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Puerto Rico’s Pioneers Of Cargo Containerization Commemorate 50 Years

P.R. Line’s Leith, Chave Ramirez’s Cantellops, and Foremost Dairies’ Conrad are examples for Capitol Transportation’s Darmanin


August 19, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

It is a little-known fact that 50 years ago, Puerto Rico’s maritime-cargo transportation industry pioneered today’s global practice of containerization, or the use of twenty-foot equivalent units or containers (TEUs) to hold cargo.

Before then, the cargo was loose and exposed. Once the cargo was safely packed in TEUs at their point of origin, they could be rolled on/rolled off (ro-ro) special barges that would be pulled by tugboat to their final destination.

Robert "Bob" Leith, then vice president & general manager of TMT Trailer Ferry and now president of Puerto Rico Line, is considered by many to be the father of local maritime transportation as we know it.

"Few in Puerto Rico realize ro-ro shipping started on the island in 1954," said Leith. "Trailer Bridge’s Malcom McClaine came three years later with his load-on/load-off service when he bought Waterman Line.

"With ro-ro service, you have a tug that is pulling greater capacity than a ship, but you don’t have the expense of many crewmembers because a tug carries only a crew of five [compared with 24 to 26 crewmembers per ship]," continued Leith. "If you don’t have sailors, you don’t pay anybody. If we had placed one soul on a barge, the sailors’ unions would have charged us added tariffs. That was the secret of ro-ro–no crewmembers. The distance of approximately 1,500 miles between the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico is also ideal for a tug and barge."

CARIBBEAN BUSINESS met with Leith; Hugo Cantellops, partner of auto dealership Chave Ramirez Inc.; and Bob Conrad, sales manager of Foremost Dairies Inc. The latter two were involved in the island’s maritime-transportation business during its beginning in the 1950s. With them during the meeting was Capitol Transportation Inc. President Richard Darmanin, son of company founder Charlie Darmanin, who recently passed away. All four men have one thing in common: Had it not been for TMT’s ro-ro service, they wouldn’t have been as successful as they were in their respective businesses.

Cars among first products imported via ro-ro service

Cantellops and his partner, the late Chave Ramirez, were pioneers in the import and distribution of used automobiles on the island. Cantellops’ relationship with Leith dates to 1955, when the auto distributor began traveling to Florida in search of cars for distribution in Puerto Rico.

"I would travel to Miami once a month, take photographs of the cars, and send them back to the island. Sometimes the cars would be sold by the time I got back," said Cantellops.

Cantellops depended on TMT’s ro-ro barges to transport the cars from Florida to Puerto Rico. The voyage time, approximately six days, hasn’t varied much over the years. Neither apparently has the effectiveness of ro-ro service, given that Crowley Lines Service, the only completely ro-ro cargo carrier in Puerto Rico, is the lead carrier of automobiles on the island.

Then came ice cream

Foremost Dairies hired Conrad away from Leith, with Leith’s go-ahead, in the late 1950s after realizing the potential market for ice cream on the island. Before then, ice cream was flown in to hotels only for special occasions and to Ramey Air Force Base in Aguadilla, where some cold storage was available.

"I spent 35 years selling ice cream for Foremost," said Conrad. "Foremost [later renamed Farmbest] had been sending ice cream in B-52 bombers from Jacksonville [Fla.] to Ramey, but the ice cream eventually became soft because there was no refrigeration. Ramey became my first client when I convinced the company to invest in ice-cream cabinets with compartments of dry ice. Refrigerated containers didn’t come until four or five years after I started with the ice-cream business. The refrigerated containers allowed the ice cream to be stored at 140 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, which kept it solid. During my last five years, we were selling $1 million of ice cream a month."

Many businesspeople in Puerto Rico remember Charlie Darmanin for his zest for life and for boasting, rightfully so, about the many years his company had so much business that it grew at an annual rate of 20%. Richard grew up around his father and the company, getting up early to count the number of trailers that arrived at and left the piers while his father coordinated the cargo pickups.

"I can only relate to you the stories that I lived with my father as a kid in Puerto Rico," said Darmanin. "I was born in Miami and brought to Puerto Rico when I was a week old. To my father, coming to the island was a golden opportunity during Operation Bootstrap. This was the time when the [Pueblo Supermarkets] Toppels came to open the first supermarkets, when those mavericks [Leith, Cantellops, and Conrad] had to come up with new ideas to make a living and figured out what others hadn’t–that there was a need to speed maritime transit."

Challenges today

The problems Darmanin faces in the maritime industry today are as different as the times. "My kids are third-generation now, and they have no idea where we came from," he said. "Maritime transportation is such as beautiful industry and it’s Puerto Rico’s lifeline, but the government isn’t placing enough importance on the island’s commercial sustainability. It isn’t attacking the right issues, such as why we must put up with such an inferior port or with the hypocrisy of Hacienda [the Treasury Department] and the taxes it imposes. The government isn’t facilitating commerce; it is hindering it. You are never going to attract new industry or improve the processes this way."

Darmanin compares Leith, Cantellops, and Conrad to members of an orchestra, each of who evoked the finest tune from his instrument. "They turned Puerto Rico into a respected market among the gurus of the various industries: food and beverage, autos, apparel and shoes, and manufacturing. And it was because they believed in their mission: To make a better maritime-transportation industry for all who would follow."

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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