From Deckhand to CEO
A spotlight on American Commercial Barge Line’s President and CEO, Mark Knoy
By Kyle Beam, GHPB
American Commercial Barge Line (ACBL) is one of the largest marine transportation and manufacturing companies in the country, with operations in seven states and the ability to service the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River system. The company has grown to a fleet of 4,200 barges powered by 175 towboats. This growth has not come without its share of setbacks. As recently as 2003 ACBL was in bankruptcy. The company has rebounded in the years since, and over the last five years, ACBL has invested over $500 million into its operations. Leading this increased investment as President and Chief Executive Officer is a man with a lifetime of riverboat experience learned from his father, Mark Knoy.
In a special e-mail interview with the Port Bureau News, Mr. Knoy speaks about growing up in the river business, what it has been like working his way up to be the CEO of a major barge line, and some of the challenges that exist today in the maritime industry.
MK: I grew up five miles from Starved Rock Lock and Dam, mile point 231 on the Illinois River. My father spent his career working on towboats and mostly on the Illinois River when I was a young kid. Coincidently, he worked for ACBL for many of those years as captain on the Chicago Trader. When he’d pass through the lock, we’d all pile in the car and run over to the lock and see Dad. When I was about six or seven, I started riding on the boat with him on the weekends and holidays and fell in love with the river, or maybe just being with my dad. Either way, I loved being on the boat, so that’s all I ever wanted to do.
I started decking on the line boats in the summers and at the local Ottawa harbor service during the school year. I loved working outdoors, on the water, and with the people; I learned all about boats and barges and how to run and maintain them. It was interesting and you could measure what you had accomplished. I passed up an appointment to the Merchant Marine Academy and instead went to Memphis and got my pilot’s license when I was 19 and started running boats on the Illinois River.
In 1984 I had an opportunity to start a small fleeting business in Pekin, Illinois, and our entire family came together to support this effort. I have four siblings and they all worked at the business along with Mom and Dad. For many years, they all continued with careers in the industry. My brother still works on the river as a chief engineer, and my sister recently left a crewing position.
Having a small business was a great learning experience. It was challenging daily and very rewarding on most too.
PB: How has knowledge from your family helped you grow in the business?
MK: That’s been a while ago; I sold the family business in 1989 and went to work at MEMCO Barge Line.
It’s always been about the people, and I continue to learn about what drives and motivates teammates. I really believe in taking care of them and they’ll take care of you. You learn early on that it takes a team effort to be successful in the river business. You’re scattered all over this wonderful river highway and you always need someone’s help. You need deckhands and barge cleaners just as much as you need captains. It’s my top priority to give them a safe place to work and the best tools available to do that work.
Taking care of the customer has always been at the forefront of my time. Ensuring current customers are satisfied is so much easier than continuously finding new customers. I’ve always enjoyed the sales side of the industry. It’s made up of a ton of wonderful people.
Running a small business is a great experience in many disciplines. Small business owners do it all. They fill in for the sick pilot, head of sales, recruiter and dispatcher and handle insurance, banking and everything it takes to run your business. Big businesses have the same challenges, just larger in scale.
PB: What is it like working your way from a deckhand to the CEO of a major barge line?
MK: It certainly wasn’t anything I ever dreamed of, it just sort of happened that way. I was opportunistic and a few opportunities came my way. I was eager to provide a better life for my family.
I always wanted to be a captain, but I wasn’t very good at driving a boat. What I did find was that I was good at leading people. I moved ashore and ran a small harbor service when the owner was looking for someone to step forward. I was young and lucky to have this chance and really ran with it, growing the business and expanding my capabilities. In a twist of fate, the same opportunity that brought me ashore provided me the opportunity to start my own fleeting business, and my family came aboard and helped out in many ways.
I’ve used many of these experiences along the way to where I am. Most notably are the folks I met that gave me opportunities, believed in me, and mentored me in climbing the ladder to the CEO position I’m in today.
