on the growth of Cooper Marine since he received the 40 Under 40 award in 2021. Since that time, Cooper Marine has expanded operations to Texas, Fowler said, with Blakeley Boatworks also growing its capabilities.
“Like a lot of people, the last couple of years have been exciting and there’s been a lot of opportunity, and that’s where we’ve been focused,” Fowler said.
Eckstein, who won the 40 Under 40 award in 2018, was working at Marquette Transportation at the time and had just founded the WIMOs organization (Women In Maritime Operations), along with Jenna Gaudet. More recently, Eckstein and Gaudet started Eckstein Trade & Transport. Gaudet was a 40 Under 40 recipient this year.
“It’s great to see it full circle, and it’s much deserved,” Eckstein said of Gaudet.
Zea won the 40 Under 40 award in 2021, soon after WCI helped secure significant funding for inland waterway projects as part of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2020. Zea praised the 40 Under 40 awards for recognizing young people in the industry.
“We’re still the youngest people in the room most of the time, but you’re seeing a major shift,” Zea said. “This award helps give people confidence that, when you walk into the room with legends—because we’re still leaders and we’re not legends yet—you know you belong and you’re not just some punk kid.”
Breslin asked Parker to describe what being part of a family business is like and what he envisions for that family business for the future. Parker acknowledged that Parker Towing is just one of many family-run businesses in the maritime industry.
“I think our industry is very unique in that there are a lot of family businesses, obviously not as many as there has been historically, but there’s still that feel out there,” he said. “We’re no different. I’m lucky enough to be a third-generation owner of Parker Towing Company. The biggest thing I would say is that we’ve always kept family first, and that’s kind of easy to say and harder to do.”
Parker said in the past that’s meant the company has passed on deals because not everyone was on board.
“That just how important it is to have the family 100 percent behind every decision,” he said.
Still, as the family grows and as the industry and the nature of operations changes, Parker said he anticipates that some of those processes and procedures will grow as well.
Breslin then asked Furlong to speak on some of the ways the industry can improve. Furlong, though only 40 years old, already has 22 years of experience in the industry.
“In those 22 years, we’ve become safer, more communicative, we’re better at getting our story out there, we’re more efficient, we’re nimble,” Furlong said. “The thing I think can be improved upon is we’re only as good as the weakest link. Most companies in this industry are very focused on safety, very focused on taking care of their equipment, but there are still a few companies lingering that are fly-by-night, if you will.”
Furlong said companies could push vendors and operators to improve or even not do business with those who have lackluster maintenance and safety programs.
“By doing that, rising tides will lift all ships,” he said. “Rates will improve and we’ll improve together.”
Breslin continued the future-focused line of questions by asking Eckstein to describe what kind of legacy she wants to leave.
“I would hope that my legacy would be we have more women in the industry, period, but a lot of very educated, strong, confident women who have a community in this industry, and I think we’re achieving that through WIMOs,” Eckstein said.
Eckstein said she believes she is also achieving that through Eckstein Trade & Transport, also called ET&T Recruiting, which specializing in female placement in the maritime industry.
“I think our industry needs to think a little bit outside of the box when it comes to different recruits,” Eckstein said.
That means reconsidering core qualities companies look for in a candidate.
“Do they have the personality to be the job done?” Eckstein said. “We can teach everything else.”
Also looking toward the future, Zea said the country has to become more efficient with its infrastructure funding and construction, because waterborne transportation depends on it.
“With lock modernization over the last 10 years, we’ve had only one lock open up, and that’s Olmsted Lock and Dam,” Zea said. “We had a groundbreaking at Lock and Dam 25 two weeks ago, and [Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Michael Connor] during his speech said something that really stuck with me. Groundbreakings are cool but ribbon cuttings are better.”
Panelists also tackled the subject of mentors and mentorship. Fowler said mentoring and seeing young leaders grow is a core part of what makes the Cooper group of companies successful.
“Putting young people on the playing field in a way you can coach them—not just to be watching and observing but really being on the field, giving them opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have—is a big deal in terms of mentoring,” Fowler said.
Fowler said people at all levels, from the deck on up, have the experience and knowledge to mentor a younger or less experienced colleague. What’s important, he said, is for mentees to bring an eager, teachable mindset to the relationship.
“You have to enjoy the process as much as you enjoy the end result,” Fowler said. “Young folks, sometimes, look at the process, and they’re just trying to get to the end goal. In our industry, that doesn’t work. You’ve got to enjoy what you do. You’ve got to enjoy the people you work with. When you do that, there’s an authenticity that people in our industry will recognize, and they will want to mentor.”
Caption for photo: Mike Breslin, director of safety and sustainability for the American Waterways Operators, interviews a panel of past 40 Under 40 recipients at this year’s Inland Marine Expo. Panelists included, from the left, Tim Parker III, president and CEO of Parker Towing; Kent Furlong, president of Hines Furlong Line; James Fowler, managing director of Cooper Marine and executive vice president of Blakeley Boatworks; Kasey Eckstein, president of Eckstein Trade & Transport and Eckstein Fleeting Services; and Tracy Zea, president and CEO of Waterways Council Inc. (Waterways Journal photo)