The Only Coach in the Bunkering Business

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Christine Schlenker, GHPB

Pat HeadshotFamily businesses line the Houston Ship Channel, representing the hard work, success, and perseverance of generations. Situated at the top of the Houston Ship Channel, just as Buffalo Bayou morphs into the deepdraft channel, is one such company – Buffalo Marine Service, Inc., the largest bunkering services company in the Houston region. Led by president and CEO Patrick “Pat” Studdert, Buffalo Marine and its predecessor have been serving the port community for 80 years.
A visit to Pat’s office in the Buffalo Marine building shows a room filled with Texas and sports-themed memorabilia, photos with friends and politicians, and his father’s old desk. It is right next to the dispatch office, and the phone is always ringing. But tucked away in filing cabinets and Pat’s keen mind is the remarkable history of rebuilding a family legacy.

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The first boat built by J.S. Gissel & Co., the Buffalo. Photos courtesy of Buffalo Marine Service, Inc.

Buffalo Marine has its roots in the J.S. Gissel & Co., of which Pat’s father, Tom Studdert, was a partner and ship agent starting in 1935. Gissel was a multi-service company, participating in dredging, agency, river towing, and bunkering, among others. Gissel owned multiple brownwater vessels and one ship, and it ran a shipyard right at the juncture of Brays Bayou and Buffalo Bayou. Shuffling through old photos his father gave him, Pat finds a black-and-white shot of Gissel’s first boat, commenting, “It’s ironic that the first boat they ever built was called the Buffalo.”
By the time he was six years old, Pat was accompanying his father on vessel visits. Tom worked out of the Cotton Exchange Building until Gissel built a new office near its shipyard on Erath Street in 1951. An article published in the Houston Magazine that year touted the modern Erath building’s “year-round air-conditioning”.
The company was a jack-of-all trades, but such diversity of services proved difficult to manage. Gissel fell on hard times in the early 1960s, just before Pat started high school. The company went into bankruptcy and was forced to sell off most of its assets. A seismographic company bought the building, and what was left of Gissel moved into a nearby trailer. Tom managed to hold onto two tugs, three bunker barges, and his large wooden desk, but everything else in the office had to go. To young Pat, the sudden collapse “was pretty bizarre.”
“The whole thing should have never resurrected,” says Pat. But, determined to start over, Tom decided to pursue the service his former company was most successful at: bunkering. Pat, quoting his father, explains, “The only thing we ever did right around here was bunker ships.” Tom started Buffalo Marine, named after the bayou they worked along, with the tugs and barges left over from Gissel. Pat was competing in track and football in high school, but still made time to start working alongside his father at the new company on Saturdays and Sundays, acting in any role from go-fer to port captain.

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Pat competed in track at San Jacinto High School and the University of Houston.

