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In the C-Suite: GTA USA Wilmington CEO Joe Cruise

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WILMINGTON – GT USA Wilmington CEO Joe Cruise has spent decades managing the flow of goods crossing international waters, but unlike many in the seafaring business he didn’t grow up sailing.

CEO Joe Cruise | PHOTO COURTESY OF GT USA WILMINGTON

Originally from Maryland, Cruise’s family moved to Lake Placid, Fla., about an hour south of Orlando, when he was in high school.

“There were orange groves on one side of the street and cattle on the other side,” he recalled of the small farming community that is known as the Caladium Capital of the World, for its abundance of the ornamental plant. “There were no stoplights in our town. When we got a McDonald’s it was like we’d finally made it.”

The oldest of three sons, Cruise’s father worked in insurance while his mother ran a nearby country club. He would leave his small town for the University of Florida in Gainsville to earn a degree in finance.

Upon graduation, Cruise worked as a retail investment advisor, but was looking for a job that inspired more passion. It was a suggestion of his mother, who was working for a company at the Port of Baltimore, that led him to it.

“One day she said, ‘What about a steamship company?’” he recalled, noting he had no idea what that was.

He would take his mother’s advice though and applied to U.S. Lines, then the largest American light carrier for cargo, and enter its management training program as one of its few finance trainees. The famed shipping company was run by industry legend Malcolm McLean, who invented the shipping containers that are integral to the modern supply chain today.

“Not knowing anything about the shipping business, it certainly instilled a great work ethic,” Cruise recalled of the rigid corporate environment that built hierarchical structure and set expectations down to wardrobe. “At the time it was blue suits, white shirt, and red tie. One gentleman got sent home one time because he came in wearing a sport jacket.”

The job was demanding, but those early formative years left a lasting impression as Cruise has kept many lifelong friends from U.S. Lines. The stint would not end happily though, as the company filed for bankruptcy in 1986 and he left a year later.

Cruise moved back to the Sunshine State to work at Crowley Maritime, a family-run shipping company in Jacksonville. In a departure from his finance background, he joined the company as its marketing director.

“Fortunately, I have somewhat of an outgoing personality and the marketing, sales, business development role kind of fit my mold,” he said. “Much of my career has been focused on growth – with startups, starting new rotations, chartering vessels, shutting down rotations; always looking for the next thing.”

He spent a decade with Crowley, helping it expand its service to South America, but left in 1997 to join another Jacksonville company, Trailer Bridge, which was again run by McLean. The firm was then preparing for a new growth phase, building five new vessels for Puerto Rico trade routes as well as starting a short-lived coastwise service, shipping from one domestic port to another, along the East Coast.

“Many of us are certainly in favor of coastwise shipping to try to alleviate some of the congestion on our highways. Unfortunately for Mr. McLean again, it was a little bit before his time. Everybody talks a good game with regards to environmentalism, but people weren’t willing necessarily to pay for it or more so live with a less than daily service,” Cruise recalled.

Trailer Bridge did innovate with vessels and equipment though, producing the world’s largest roll-on/roll-off vessels for its Puerto Rican routes.

“It was a very entrepreneurial, exciting environment that was created there, which I fit very well into,” he said.

The Port of Wilmington | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

It was a former industry colleague who was working at Port Canaveral, Fla., who introduced Cruise to Gulftainer, the world’s largest private port operator based in the United Arab Emirates that had just signed a long-term concession to operate the port.

“After learning more about them and their plans for growth, those juices began flowing once again to get in on something brand new,” Cruise recalled.

After interviewing with company leadership, he formally joined in February 2015 as the company’s second American employee. He helped open its Canaveral operations and began recruiting new business in Florida, which was a challenge because Canaveral is the second largest cruise terminal in the world.

Gulftainer’s first customer in Florida was SpaceX, the private rocket company founded by billionaire Elon Musk that launches from the nearby Kennedy Space Center.

“To this day they are our longest standing tenant,” Cruise said. “I still get excited when I talk about cargo after 30 years, but having a rocket on the terminal is pretty neat.”

GT USA Wilmington CEO Joe Cruise addresses an EU panel at the Port of Wilmington in October 2021. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Three years after he joined, Cruise was among the negotiating team that worked on Gulftainer’s 50-year concession at the Port of Wilmington. It wouldn’t take long for him to return. After organizational issues arose in 2020, he returned to Delaware to right the ship and now plans to stay.

In Wilmington, Cruise oversees one of the largest refrigerated ports in North America and the top banana port in the world. He’s been working to fill in scheduling gaps to keep cargo flowing into port; while bananas arrive year-round, grapes and clementine are seasonal, leading to additional warehouse capacity.

“One new piece of the business that we brought on is Chinese juice, which had three sailings in the fall. In January, we started with a brand-new customer bringing juice from Turkey too,” he said, noting that the company has had five sailings to date and has signed a contract through the end of the year for more deliveries.

The supply chain disruptions at major U.S. ports have led companies to look at smaller ports like Wilmington, and Cruise highlighted that Gulftainer has been able to land new non-containerized cargo, like plywood pallets. The port is set to receive its largest shipment of plywood ever this week.

“It’s our goal is to wow those folks to make sure they become a new long-term customer of Wilmington,” he said.

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