Five Questions With: James Black

As CEO of Moran Shipping Agencies, James Black leads the biggest privately owned vessel agency in the United States. Moran has 25 offices in the U.S. and 80 ports, handling fishing vessels to ultra-large cargo carriers and everything in between.

Based in Providence, the company’s story involves an innovative building that honors its past, has experienced growth via new technology and faces challenges due to that new technology.

PBN: For those who aren’t familiar with the story, your headquarters building is in a unique situation, representing the past and present. Tell us a bit about that.

BLACK: To accommodate company growth and the desire to connect with urban innovation centers, Moran committed to move our headquarters to Providence in 2009, when we made the former Rhode Island Medical Society Building our new home. Using historic tax credits, our project transformed the 100-plus-year-old former medical library into a 21st-century, technologically advanced green office.

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We are proud that our award-winning building is one of only a handful listed on the National Register of Historic Places to have received a Gold LEED certification. Moran strongly advocates for best practices in green shipping and green ports, so making the commitment to a sustainable headquarters made perfect sense, particularly given the health benefits to our employees.

Key features include two geothermal wells – which heat and cool the building – and low-VOC material use and construction practices. The maritime industry must look both to past traditions, as well as to future innovations, to thrive. We like to think our at-once-historic-and-modern building uniquely represents this notion.

PBN: You grew up as the youngest of seven children. Did that experience teach you anything that you can apply to running a business today?

BLACK: If anything at all, it’s taught me patience and trust. I grew up in a somewhat traditional blue-collar, Irish-Catholic family. My father was strict and my mother quite protective. Being the baby of seven, I came to be very observant. I learned from my older siblings’ mistakes. I knew just how far I could push the envelope to get results.

Sure, I had my share of disappointments along the way. For instance, the year I turned 14, all my older siblings moved out of the house. It was a rude awakening for me. I didn’t realize how much I depended on them for guidance and sometimes comfort. Suddenly, I was on my own. Eventually, I became mentally stronger and adapted to being somewhat alone. But I realized quickly how important it was to have people around you who you could trust and rely upon!

PBN: Can you summarize how technology has affected the shipping world in the past decade or two, for good or bad?

BLACK: From the sextant to the compass to the first marine chronometer, from wind to steam, from palette to container, from telex to the internet of things, technology disruption is not new to shipping. What is new is the unprecedented breakneck pace and scope of change, representing impacts that we are only starting to understand.

New technologies [such as] block chain, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, digitalization, big data, advanced materials and machine learning are already proving to be very disruptive to our industry, and we have only scratched the surface. On the bright side, in many cases these technologies will catalyze transformative improvements in vessel and port efficiency, safety, security and ocean sustainability.

On the other hand, tech changes and impacts on maritime workers are precipitating fears. For example, while autonomous vessel tech is promising for some, it is creating great uncertainty for the future role of the seafarer. Companies are facing the same disruption. There is no doubt that legacy companies [such as] mine will need to address the threats and opportunities presented by tech change, head on. Innovation is the key.

PBN: For those unfamiliar with it, what do you think is the most surprising thing for them to learn about the shipping industry?

BLACK: I believe that the maritime industry is like a great secret to most of the population. People don’t realize that over 90% of the goods traded globally are done so by vessel.

PBN: Founded in 1937, Moran is now the biggest independent steamship agency in North America. What’s next for the company?

BLACK: James Francis Moran founded the company in Fall River in 1937. This is somewhat ironic in that my family grew up in Fall River and my oldest brother F. Robert Black was born that same year. Upon returning to the area after serving our country in Korea, Bob attended Bryant College and worked part time at the J.F. Moran Co. in Providence. He eventually took ownership of the company in 1970 when the Moran family estate sold it to him. I began working for Bob in 1974 as a ship’s agent, freight forwarder and customs entry clerk. At that time, we had two distinct corporations, J.F. Moran Co.  and Moran Shipping Agencies Inc.

In the early ’80s our brothers Bill and Mike joined the company. Bob eventually sold Moran to the three of us in 1986 and retired. Bill took more of an interest to J.F. Moran Co. and my brother Mike and I had a fondness for the maritime world. We decided to separate ownership of the companies in the early 1990s and both companies have flourished.

As for Moran Shipping Agencies … we compete on a worldwide stage, yet we continue to focus our efforts in North America. Our core business, of course, is husbanding vessels that come into our ports. In doing so, we are the logistical tacticians of a port call – handling every aspect, from coordinating the arrival with government officials and local terminals, ordering services [such as] pilotage, tugs and line handling. We are also responsible for the disposition of the cargo to be discharged and/or loaded. It’s truly an awesome responsibility to be a ship’s agent.

As we evolve, we are already looking toward additional services, such as maritime and port safety, pollution safety control, cyber awareness and security, block chain and more.

Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributing writer.