Although he learned the ropes of the bunkering business, Pat’s passion was to coach high school athletics. He was already ingrained enough in Houston’s football scene to know he would have a good opportunity to pursue his coaching career in his hometown. Pat accepted a track scholarship to the University of Houston, where he competed from 1966 to 1969 while earning his Bachelors of Arts in Education. He was coaching athletic programs in Houston’s Third Ward by the time he was a junior at U of H. A new high school on the southwest side of Houston, Sharpstown High School, was set to open shortly after Pat’s graduation. Ray Auburn, Pat’s coach from San Jacinto High School, was tapped to lead the development of its football program, and he brought along freshly-minted graduate Pat to join the coaching staff.
An eager problem solver, Pat left Sharpstown a few years later to fix the crumbling football program at Waltrip High School. On top of that, Pat was the superintendent of swimming pools for the east side of Houston and continued working weekends at Buffalo Marine. “When you’re a football coach, you have two or three jobs” to make ends meet, he says, shrugging. He also earned a Superintendent Certificate from Texas Southern University, which would enable him to become a school principal or superintendent.
By 1976, the Buffalo Marine was stable enough that Pat decided to leave coaching to work full time with his father. Pat knew the company had potential to succeed and grow, but it needed a revamp to move forward. Pat started pushing immediately to update their equipment. The boats were in rough condition, dirty and rusted, and the crews did not look any better. They took the risk on new investment, and within a couple of years, they had built two new barges and a new tug.
Even though it was normal for the time, the attitude and presentation of the employees were unacceptable in Pat’s eyes. The crews wore ragged t-shirts, the shoreside staff started drinking at 4 p.m., and customer service attempts usually devolved into a cussing match. The lack of discipline was shocking to him. He explains, “I’d come from this monstrous 5A football program, which is the most disciplined thing in America as far as I’m concerned.” His father said that it was just how business was done, so Pat set out to change the mentality of the bunkering business in Houston. “We’re going to look like a Rolls Royce, and I don’t know how long it’s going to take me, but we’re going to win.”
“It took me about two years to get the crew straightened out around here,” Pat recalls. He brought the coaching mindset to managing the crews: getting everyone in uniform, hiring people willing to work in a disciplined environment, and instilling that discipline. He applied order to the chaos, teaching the crew to work like a team where each person had an integral part to play so that the team could win.
Pat’s father fell ill with lung cancer in 1978, and as the disease worsened over the next eighteen months, Pat took over more of the responsibilities of running the company. When his dad passed away in 1980, it was just Pat, Mrs. Diane Howard, and one more person in the office. Faced with selling the company to return to coaching or continuing the business, he decided to stay, thinking, “We’re not doing that great, but I’m going to give it a shot.”
His shot seems to have hit its mark. Over the last thirty-plus years, the company has enjoyed substantial growth, now boasting a fleet of thirty-eight barges and nineteen tugs, and Pat was able to buy back the original building in the mid-1980s. Pat describes the evolution as a roller coaster. Success in the industry is not a given, and there are plenty of competitors in the market. “Everyone’s got a bunker barge in the world who wants one, just like having a football. Everybody’s got one. But it’s what you do with it.”
The majority of Buffalo Marine’s business is bunkering, with a small but growing amount of linehaul they started offering in 2004. By nature, the bunkering business follows closely with the economic health of the port. Pat has kept a handwritten log since 1976 detailing Buffalo Marine’s bunkering jobs, and major economic events – the oil bust of the 1980s, the recovery in the 1990s, the Great Recession in 2009, and the natural gas boom/oil price bust of the last few years – are mimicked in Pat’s numbers. After a lifetime in the business, Pat has gained some intuition about the unpredictable nature of bunkering. More importantly, gaining the trust of his suppliers and customers has allowed for open communications about their needs and how he can accommodate them. Pat considers the bunkering business to be at the heart of the port industry, and that Buffalo Marine is responsible for being there for the industry.
As a part of that, Pat holds Buffalo Marine equipment to high standards. Consequently, he adopts technology as soon as he viably can. While he may not be a technology buff himself, he has surrounded himself with staff members who are, and he does not ignore sales calls. Pat keeps a comic strip on his desk as a reminder of this attitude. It depicts a king leading an army to war bearing their swords while dismissing a salesman because he’s too busy. The salesman is selling machine guns. Following this euphemism, Pat says, “It’s my responsibility to know what [my customers’] needs are, and when ‘the war’ comes, we’ll be ready…The machine gun salesman’s out there.”
Pat shares the credit for the success of Buffalo Marine with his employees, their can-do attitudes, and their ability to work as a team. “Discipline and the educational attitude of coaching is the success of the whole thing,” he says. Pointing to his office doors, he adds, “I think it’s got a lot to do with [the fact that] your people believe in you, you know what’s going on, and they trust you. Those doors never close.” Knowing an operation the size of Buffalo Marine cannot be managed alone, Pat makes sure he is approachable and his employees feel empowered enough to do so. “When someone has a recommendation, I listen. And that’s a key, I’ll always listen. I may not always agree and I may ask a bunch of stupid questions, but I’ll listen.”
Pat continues to personally manage the weekly Tuesday morning safety meetings. This permits him to interact with every Buffalo Marine employee, regardless of what rotation they are on. His employees – and many other leaders throughout the port – are the recipients of Pat’s “Buffalo Ball”, a symbol of camaraderie and responsibility. Also, in honor of his father, he offers company-wide incentives for employees to quit smoking.