After spending years working on the river myself, I understand what life on the water is like. I’ve traveled rough waters and have stood watch with my fellow teammates. I understand the inland waterways system because I’ve traveled it myself. I know how this business works from the ground up.
PB: How do you think the knowledge and experience you gained working on the boats and barges has helped you as a CEO?
MK: Probably the biggest assist I have is the experience I had coming up on the boats. I learned from the deck level what it takes to move a barge from point A to point B, what it takes to keep the boat running, and the endless hours of dark nights that wheelmen navigate their tows through safely. I know what our teammates can and cannot do. I don’t ask our teammates to do anything that I wouldn’t have done out there. With reference to being on the boats, the boats and barges, and other resources and tools we have to work with today are far superior to what I worked on 35 years ago.
I do think the amount of experience I gained in decking and tanking barges, welding and pumping barges and running a boat lend a great deal of understanding to what really happens in the river business. I always wanted to be a captain, just like my Dad. He made it look so easy, like riding a bike. For me, it was challenging and I gave it up for a shore job. I really respect a guy that can put something 1200 foot long and 105 foot wide into 110 foot wide hole, or a guy that can take nearly seven acres of tow down the Mississippi River. That ability fascinates me.
PB: You spent 17 years at AEP before you became the CEO of ACBL, what was that move like after being in one place for so long?
MK: The opportunity to expand my knowledge into the tank barge business and the Gulf Coast and working with our stakeholders has really been exciting and very rewarding.
I’ve had a lot of growth opportunities in my career. Chris Parsonage gave me a great opportunity at MEMCO starting back in 1994. Chris wanted to grow MEMCO and it was fun doubling the size of the company in the 90s and building all the support infrastructure in the Gulf. Selling the business to AEP in 2001 created AEP River Operations. With our teammates, we doubled the fleet size over the next 10 years to about 3600 barges. AEP was a great place to work, a company that really believed in the power of people.
Running ACBL has been a great experience for me personally and hopefully for my teammates as well. Getting involved with Jeffboat and the tank barge industry has been stimulating to an old dry cargo guy. It’s been a pretty steep learning curve to get up to speed with the many liquid products we haul and the many locations we serve.
My wife, Mary, and I became empty nesters in 2011, with our youngest son going off to college. The timing of the ACBL opportunity just worked for us.
PB: ACBL recently acquired AEP River Operations, how does it feel to have the group you worked with be a part of ACBL now?
MK: Once again, while some will disagree, I never thought this would be the case. Sure, I knew AEP was contemplating selling their barge company, but for us to be in a position to buy it speaks mostly to Platinum Equity and their continued interest in the inland barge business and their faith and support of our leadership team.
This past few weeks, those relocating from the Chesterfield, Missouri headquarters of the former AEP River Ops to our Jeffersonville headquarters, where we’ll be for another 100 years, feels somewhat like a homecoming. I feel very comfortable with our former AEP teammates; they are highly skilled, well trained and respected throughout the industry. It’s great to have so many back together again. I think 97% of the teammates stayed with ACBL and I couldn’t be happier about that.
I have had the privilege of being part of both of these tremendous companies which gives me great confidence in our course for the future. I think we’re going to be wildly successful and have some fun doing it. There will be tremendous growth opportunities for our teammates and customers, and I look forward to being on that boat together.
Both of these great companies kept America moving along the inland waterways while weathering fluctuating river conditions and economic cycles; each building strong reputations for excellence. Collectively, we have emerged even stronger and better equipped to meet the ever-evolving needs of the marketplace.
This type of growth and commitment speaks directly to the teamwork that has helped grow ACBL from its modest beginnings hauling coal on the Kentucky River to where we are today – positioned as one of the largest and most diversified marine companies in the nation.
PB: ACBL recently added operations in Houston, what made you decide the Houston market was a good market to enter?
