Monday, December 7, 2009

The Diver by Steve Frailey

This article was the genesis of a recent business leadership column from my "Minding Your Own Business" series in The Lebanon Democrat.

Steve Frailey is a vice-president of Pacific Tug Service with whom i have been doing work on small arms ranges on barge projects. He told this story when he and i were waiting for a meeting with a team mate company. i asked him to give me some more specifics and this is that product. He gave me permission to print it here. i will archive it in another section of this website before removing it from this blog.

My partner in the tug boat and marine business and best friend, Grant Westmorland, is a tall, some would say lanky, quiet type. He spends his days at the office perched in front of his computer in silent study of numbers and data. His routine is a nine hour grind with a few carrot sticks or a can of unadorned tuna breaking his day into equal halves. In winter Grant rarely sees his home or wife Robyn and his two young boys Connor and Spencer in the light of day.

We have been partners in this business since January of 2000. In that time we have gained a senior partner during a merge which caused our once small-time family operation to grow into a moderate small business with multiple locations and nearly seventy employees. Of this much larger “family”, I am the only one who really knew Grant “before”.

The mild mannered Grant Westmorland, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of a corporation today was once a man of steel and fortitude who bore little resemblance to Clark Kent. When I tell tales of a swashbuckling Super Grant who lived days by his wits and will out on the sea and by his charm and bravado at night aboard his flashy yacht very few believe or even humor me.

Not What He Seems To Be

It’s all true what they say about a book’s cover. The plainest of bindings and a simple canvas can belie a treasure of adventure, humor, danger and romance within. Even years later, under a thin layer of dust the story awaits to be retold;

In 1985 in San Diego, I just off a four year Navy hitch and back from Sardinia with my young wife. At twenty-two and full of ambition and youthful expectations I went in search of work.

I landed at the old Campbell Shipyard on the San Diego waterfront. It was a salty old-school seascape of rusting tuna clippers and saltier shipwrights. The sound of sea-gulls, caulker’s mauls and welding arcs was the occasional sound-track.

Sadly, the golden age of tuna fishing was dying a slow death and along with it the art of shipbuilding in the traditional style. Amidst the grayness of life in the shipyard were some outstanding characters full of color. In my first days learning the ways of my new life of coveralls and a tool belt I came across an exceptional find. Lying low in the water; nearly awash in fact, was an ancient barge built of wood. It rested against an even older pier at the end of the shipyard.

The barge was far beyond its most optimistic life expectancy but refused to sink into oblivion without a fight. A solitary figure rose up out of a watery hold grasping a length of steel wire in one hand and a huge wrench in the other. I watched as he struggled and won a minor wrestling match and dragged the wire back again into the depths of the barge.

The Diver

Time and again this man wove his wires into and out of the barge and over the span of a week or so he spun an intricate web of rusty steel sewn into the very spine of the old barge. Its purpose eluded me but I was captivated. I never spoke to “The Diver” as I came to think of him as he never paused in his labor.

I chanced a wave on occasion and it was returned heartily, wearily. He would be at his cause from when I arrived early for work and be at it yet when the lonely whistle blew at the end of a long day. The Diver was a man of steel conquering a ship of wood. He was tall, lean and grim. A Don Quixote tilting against a benign but mighty enemy!

The impression The Diver had on my young adventurous spirit was strong and lasting. I learned the shipyard had hired The Diver to ballast and dispose of the reluctant old barge by sinking it off shore. To send it to its watery grave, The Diver had to attach many tons of heavy ballast, hence the lattice work of steel wires. He had to attach huge steel tanks of air to buoy the mass until the fated day.

The undertaking was big enough for a small group of tough men. It was a grand feat for single man to accomplish, and accomplish he did.
The venture netted The Diver a tidy sum from which a business was launched. Over the course of ten or more years, I watched. My own career on the waterfront evolved and so did the The Diver’s.

Sweat, determination and guile would see The Diver through many a challenge, both physical and intellectual. That never-say-die attitude formed the feisty basis of a small tug boat and marine business that swam on a sea divided by mighty competitors.
A willingness to perform at any cost and a commitment to succeed for the customer built a reputation that is hard earned on the waterfront. Those who knew The Diver then knew him much as I did. A small slice of precious territory was earned for The Diver and his business.

Grant Westmorland

The Diver was Grant Westmorland. As we became friends and over the span of years I have been a cohort, shipmate, mutual shoulder to lean on and tilter against windmills with Grant. His single minded determination and will to persevere were only equaled by his good will, good humor and good taste.

Grant’s successes always have been celebrated in style. His flashy cars, the live-aboard yacht (complete with disco lights and wet bar) and Gucci fashions led to his greatest accomplishment; a trophy wife with brains and a heart as big as his.

Time marched on. Grant’s yacht gave way to a tract home on land, the Ferrari became a Ford. A couple rambunctious boys, a few salty-gray hairs, reading spectacles and a bigger, more “corporate” career and the trappings of middle age crept into and re-shaped the persona of The Diver.

The Grant of today is the picture of an American, nose to the grindstone, small business executive. Our many employees and customers have had an acquired impression of Grant as “The Suit”. We now have up and coming young bucks eager to stomp and roar on the decks of ships but opportunity to flex muscles and match strength on the waterfront has given way to flexing brains and matching wits.

