Blessey Marine Services finds success by putting people and safety first
Walter Blessey, CEO of Blessey Marine Services, tells a story of his liquid cargo transportation company’s early days when he brought the captains of his small fleet to his office for a meeting. During his presentation, he promised the captains a bonus at the end of a good year.
“I came back from the break and there was Capt. Rusty Hill addressing the other captains holding out a pencil, saying, ‘Walter was going to dangle that carrot in front of us and then pull it,’” Blessey shared with BOSS. The CEO told his now longtime captain — who has since had a boat in the Blessey fleet named after him — that they’d all have to wait and see. Year-end bonuses have been a tradition ever since.
The experience showed Blessey that the members of his team had been lied to by previous bosses and treated unfairly. It led to a dedication to knowing his captains and crew socially as well as professionally and earning their trust. You might say the effort paid off; Blessey now boasts 85 boats and 170 barges, along with office walls lined with pictures from company trips and a “Wall of Fame” featuring former employees who have retired or passed away.
Establishing Company Culture
The importance of quality company culture to Blessey is clear from the first moment he speaks of his company, “Our mission or goal has always been to do the right thing. I built my business on that concept, but most importantly, I have made it my life’s mission to maintain that standard. I want my crews to feel safe and at home while working onboard our vessels. I want our wheelmen to be able to safely navigate their tows. I want our tankermen to be able to transfer cargoes to and from our customers with equipment that is ready to do the job. I want our deckhands to be able to grow knowing what our standard is, so when they move up along the ranks, they understand and know the equipment.”
Along with the aforementioned yearly bonuses and company outings, Blessey calls every boat on Christmas Day to wish the crew a Merry Christmas and to give them thanks for their work. Additionally, every member of the team who has been with the company for 20 years receives a Rolex. This year those who have been with the company 10 years or more will receive a $10,000 bonus on Thanksgiving. Loyalty begets loyalty.
Another example of loyalty at Blessey Marine can be found in the company’s relationship with Aon which has been its provider of risk management solutions for more than 30 years. Blessey’s commitment to excellence and safety combined with Aon’s experience as a global insurance broker has led to more than three decades of safely and efficiently transporting cargo through inland waterways. The mutually beneficial relationship has enhanced the reputations of both parties as they look forward to many more years of working together.
Working the Inland Waterways
Since its inception in the late seventies, Blessey Marine has established itself as an industry leader, servicing major petroleum and petrochemical companies by transporting their residual fuels, lubricating oils, asphalt, alcohols, refined petroleum products, petroleum feedstocks, and petrochemicals along America’s major inland waterways. Doing so is not without difficulties.
Blessey explained, “One of the challenges working in the inland waterways is the diversity of locations. For instance, we might have a tow in Brownsville, Texas, one in St. Marks, Florida, one in Chicago, Illinois, one in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one in Louisville, Kentucky, one on the Ten-Tom River, one on the Tennessee River, one on the Arkansas River and all locations in between these destinations. So it can be challenging getting crews to and from the boats.” Over decades of experience, practice, and dedication to getting people home on time, Blessey Marine has honed its skill at getting crew to and from inland boats.
Another concern that comes with operating in waterways (inland or offshore) is keeping the water and local environment safe and clean. Blessey Marine has proven just as dedicated to the environment as it is to its employees. Partnering with companies that share a dedication to quality products, safety, and environmental well-being, such as Coating Systems & Supply and Marine Fueling Services, Inc., has helped Blessey Marine accomplish its goals of keeping both its crew and the waterways safe.
Blessey spoke of his company’s environmental safety concerns, saying, “... if you have an accident it could be a great deal of pollution and financial exposure. I’m proud to say even in the ’80s and late ’70s we have never owned or operated a single skin vessel, hence we have never had a penetration in the inner skin resulting in a spill.”
The company’s environmental safety record is yet another example of Blessey Marine finding success by sticking to its core principals.
The USCG’s Meritorious Service Award
Hard work done well rarely goes unnoticed. In the case of Walter Blessey, he recently was the proud recipient of the Meritorious Service from the United States Coast Guard. The award is given to members or former members of the Armed Forces who have distinguished themselves through noncombat service or achievements.
Blessey was rightfully honored, “I’m most proud to receive the Meritorious Service Award from the USCG. It is truly unique and humbling when the regulators recognize the regulated, and I proudly accepted the award in the name of our great employees.”
