Written by Frank McCormack // October 22, 2018
His first day on the job working at Cooper’s Darrow Fleet, Mario Muñoz was scared to death. It was the late 1990s and Muñoz, a college kid and native New Orleanian, had just been hired to work on a river and in an industry he barely knew.
"I went to work as a deckhand in Darrow,” Muñoz said. "My first day on the boat was April, so it was fog season. I couldn’t see the levee crossing. I’m trying to get across the levee and I’m thinking, ‘This is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.’ Finally, I get on a towboat. I’d never been on one in my entire life.”
Muñoz was partnered with a veteran deckhand who went by the nickname "Skillethead,” or "Skillet” for short.
Muñoz said the situation could’ve caused competition and resentment between him, the green, up-and-coming deckhand, and Skillet, the older mariner. Instead, the pair developed a friendship and mutual respect over lunch.
"We’d each bring our lunch, because it was a lunch bucket boat,” Muñoz said. "For the next several weeks and months, we’d eat lunch and read the newspaper together. A level of trust ensued, so he taught me how to deck. Even though my time as a deckhand was relatively short, it provided me with the level of respect that I have every day for the men and women working in our industry. I am grateful for that experience as it gave me perspective as I transitioned into a shoreside role.”
After his time as a deckhand, Muñoz went on to serve in a number of other roles with Cooper prior to working for ACBL, both in Jeffersonville, Ind., and in the New Orleans area. He became president of Turn Services in 2012. Since he joined Turn Services, the company has been on a growth trajectory, not just in size but in scope. Turn Services now operates 26 towing vessels—soon to be 30—and offers barge transport services in addition to its core business of barge fleeting, shifting, cleaning and repair. That growth is bolstered by the same others-focused philosophy Muñoz displayed on a towboat back in 1997.
"Our management philosophy from the top down is one of servant leadership,” Muñoz said. "Our shore-based team is really here to support our vessel and facility teammates. That’s how it’s always been. I cannot stress my level of admiration for our vessel, facility and shore-based teams. Our success is a result of the dedication that each member has given to our organization. I can’t tell you how proud I am to be a part of our family at Turn Services.”
In his 20-plus years in the maritime industry, Muñoz has served both on the Towing Safety Advisory Committee and with The American Waterways Operators (AWO). He was deeply involved with the committees tasked with the rule-making process for Subchapter M, which went into effect this past July 20, and Muñoz is currently the chairman of AWO’s harbor services sector committee.
Given the inauguration of Subchapter M and world market instabilities, it would be easy to have a cautious outlook on the industry, but Muñoz has a different perspective.
"I think it’s an evolving time in the industry,” Muñoz said, "and that makes it exciting.”
Looking at trends over the past several years, Muñoz offered an optimistic outlook on the fleeting and harbor services segment of the industry.
"We’ve actually seen positive growth in the last year and a half on the volume of business that’s been coming through our locations,” he said. "The overall barge market is finally seeing some strength after a two- to three-year period of regression.
"What’s driving that may be a number of different factors,” Muñoz continued. "The last three years have been pretty tough on barge rates, and we’re finally seeing a bump-up there, which helps everybody in the logistics chain.”
Muñoz added that, while he sees the fleeting and shifting segment of the industry remaining strong, for individual fleeting operations location will be key to success.
"You can acquire or lease land in a certain area and develop a barge fleet, but if there’s nothing to service in that area, you’re not going to have anything you can do,” he said. "It’s all about making sure those fleeting and shifting locations are strategically located to origin and destination points.”