The days of steel men and wooden barges are long gone. Grant’s youth was witness to the last days of cowboys on the waterfront. But The Diver is still in Grant. I see it all the time. I can’t look at Grant and not see The Diver and I wonder at how others perceive him as docile desk jockey.

The Diver Reappears

I have reason to tell this tale of The Diver. He recently made a grand reappearance to the astonishment and grudging approval of even the grisliest of our colleagues. This story will not make news or even waves, it is a reassuring pat on the back feeling that an old friend still has what it takes. The Diver was back again with grit and guile…

San Diego was once home port to vast fleets of gray ships of war. Bountiful tuna clippers crowded the docks with their catch and giant piles of net. Shipyards and their smaller cousins the boatyards were bustling, noisy places of activity.

The collective waterfront was San Diego’s identity. The sea air was San Diego’s signature on life. San Diego was more of a frontier town than a city then. Rules of conduct were loose and competition was...spirited Characters abounded in San Diego clear through the seventies into the eighties.

Gradually, the decline of the tuna industry, the end of the “Cold War” and a downsized navy fleet gave way to lollipop trees and gum drop bushes along the waterfront. Like teetering dominoes, once stalwart employers of skilled craftsmen fell to the wrecking ball as a convention center, a ball-park and hotel chains were filled with minimum wage earners serving hordes of wide-eyed tourists.

Entire livelihoods and traditions faded but were not forgotten as San Diego changed. Our Bay went from a military/industrial port to a shopping mall pond, seemingly overnight.

South Bay Waterworld

All the glitter pushed a minority few into a small corner of the South Bay, which became home to a rabble of waterborne vagrants, misfits and miscreants. The infamous A-8 Anchorage was a sprawling “Waterworld” collection of worn out yachts, fishing boats, barges, tankers, trawlers, skiffs, rafts, dinghies and even canoes.

Anything that barely floated and was not welcome elsewhere found its way to the A-8 and a slow death. A “Who’s Who” of San Diego’s vice called the A-8 home. Chief among residents was the “Party King” of San Diego. A floating empire known as the “Castle”, “Neptune’s Palace” and a fleet of makeshift water taxi’s serviced an underground clientele seeking an…alternative lifestyle away from the eyes of law.

Inevitably progress found its way to the A-8 and the powers of the Port Authority sought to clean out the anchorage. Legal battles were fought and won, little by little the last remnants of San Diego’s more unseemly past were evicted and the Bay began to sparkle as a whole.

The famed “Neptune’s Palace” sought refuge as a shadowy church as a final bastion against the establishment. The final blow was not a judge’s gavel however, but a winter storm that broke the moorings holding the Palace in place and allowed it to drift into the shallow flats in the middle of the South Bay. It became an environmental and visual nuisance to all.

Fast forward to 2009. Grant Westmorland is Executive V.P. of Pacific Tugboat Service at the San Diego headquarters. His responsibilities are varied and complex. He oversees a diverse business model and equally diverse workforce and management team.

His attention is laser focused on the bottom line and how best to meet the company’s, employee’s and customer’s needs. The friendly smile, dash of humor and good will are ever present but nary a hint of the old “Diver”.

Palace Removal

The Port of San Diego finally contracts the removal and disposal of the old “Palace” in the Bay but concern over the sensitive nature of the environment and the dilapidated state of the Palace make the undertaking a very selective process. Ultimately Grant Westmorland develops a proposal to salvage the wreck with no impact to the environment.

His was a daring plan that involved careful placement of underwater lifting devices, coordinated timing with tides and prevailing currents and concerted efforts of tug boats and crews. The risk of the structure collapsing and causing a major navigation and environmental hazard was very real.

From concept and planning to execution, Grant was at the epicenter of the project. He put in countless of hours of preparation at the drafting table. When it came time to install the lifting devices Grant trusted only himself to go into the cold water and perform the work.

For two weeks Grant worked tirelessly in the water attended by increasingly impressed crew members top-side. “The Diver” was back! He forecast the day and time of salvage to be at the height of the highest tide. It happened to be a late-night/early morning in the dead of winter. Grant entered the water early in the morning the day prior to adjust and prepare. He finally emerged from the water some thirty-six hours later.

Admiration Earned

To the astonishment of everyone except me, Grant spent well over thirty hours of continuous, strenuous work in cold, wet conditions with no rest, no break and the threat of failure hanging over his every move.

The precision of the salvage plan and the criticality of timing meant Grant could only rely on himself to make the right move at the right time. Only once the Palace was lifted clear of the water at a local boat yard could Grant relax. As is typical, he smiled and quietly cleaned off and went home.

The next day he was back at his desk as though nothing had happened. The many scratches, bruises and blisters told the story.

The eighties were an era. San Diego became a “City” and San Diegan’s felt the growing pains but got through it in style. Grant was a product of that era and his work ethic is deeply rooted in a time when uncertainty led to either complaisance or fortitude.

Grant is a success because of his fortitude. I am richly rewarded to have Grant as a friend and partner. I am gratified further that Grant has re-established himself as “The Diver” in the eyes of his peers. He does not swagger in his step, he does not need to.

That long, lean frame casts a longer shadow than ever these days.

No comments:

Post a Comment