Book Review: McAllister Towing: 150 Years of Family Business

McAllister Towing: 150 Years Of Family Business, by Stephenie Hollyman

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Carpe Diem Books in exchange for an honest review.]

As an occasional reader of books on corporate history [1], I am often impressed by the diplomacy that is involved in writing about the often fractious history of a family business. For any business to observe its sesquicentennial is a significant achievement, especially when the business has a history of frequent and divisive struggles for ownership among generations of a family as well as talented outsiders, as has been the case for McAllister Towing. Historian Stephenie Hollyman is to be praised for writing a compelling history, being both kind and honest about the struggles the family had with other companies, with each other in the courts, with labor unions over stevedore strikes, and with the various dangers and disasters that make running a naval logistics business a risky endeavor. She is also to be praised for having scoured archival resources to provide family photos, corporate advertising, newspaper articles about the business, and even the occasional journal entry from an illustrious member of the six-generation (so far) family business, such as one which showed the family firm’s role in one of Houdini’s notable tricks, aside from finding artwork that demonstrates the presence of McAllister towing vessels in art history with supercontainers and luxurious Cunard liners like the Aquitania in New York harbor. Such an impressive work of history brings credit to the historian, and to the company itself, which makes it likely that this book will long be treasured by the successful family firm and also serve as a model for other companies who wish to memorialize their corporate history in a similarly impressive manner.

In terms of its contents, the book on a large scale manages to combine thoughtful and diplomatic text with photographs, reproductions of paintings, or other visual documentation, including a chart of the uneven growth of the company since its founding in the 1860’s and a family tree showing five generations of continuous ownership as well as some photos of the rising sixth generation that will soon take their own place in the family business, starting from the bottom and learning the ropes before rising to ownership in their own turn. The book is organized in a chronological fashion, starting with the beginning of the company in the lighter trade from 1864 to 1890, then covering the rise of the second generation and the move into such areas as salvage and ferrying, from 1890 to 1916. The third chapter of the book looks at the experiences of the family firm in World War I and its grim struggle for survival during the Great Depression, up to 1935, after which the book takes a look at the firm’s phoenix-like rise to new heights in acquisition and expansion through the mid 1950’s. The book then talks about the company’s success from 1954-1964 in riding America’s postwar financial success to international glory, before looking at the massive change in shipping that resulted from containerization between 1964 and 1984. The last two chapters show first a family business in a state of crisis from 1977 to 1998, with divided leadership and the continual threat of lawsuit and even corporate divorce and forced sale, before looking at the period from 1998 to today with renewed growth and unity.

Even for those readers who are not part of the massive and sprawling McAllister family, which is well represented in these pages in photos and in discussions of reunions and various spinoff companies and joint ventures, there is a lot of interest to those who are more fond of naval history of matters of logistics. In fact, this book is full of logistical matters, from issues of marine engineering, to various mundane but vital jobs, such as piloting, to lighting and towing and salvage operations and ferrying and piloting, from dealing with ships as light as sailboats and as massive as ocean liners and Suezmax and Panamax supercontainer vessels, besides oil tankers and platforms and coal barges. The book includes a glance at the sort of ships that have been in McAllister’s fleet from its inception to its present day, for those who are particularly intrigued by ship designs and statistics and notes, as well as the later history of various ships that were sold off at some point, usually for a profit. This is a book that not only serves as a successful corporate history, but also a glimpse into the world of supply chains and naval logistics, whether that involves taking passengers to various tourist sights, helping tow massive ships into various harbors around the Eastern seaboard (and beyond), removing ammunition from arsenals to safety, using can and ethnic politics to help gain influence and access to labor during its early decades, and serving in nearly every conceivable part of our nation’s merchant marine. This is a corporate history that manages to demonstrate involvement in a wider history, a book that is worthy of emulation.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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