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Pat Studdert takes Port Commission Chairman Janiece Longoria on a tour of the Houston Ship Channel aboard one of Buffalo Marine’s newest pushboats.

The result, as any coach would already guess, is that most of Buffalo Marine’s employees are fiercely loyal. In a workforce climate where experienced boat crews are constantly being poached, Pat knows that some of his crews will choose to pursue greener pastures. To that end, Pat encourages those employees to do what is best for them and their families. However, he tells them that the gate is always open for them to come back and, remarkably, seventy-five percent return. Mrs. Howard recently celebrated her sixtieth year working at Buffalo Marine, a fete rarely seen.
Over the years, Pat has donated his time and financial support to numerous organizations, both for the maritime community and for causes close to his heart. His maritime service has included leadership roles on the boards of the Houston Propeller Club, Texas Waterways Operators Association, Houston International Seafarers’ Center, Houston Maritime Museum, and Seamen’s Church Institute, and membership in American Waterways Operators Association, Greater New Orleans Barge Fleeting Association, International Bunker Industry Association, and Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association. Buffalo Marine has been a long-standing corporate member of the Greater Houston Port Bureau. Civic engagements have included sitting on the board of St. Dominic Village which is a continuing care retirement facility that is part of the Texas Medical Center and Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, a diabetes lab in the Texas Medical Center, and of course, education.
When he ran for La Porte Independent School District School Board in 1985, he found that his last name was a challenge for some people to remember or even pronounce, so his signs just said, “Pat: Enthusiasm for Education”. He won, and he was re-elected for the next twelve years. Once he moved into Houston city limits and had to vacate his seat, he continued supporting La Porte ISD by providing a $6,000 check to the annual “Teacher of the Year” winner. Buffalo Marine has also teamed up with San Jacinto College’s maritime program to develop the workforce needed in the Houston Ship Channel region.
Describing himself as authentic and enthusiastic, Pat likes to share stories and anecdotes, but there are three he lives by. First, “one monkey don’t stop no show”: no matter what happens to him, Buffalo Marine will keep on running. Second, “no pockets in a shroud”: you can’t take anything with you, so share your wealth with those who need it. And third, the message of the movie “How Green Was My Valley,” a 1941 film about a boy growing up in a Welsh mining town. Despite hardship, the boy learns that the people he meets enrich his life, and the memories he keeps of them help make the valley of his life greener.

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Above: Bernt Netland (far right) presents Pat with a 1,000 mooring bollard as a birthday present from Intercontinental Terminals Company.

Pat’s staff, friends, and industry colleagues had an opportunity to show him how important he has been to them. Pat celebrated his seventieth birthday on December 11. In the morning, Pat received a surprise delivery from Bernt Netland, president of Intercontinental Terminals Company: a 1,000 pound mooring bollard that Buffalo Marine had been using at ITC for decades, saved during ITC’s recent dock renovations. That same evening, after months of conspiring on the part of the Buffalo Marine staff and Pat’s family, a spectacular surprise birthday party guised as another company’s Christmas party was in store for Pat. The Buffalo staff went so far as to print a fake invitation for Pat to add to his planner and signage outside the Houston Club. In his usual good-natured way, Pat told everyone to go to Confession for the web of tales concocted to hide the huge surprise party.
The Port Bureau is already next in line to pay homage to Pat’s civic and business leadership in the Houston maritime community by selecting Pat as the 2016 Maritime Person of the Year. Pat describes his dedication best: “This is my port and my city, and I live here and I love it. It’s where I’m from. We have an obligation to this port to deliver these bunkers. And we take it to heart. I would never abandon this port.”

All photos courtesy of Buffalo Marine Service Inc.

  • Date January 14, 2016
  • Tags January 2016