Blessey Marine’s connection with the US Coast Guard runs deep. The company was the first with more than 50 boats to achieve 100 percent compliance with the Coast Guard’s Voluntary Inspection Program. Speaking of the commitment to compliance, Blessey notes, “If you are going to be a leader in an industry, you must lead by example. Our folks work very hard to accomplish 100 percent compliance.”
The partnership has continued over the years, with Blessey Marine regularly allowing inspection and even allowing USCG personnel to train on their equipment. The mutually beneficial relationship allows members of the USCG to learn about Blessey Marine’s vessels and crews while gaining insight about the industry.
The American Waterways Operators
Another relationship that is a big part of Blessey Marine’s success is its connection to the American Waterways Operators — the 65-year-old trade association that represents the barge, tugboat, and towboat industry in Washington, D.C. Not only is Blessey Marine a member of the association, some employees hold and have held leadership roles within the group. This strong connection provides a forum for the company to share experiences with fellow members, such as Magnolia Fleet, LLC, and help the sector grow and remain a safe form of transportation.
As Blessey puts it, “Our relationship with the American Waterways Operators has really been about networking and leading. By actively participating in the association, we have access to all aspects of our industry. We network with our peers, we share in our achievements as an industry, (i.e. Sub-Chapter M Implementation), we share our failures in an effort to learn from them, and we work together to solve issues and address problems before they arise.”
The ‘Blessey Way’
Blessey has drawn on diverse and empowering experiences from his past to power his success. He credits a solid upbringing, a junior year studying abroad at Edinburgh University, where he had to forge new connections in an unfamiliar land, and his experience as student body president at Tulane University during the Vietnam War as a few of the defining moments of his early life.
The founder of Blessey Marine has a right to believe he is living the American Dream, especially as he remembers earning $12,800 a year in his early work at a company with “horrible company culture.” This has informed not only the way Blessey interacts with his employees and his environmental stewardship, but also his hiring process.
The “Blessey Way” and company culture are best summed up by the CEO himself, “I worked hard to create a culture where people are proud to work at Blessey. I like to say, ‘Hire character and then teach them the job.’ I have done this with many people that I have got to know and respected on life’s journey.”
Remembering where he came from and the moments that shaped his character — from competitive golf as a youth to his first difficult jobs after leaving the Army — provides Blessey and his company the impetus to give back.
Locally, he is very involved with Junior Achievement, “I try to share my beliefs and success with different groups. Starting with Junior Achievement in New Orleans. We have been fortunate to raise millions of dollars over the years for JA at our annual golf tournament.
“I also make a sizeable contribution each year because I believe in their mission. JA has a building named in my honor, the Walter E. Blessey Jr. Free Enterprise Center for Learning, in which 35,000 kids go through and see and listen to my message to them about the importance of education, integrity, and work ethic.”
His generosity doesn’t stop in New Orleans. Blessey is also a supporter of Turning Point USA and Stanford’s Hoover Institution where he is able to share ideas with and learn from Condoleezza Rice, George Schultz, Victor Davis Hanson, and other scholars.
His hard work, success, and community involvement has earned Blessey numerous awards, including back-to-back city of New Orleans golf champion as a teenager, Tulane’s Lifetime Achievement Award for the class of ’67 from his alma mater. Other awards include the Junior Achievement Lifetime Achievement Award, Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of Year Award for the gulf states, St. Martin’s Award for Lifetime Achievement, and of course the Coast Guard Meritorious Award. On top of that, Blessey was honored by being featured on the Our American Stories podcast twice.
Commenting on such awards, Blessey modestly explains, “We don’t try to get awards, but it is nice to be recognized. We try to celebrate our people, recognize them, and share our success.”
Based on his company’s history and forward trajectory, we’re sure there are plenty more awards to come.
Predominantly a "Unit Tow" company, Blessey Marine’s mission is to transport its customers' liquid bulk cargoes safely and efficiently throughout the navigable inland waterways. Its primary cargoes include residual fuels, asphalt, lubricating oils, petroleum feedstocks, refined petroleum products, petrochemicals and alcohols.
Servicing all major petroleum and petrochemical companies, Blessey Marine has gained respect in the industry by putting safety, customer service and professionalism as its first priorities. Safety is the top priority of every employee, the purpose of every job and the foundation of Blessey Marine’s business. The company’s constant goal is to maintain the highest level of customer satisfaction by safely providing excellent service to our valued customers in the petroleum and petrochemical industries.
Blessey Marine believes that success can be achieved only through the constant pursuit of excellence. The company continually strives to maintain excellence throughout its organization, in its people, its equipment, and its service.