SYDNEY, N. S. –“Horrendous summer,’ ‘inexcusable,’ ‘unacceptable.’ The language carriers are using to describe Marine Atlantic’s service between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland would warm Captain Hook’s heart. But if the corporate restructuring Wayne Follet has wrought since coming aboard as the ferry operator’s new CEO last October works as he intends, the gale-force discontent of his commercial customers might downgrade to a mere stiff breeze.
Marine Atlantic has four operating ferries this year, thanks to the addition of the Atlantic Vision, a six-year-old passenger ferry operating under a five-year charter.
Anticipation of its joining the fleet created a frenzy of expectation that was rubbed raw as last fall’s ferry problems turned into a stormy winter. Then Marine Atlantic pulled MV Caribou out of the water in mid-February for an eight-week crankshaft replacement and engine rebuild.
Vision entered service Apr. 1, the day MV Leif Ericson was hauled into dry dock for a 42-day refit. This summer all four ferries (MV Joseph and Clara Smallwood is the fourth) have been in service, except for three days in July following a fire in Vision’s thermal oil-heating unit, while the fleet was operating at 100% capacity.
“Including the three days of down time, it took nine days to get back on schedule. During this time, Marine Atlantic booked 32,000 passengers and 6,000 cars, and 1,900 commercial vehicles,” Follet says; he feels the company did a respectable job of clearing the backlog.
Then Marine Atlantic briefly shut down while Hurricane Bill blew by in late August … the company just couldn’t seem to catch a break. But carriers, while not wishing to swamp its host with criticism, and nodding to the uncontrollable weather, and noting that equipment can break unexpectedly -the requisite apologies before firing their cannons -are fed up.
“The ferry delays have cost a lot of money. Drivers, customers and dispatch have all been frustrated most of the past year. Drivers, trucks and trailers have been waiting around North Sydney and Port aux Basques for days. At times there was no plan to deal with parking or the loading order of backlog,” e-mails Paul Easson, general manager of Eassons Transport in Berwick, N. S.
“I’ve been in this racket going on 25 years and I’ve never seen problems like I’ve seen in the last six to seven months,” says Eddie Hillman, the owner of Hillman’s Transfer in Sydney, N. S. “If (the ferries) were running on schedule, there should be no issue with capacity.”
Gordon Peddle, president of D. D. Transport in Mount Pearl, Nfld. and chair of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association (APTA), sums up the blinding fog of discontent: “The people that use the service are getting sick of Wayne Follet saying, ‘We are doing the best we can. It is not easy to run this service.’ But Jesus guys, you’ve been running this for 100 years!”
Follet responds: “We have commenced a renewal program at Marine Atlantic. We fully reorganized the company, introduced a new manager, added a couple of new divisions, including Customer Experience and three new vice-presidents.”
His new v. p. of operations is a former v. p. of a major container company and former v. p. of a major trucking company.
The Customer Experience office is responsible for ticketing, reservations, food service, onboard hotel, marketing, etc.
“We did this because we felt we needed a dedicated champion for this,” Follet says.
Now that the v. p. operations is relieved of these duties, Follet adds, “he can focus solely on the operation of the fleet and terminal assets, as well as the maintenance and replacement of the assets.”
The position of v. p. strategy and corporate affairs is also new. Paul Griffen, former president of St. John’s-based Rutter Technologies and former board member of the Newfoundland and Labrador division of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, took on the job this July.
His mandate includes internal and external communication and stakeholders and shareholder relationships, particularly with the federal government.
The v. p. customer experience’s mandate includes repairing what is described as utterly dismal communications. Peddle refers to scheduling updates coming to the APTA office for distribution to its members, an imperfect but important gesture.
Follet speaks to stakeholder group discussions in the past months, personal consultations with trucking industry members and the possibility of adopting radio, text messaging and Web site services to disseminate information.
New maintenance practices and supplier reviews, the completion of a detailed analysis of its future fleet needs, the probable launch of a commercial reservation system this fall…time will tell whether or not Follet has found the cure.
“We want to re-engineer the business, raise the level of service to all customers and the industry side. I am confident that when the changes take hold, we will see some improvements,” he says.
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