Jacksonville-based shipping and logistics company Sea Star Line LLC added more than 40 years of industry experience when it hired Peter Keller recently as its new president.
“The past is the past. We are focusing on the future,” said Keller in a recent interview about the challenges he faces in his new leadership role.
He said 2011 was a challenging year, but based on the second half of the year, Sea Star will return to modest levels of profitability in 2012.
Keller worked with Sea Star Line in 2011 as a consultant when the company was re-engineering the organization after it was accused of conspiracy to fix prices in the coastal water freight transportation industry. The company pled guilty to the charge and paid a $14.2 million criminal fine.
Keller knew Anthony Chiarello, president of TOTE Inc., Sea Star’s parent company, from working together at NYK Group Americas Inc.
“He asked me to get involved with Sea Star to see what we could do to move the company forward,” said Keller, who served as executive vice president and chief operating officer of NYK.
“I agreed to come on as president to basically complete that task,” said Keller.
“I’ve been involved in the Puerto Rican trade since the early ‘70s when I was at Sea-Land, and always watched and enjoyed it. It’s an important trade, a lifeline for the folks on the island of Puerto Rico,” he said.
Keller agreed to take on the leadership role despite the challenging times facing the company in 2011. He said that was possible because of changes in the company’s business model and cost-cutting measures.
“At the same time, the Puerto Rican trade needs to look at rate increases and other activities that help to ensure profitability in the long term. That’s the only way the lines are going to be able to reinvest,” said Keller.
The company reinvested $4 million in its vessels, terminals, equipment fleet and technology in 2010 and $24.8 million in 2009.
“Sea Star is committed to trade with Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. That trade has been very stagnant the last couple of years. Obviously we need some economic change, economic vitality in Puerto Rico, so that we can grow that business,” said Keller.
“We will continue to look at other areas of the Caribbean, but our principal business is supporting Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands,” he said.
Shipping industry veteran Roy Scheicher, executive vice president of the Jacksonville Port Authority, said Sea Star will do well with Keller at the helm.
“He has been a major player in the industry for years and is well thought of and well-respected. He can bring some different views of what to do with Puerto Rican trade. It’s good to look at your market from all different angles,” Schleicher said.
Keller started his transportation career as an officer in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps serving as a captain in Germany. In 1968 he joined Sea-Land Service at Port Elizabeth, N.J.
“I liked the activity and the various aspects of transportation. There is an immediacy to it. Every day you know if you’ve done well,” said Keller.
“We are an industry that defines the economic viability of the world. Think what the world would be like if we did not have shipping, it would be a very different world,” he said.