By Kathy Bergren Smith
Tom Simmers found a way to navigate a 45-year career through rapidly changing times in the maritime industry. He did it by embracing that change and the challenges it presented in an industry steeped in tradition.
In the mid-1970s, fresh out of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Simmers began his career as a vessel superintendent on the docks in Philadelphia. He worked for Atlantic & Gulf Stevedores, a subsidiary of the McGrath Corporation. From there, he worked in terminals along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, including Houston, New Orleans, New York and, finally, the Port of Baltimore. Along the way, Atlantic & Gulf merged with International Terminal Operators (ITO). Simmers was Vice President of ITO Baltimore, the company’s senior official at the Port, for 12 years.
“It was a very exciting time to be here,” said Simmers. “I arrived in 1988 and stayed until 2000.” Containerization was transforming the breakbulk and bulk cargo business. “ITO was the largest terminal operator in the Port. We faced challenges, but it was very rewarding.”
Simmers called the maritime community in Baltimore unique in its cohesive and overarching interest in promoting the greater good of the Port of Baltimore.
“It was, as I said, a time when changes were coming across the industry, yet people worked together to make the transitions,” Simmers explained. “There was also strong government support for the Port. Governor [William Donald] Schaefer understood the economic benefit as did the legislature. Also, the Maryland Port Administration had very good foresight.”
When Seagirt Marine Terminal opened in 1991 as a dedicated container terminal, Simmers led ITO as the stevedore at the new facility. Meanwhile, next door at Dundalk Marine Terminal, the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Port Administration (MDOT MPA) consolidated several properties and began to focus on roll-on/roll-off (ro/ro) cargo. Simmers said that this move set the stage for the Port of Baltimore to ascend to its current position at the top of ro/ro cargo-handling ports nationwide.
“I told you it was an exciting time!” said Simmers. Again, he pointed to the maritime community in Baltimore as the reason for the success of ro/ro. “We had very good labor, and we could all sit down together, customers, stevedores, labor and the shipping lines and address problems together without finger pointing.”
In 2003, Simmers became President of Ceres Terminals. Then headquartered in Weehawken, N.J., Ceres had recently become a wholly owned subsidiary of the NYK Group. Simmers was able to apply his Baltimore experience to craft a strategy of growth for Ceres. This strategy included a greater emphasis on the
ro/ro sector and an expansion into cruise stevedoring.
During his tenure, Ceres more than doubled its size, expanding into nine new ports and, along the way, becoming the largest cruise stevedore in North America.
Simmers had another transition to assist.
The United States Maritime Alliance (USMX) is the trusted negotiator of master contract collective-bargaining agreements representing employers across the longshore industry on the East and Gulf coasts of the U.S. Since 1977, USMX and its predecessor organizations have successfully negotiated contracts with the International Longshoremen’s Association, AFL-CIO (ILA) with no coastwide disruptions in service.
Simmers was Executive Vice President there for five years and worked closely with President David Adam. Adam said that Simmers’ depth of knowledge was an important asset to USMX.
“Tom is so well respected in the industry,” said Adam. “He is a legend, and not only that, he is a very sociable guy. Everyone loves Tom.” Adam added that fewer and fewer people in the industry have the institutional knowledge that Simmers brought to the table.
Simmers officially retired in January. He plans to divide his time between his homes in central New Jersey and Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
“As corny as it sounds, I am looking forward to spending time with my family,” he said, chuckling. But he added on a serious note, “The maritime industry is demanding of one’s time. There were many commitments, and in my case, a lot of travel.”
Simmers may have retired, but he remains an active part of the maritime community, freely sharing his knowledge with the next generation of stevedores and volunteering wherever the industry needs him.
“Tom had unique leadership qualities and the expertise to work with both sides to maintain labor harmony,” said James J. White, Executive Director of the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Port Administration. “He understood this business inside and out. He also fully appreciated the incredible economic benefits and family-supporting jobs that our industry provides. He will be sorely missed.”