Spotlight on Kirby Corporation

City streets around the world are paved with the names of heroes and legends known internationally, nationally and locally. Houston is no exception to that rule. The city itself named after Texas’ greatest hero, Sam Houston, and its streets are filled with the names such as Milam, Dowling, Cullen and Fannin. These names represent heroes of the Texas Revolution and other well-known figures throughout Texas history. Along Kirby Drive, the name of another impactful Houstonian, John Henry Kirby, is seen by all Houstonians, although many today have no idea the extent to which he helped develop the city. John Henry Kirby’s legacy is cemented and continues to grow in the halls of the Kirby Corporation.

Kirby, the Man
John Henry Kirby was born on a rural East Texas farm during the beginnings of the Civil War, on November 16, 1860. Kirby spent most of his formative years around the farm in Tyler County where he received limited formal education. Learning to read and write from his mother, going through intermittent sessions in Tyler County’s rural schools and less than one semester at Southwestern University in Georgetown, the journey that followed Kirby is nothing short of remarkable.
After leaving Southwestern, Kirby, with the influence of friend and state senator, Samuel Bronson Cooper, received an appointment as a calendar clerk of the Texas Senate in 1882. Kirby left the senate in 1884 to begin his law career. He was admitted to the bar in the fall of 1885, and soon after began to use his skills to amass a small fortune.
Kirby partnered with a group of investors from Boston, who came to Kirby for his legal services after a recommendation from Cooper, to speculate the East Texas timberlands. In the timberlands of East Texas, Kirby became a legend. Nicknamed the “Prince of the Pines,” at his peak Kirby controlled more than 300,000 acres of East Texas pinelands and operated 13 sawmills.
Timber was not the only interest for Kirby. With the discovery of oil at Spindletop, Kirby wanted to try his hand at a new venture. Despite early failures with oil, Kirby persisted and, in 1921, formed the Kirby Petroleum Company. The company was initially an independent oil and gas exploration and development company.
The Name Lives On
As the years went on Kirby Petroleum expanded their business interests and groups. In 1969, Kirby Petroleum entered the marine transportation business with the acquisition of Dixie Carriers, Inc. The oil and gas boom of the early 1980s was a very active period for Kirby’s oil and gas operatives with extensive exploratory drilling in the Fletcher Field of Oklahoma. The field was not as productive as anticipated and the oil and gas operation sustained significant operating losses. The cash flow of Dixie Carriers and the stock value of both Dixie Carriers and Universal Insurance Company, a Puerto Rico property and casualty insurance company owned by Kirby, were used to financially support the oil and gas operation. After years of losses by the oil and gas operations, the marine transportation, as well as the diesel engine services businesses quickly became the core drivers of the company, and in 1987, the Kirby board of directors adopted a strategy to focus solely on them. Pursuant to the strategy, the oil and gas assets of the company were sold off in 1988, and the company was renamed, as it stands today, in 1990, as Kirby Corporation.

Kirby Corporation exists today as the nation’s largest domestic tank barge operator transporting bulk liquid products. With over 4,000 employees, it has expanded greatly from when John Henry Kirby first founded the company. Today, Kirby’s inland fleet represents approximately 23 percent of the U.S. inland tank barge capacity. Its inland fleet is made up of 876 tank barges with 17.9 million barrels of capacity and 230 towboats, serving the nation’s coasts via the Intracoastal Waterway and the Mississippi River system. In addition to the inland fleet, Kirby also has a coastal fleet of 69 tank barges with an estimated 6.2 MM barrel capacity. This fleet services all three U.S. coasts, as well as, Hawaii and Alaska.
Along with the marine transportation business, Kirby’s diesel engine services business has greatly expanded. This business services diesel powered engines for everything from hydraulic fracturing equipment, to marine equipment, to peak and base load power generators.
What has made Kirby so successful over its lifetime? Matt Woodruff, director of public and government affairs, credits the employees throughout the company and the structure of the company. “There is a great collaborative environment from everyone in the company,” Woodruff said. “We have an alignment from the very top with the CEO down to the guys on the decks of our vessels with the core company values,” he added.
Learning the Kirby way begins immediately for new employees in the company, especially for the boat crews. “We invest heavily in training our boat crews,” Woodruff said. He added, “we prefer hiring people who have never been in the industry before in order to train them on our policies and procedures.” Woodruff said Kirby likes to hire veterans because of their experience transfers well to the maritime business. Woodruff added he is most proud of Kirby for its commitment to veterans.
Looking to the Future
Safety is a cornerstone principle at Kirby. The commitment to safety can be seen throughout the entire company, from the boat crews all the way to the CEO. Recently, Kirby instituted a policy to go even further in ensuring the safety of their employees: Stop Work Responsibility. This new policy gives any employee, no matter their level, the responsibility to stop a work situation they deem is unsafe. “It’s not just the right, but the duty for the employee to stop an unsafe work environment,” Woodruff said. The company is quick to praise the employees who use this initiative and even honors them annually at a dinner.
While always looking at the present and ensuring the safety of every employee, Kirby also looks to the future for ways to grow and ways to be innovative in the industry. This has started with investing in their fleet. Woodruff said the barge fleet is the youngest it has ever been because of the level of barge replacements over the past few years.
Along with investment in the fleet, Kirby is always looking for better ways to serve their customer’s needs, “We want to have the right equipment in the right place when it is needed,” Woodruff said. Kirby accomplishes this in part by being a leading company in acquisitions in the industry, but as Woodruff pointed out, “Kirby is always looking for opportunities to grow but acquisitions must meet our financial criteria for investment.”
Along with growing the company, Kirby is leading the way in the innovating the industry with new technology. Internally, they have launched a new app for their employees to utilize that should improve safety and efficiency company wide. The new app, called Kirby Connect, allows employees to use their smartphone to report near misses, see their travel schedule, and look up company procedures and vessel schedules. The app was created because “it was the right thing for us to do,” Woodruff explained.
Kirby Corporation looks to continue to do the right thing for them, their employees and their customers for many years to come. “Kirby is about safely serving our customers, providing value to our share holders and taking care of our employees,” Woodruff said. Following in the traditions of their founder, Kirby Corporation has policies and procedures, combined with modern-day technology, in place to create new heroes and legends of their own, who one day like John Henry Kirby may have a street of their own named for them. Because as Woodruff said, “When you hire Kirby, you get more than a barge, you get a lot of experience, depth and flexibility.”

  • Date June 5, 2017
  • Tags June 2017