This article was published in The Daily-Press twenty years ago today during, what the writer describes as, “turbulent times” in the shipping industry.
With container business falling, T. Parker Host, Jr., took the opportunity back then to focus the firm on bulk and breakbulk operations. Today, Host is the largest dry bulk agent in the country and we’re directly involved in three of the largest privately-owned maritime redevelopment projects in the U.S.--all focusing on bulk and breakbulk cargoes.
For easy reading, we've typed the article at the bottom of this page.
Daily Press – December 13, 1998
Company’s vision keeps it afloat
By Dennis O’Brien
The ship agent and brokerage firm of T. Parker Host Inc. has seen booms and busts in its 75 years on Hampton Roads' waterfront, and today's state of the shipping business ranks up there with the most turbulent.
The devaluation of Asian currencies and the chasming trade deficit are crippling companies that depend on exports for business.
Steamship rates are at unheard-of low levels, and ship lines are surviving through joint-operating agreements - or merging. So are ship agents, whose job it is to baby-sit ships and crews for ship lines - companies who own ships - and cargoes for shippers - who buy goods and ship them.
T. Parker Host is one of the few remaining independent ship agents in Hampton Roads. The company's key to survival during industry slumps: diversification.
For example, while industry giants elbow each other in the hunt for container and intermodal business, company Chairman T. Parker Host Jr. said his firm can carve a niche elsewhere.
"We're by no means throwing in the towel as far as containers go," he said. "But there's a golden opportunity for our firm in breakbulk: steel, paper, rubber, cocoa beans - any commodity that's housed as loose cargo."
If history's any judge, the company's decision-making is sound.
"It's paid off," Host said. "Other agencies are no longer around, or they've consolidated. We still fly the independent Host banner."
The company's independent spirit was personified by founder T. Parker Host, Sr., a World War I Army Air Corps pilot described in his secretary's memoirs as a "True Southern Gentleman" and by his son as a visionary.
The son of C&O Railroad's chief weighmaster, Host Sr. followed the lead of his father and set up shop on the Newport News waterfront.
He founded his own company in 1925, and business along the sleepy James River was rather slow at first.
"The Saturday Evening Post was probably the best-read magazine in the country then,” Host explains. “Well, my father said he sat in the office and read the Saturday Evening Post cover to cover waiting for the phone to ring."
In those days, Newport News was a tobacco and coal port, said company President David C. Wible. But World War II changed all that. General cargo bound for Europe chugged into the city by rail and steamed out by sea.
General cargo continued flowing after the war, thanks to the Marshall Plan and the effort to rebuild Europe.
The port grew with each passing year.
Host Sr., who died in 1963, made his mark in local politics, serving as vice mayor and mayor of Newport News (he resigned in '42 to rejoin the Air Corps), but in terms of a Hampton Roads legacy, his son may have him beat.
By the late '70s, Norfolk was a thriving port. Newport News was underused with expensive equipment, and Portsmouth - where terminals were built on earth dredged up to make the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel - emerged as a dedicated containerport.
At the time, those in the coal business and those in the general cargo business lived an uneasy coexistence, neither side willing to sacrifice to help the other.
"It was brother against brother - like the Civil War," says T. Parker Host Jr.
In particular, those in the coal business wanted to dredge the channel to 50 feet, while those in general cargo didn't see the need.
Host, now 74, was in the vanguard of proponents for deep-dredging Hampton Roads' channel and for unifying the area's port facilities - both achieved in the '80s and both keys to the port's success.
“I saw that the 50-foot channel would serve us down the road - from what I was seeing on the drawing boards of future containerships - and today that's happened," Host said.
"And the water that flows here in Newport News, Norfolk and Portsmouth is all the same water," he said. "A port like Hampton Roads needs to be developed in its entirety, not as individuals."
There's now a third generation of Hosts at the firm to lead the company - and the port - well into the next century.
Executive Vice President David Host oversees the company's coal operations. Vice President Tom P. Host III controls the passenger ship business, which got a boost recently when Nauticus hired the firm to lure day cruises to the museum's piers.