Dancing a Maritime Ballet, Every Day
Every day, Barbara Melvin is up at 3:30 a.m. and asleep by 8:30 p.m. In between, the first woman to lead a top U.S. operating container port walks the halls, talks to people, creates an open environment for collaboration and problem-solving, and celebrates victories of any magnitude.
If you want to shadow Barbara Melvin on a typical day at work, better lace up your sneakers. “You could easily be climbing on a crane or looking at a piece of equipment with a problematic part,” says Melvin, president and CEO at South Carolina Ports. “You could be standing in the truck lanes, greeting a longshoreman or heading for the gate center.”
Melvin calls port operations “a maritime ballet,” and she knows the dance well. She has been with SC Ports for nearly 25 years, working in government relations and external affairs before being named COO in 2018. Promoted to president and CEO in 2022, she became the first woman to lead a top U.S. operating container port.
Melvin slowed down long enough to describe how she has grown as a leader and fill us in on recent initiatives at the port.
IL: When you moved from government relations to the COO role, how did you get up to speed on all you needed to know?
The transition worked because the leaders within operations took the time to teach me the ins and outs. I did a lot of listening. And I determined that my leadership should be to provide air cover.
We had the best people in the business in all departments of operations. My job would be to get them the resources they needed to continue being the best in the industry as they served our ocean carrier customers and the importers and exporters.
IL: What’s one experience that shaped you as a leader?
When I joined the port in 1998, we were in the middle of a large conversation with our state and the local community about where to expand. The port’s vision was to build on Daniel Island, a green space that would require all new infrastructure. The community wanted us to consider redeveloping a former naval base in North Charleston. The road to an effective compromise was long and hard, but in April 2021 we opened the Hugh K. Leatherman Terminal at the naval base site.
This is one of many experiences that have taught me not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The compromise that’s necessary in government relations applies in operations, too. I learned not to stumble over small things that went wrong and to focus instead on the larger things.
IL: Since you became president and CEO, what has been at the top of your agenda?
People. At the start of the pandemic, we retracted our workforce. But we really should have been hiring. Nobody foresaw the unprecedented surge in demand the ports would see when the economy restarted.
As volume ramped up, people came to work every day and moved boxes in the most challenging circumstances. Not only our port employees and crane operators, but our longshoremen, harbor pilots, tugs, stevedores, motor carriers, and railroad partners all stepped up to service the supply chain.
Saying “thank you” was never enough. I wanted to concentrate on telling the story of how they took care of each other and kept freight moving the best they could.
IL: How did the port manage through that crazy volume?
It took a lot of innovation. For instance, we opened our gates on Sundays, giving motor carriers the option to work half days on Saturday and Sunday rather than lose an extra full day on the weekend. Our railroad partners matched those hours for us.
We hired 150 people, and since COVID was still a concern, we got creative about training them—for example, using simulators rather than making two people sit close together in a piece of equipment. When chassis capacity grew tight, we implemented a proprietary chassis pool.
We used a shotgun approach, trying all sorts of things. If something didn’t work out, we would fail fast and fix it.
IL: What characteristics make you an effective leader?
I’m decisive. I challenge people, even before they’re ready. I’m here to help my team and be the ultimate decider, but I also like people to bring me solutions, not just issues.
I can take bad news without overreacting, creating an open environment for collaboration and problem-solving, rather than a culture where you don’t talk about problems until it’s too late to fix them.
I love to promote from within, because that’s the way we continue to achieve the diversity that’s necessary in this industry. Finally, I love to celebrate victories of any magnitude. If you create an environment where everybody feels they will be thanked for doing things that benefit the organization, then you create a happier workplace.
IL: Besides engaging in the “maritime ballet,” how do you spend a typical work day?
I’m up at 3:30 every morning. I exercise first thing because if I don’t, I’m grumpy. I get to the office no later than 7 a.m., when it’s quiet and I can organize my thoughts.
After that, no two days are the same. I meet with ocean carrier customers and ultimate shippers, and I work to recruit new people into our industry. I try to talk to at least one member of our board every day. I walk the halls at our headquarters and walk the terminals, spending time with the people who produce our revenue. I like to be seen and known. After all that, I’m asleep by 8 or 8:30 every night.
IL: What do you most hope to accomplish in the next year?
I’d like to continue our infrastructure projects, such as the successful implementation of our chassis pool. We’re building a near-dock intermodal rail facility that will be served by both CSX and Norfolk Southern.
We want to keep working on creative infrastructure solutions, such as a barge service to move our intermodal cargo, and continuing to improve our inland ports.
IL: How do you spend your time when you’re not working?
I like to be out in the sun—practicing yoga, exercising or fishing—and spending time with my dogs and my friends.
Dinner For Three
In Barbara Melvin’s dinner party daydream, she shares a table with two people from history whom she greatly admires: South African President Nelson Mandela and American entertainer and philanthropist Danny Thomas.
“They probably had more in common than people would think,” says Melvin, noting each man’s powerful determination.
“From Mandela, I’d want to hear how he maintained his spirit of monumental change through all the challenges he faced,” says Melvin. She notes that Mandela is the source of her favorite quote: “I never lose. I either win or learn.”
From Thomas, Melvin would like to hear how he took St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital from concept to successful reality. “I can’t imagine having the fortitude to follow through on what probably was just a fleeting thought at one point in his career, to then create such an impactful organization,” she says. “Plus, he was funny and entertaining.”