MK: Actually, ACBL has had operations in Houston for quite some time. Our Channelview fleet and warehouse offices were acquired and refurbished back in 2007. Since that time we’ve had the ability to fleet over 100 barges for the Houston market, crew and service our fleet and unit tow boats and, most importantly, service our Houston customers. We’ve been one of the largest tank barge operators back to the 1950s and our acquisition of the Butcher Arthur Towing Company.
More recently we have invested heavily in our 10-thousand and 30-thousand barrel fleets and unit tow boats. Our Houston team has done a great job over the years, and we are continuing to invest in both our operations capability at Channelview and our sales and customer service teams. We are growing our liquid presence with 450 tank barges and 45 dedicated liquid boats and nearly 100 of our own tankerman.
PB: When you enter a new market, what opportunities do you look for and what are some of the challenges you face?
MK: We know our strong points at ACBL and we know where we can add value to our customers’ logistics demands. One of the challenges is marrying our strengths to our customers’ needs and finding that “fit” so that it is readily apparent to the customer. Quite often, potential new customers say, “I want my products moved the safest way, the quickest way, and the most efficient way, and we would like you to be the lowest cost bidder for that excellence.” Without a new customer knowing what ACBL can do for them, or how they can benefit from our operational excellence, they really don’t see the value in our operation. That’s a big challenge.
We believe that no one can compete with our mainline service economics up the Mississippi River and its tributaries. For example, we have a boat leaving New Orleans every 18 hours with a full tow of 24, 35, or 49 barges. The economies of scale are significant. Regarding unit tows, we’ve historically specialized on the chemical side of the business. We are really good at managing the hard cargoes. With the recent developments in domestic crude, we’ve responded to the markets and now carry more crude and refined products.
The opportunities come when customers take full advantage of the depth of our service. One unit tow here or there really doesn’t leverage our capability for mainline service with a unit tow component. We look for customers who have regular, routine and steady volumes so we can partner with them to become their logistics solution.
PB: There are many challenges in the maritime industry, from the competitiveness to the constantly changing technology, how do you address those and what must you do to continue to grow ACBL?
I’ve seen the marine industry go through many changes over the years. When business is booming, every bank and private equity firm in the industry wants to get involved and build boats and barges. That changes the competition landscape for better and for worse. ACBL is a 100 year old company; we just celebrated our centennial in August. We’ve gone from privately owned to publicly owned to private equity owned.
Over the course of the 100 years, one thing has remained true - our teammates are dedicated to doing it right. I’m so encouraged by all the 30+ and 40+ year team members ACBL employs and the dedication they bring to our customers and to each other. Our owners, Platinum Equity, have provided us the resources and support to renew our fleet. Today our fleet includes 4,200 barges and 175 boats for customers in the dry and liquid markets.
MK: In my personal career, I’ve attained more than I ever imagined and have so many people to thank for their support in doing so. I love being challenged every day, and I can honestly say I still learn something every day and the challenges are still there nipping at my heels.
Business wise, most important to me is the success of this recent acquisition. We have asked many teammates to step up to the challenge of integrating these businesses with the best management and operating practices to drive synergies throughout the new organization and implement our plans for the future. If we can successfully do this, it would be a cap on a satisfying career, I think.
My most common challenge - Mary and I have raised three wonderful children and I’d like to find more time to spend with both Mary and our children.
PB: Finally, what makes ACBL a great company to work for?
MK: I believe people generally work for people and we have a bunch of great people at ACBL. Over the years these teammates have developed great contributors and identified many opportunities along the way. Teammates want to be challenged and acknowledged. We try hard to do both. I think we let our teammates do their job - give them the resources they need to add value and get out of their way. I think our teammates like the level of teamwork and high involvement we support here.
ACBL employs 3,500 dedicated mariners and shore based teammates. We offer competitive pay, a comprehensive benefits program and extensive training opportunities. The best and the brightest can work anywhere on the river or on shore; they choose to work for ACBL because of the culture we have created that is built upon Mutual Care, Personal Responsibility, Agility, Teamwork, and High Involvement.
- Date March 3, 2016
- Tags March 2016