Marine Pollution Control in 2014: Still cleaning up

By Karen Kreeger

The company, which played a key role in the cleanup of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, was Family BusinessMagazine's first cover subject. 

Detroit-based Marine Pollution Control (MPC) has held steady through the industry's boom-and-bust cycles over the last 25 years. The company has continued its work to advance the field. It employs up to 65 people, depending on project staffing needs. Annual revenues, which were more than $10 million in 1989, have averaged $10.5 million annually over the past five years.

"There are now more companies chasing fewer spills," says MPC president Charles Usher, 53, who took over the day-to-day operations of the business from his father, chairman David Usher, about ten years ago. Dave, 84, has spent the last decade keeping active in international maritime affairs.

The Ushers still mark time by the history-making Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska, the largest MPC has handled to date. "After Exxon Valdez, business has been cyclical," says Dave. MPC's work after the Valdez spill included transferring 40 million gallons of oil left on the ship to a receiving vessel, as well as helping to clean up the 11 million gallons that spilled.

MPC, founded by Dave Usher, provides services in emergency response, maintenance and training. The company got its start cleaning up an oil spill on the Rouge River in Dearborn, Mich., for the Ford Motor Company in 1967, and was incorporated a year later. MPC's Red Anchor Institute now offers training in transport and handling of hazardous materials, as well as customized training for clients. The company has also developed technology such as high-capacity pumping systems.

Dave Usher still travels to the London headquarters of the United Nations International Maritime Organization, a non-governmental agency whose mission is improving maritime safety and preventing pollution from ships, several times a year. Most recently, he and his son-in-law Mike Rancilio organized an international symposium on non-floatable oils—known as "sinkers"—which took place in Detroit on September 9 and 10, 2014. (Rancilio left MPC in 2005 to work in tourism management in Las Vegas, but still works with MPC on special projects.) MPC uses methods the company developed to clean up sinkers with remotely operated vehicles. The submersibles enable MPC to locate, track and recover oil at depths of up to 1,600 feet.

In addition to developing MPC's international presence, Dave, who was a jazz concert promoter and had his own record label in the 1950s, continues to produce jazz recordings.

A 'natural' succession

Dave describes MPC's succession process as "natural," with plans for his son, Charlie, who has been with the company for more than 30 years, to succeed him as chairman of the board. Dave's godson, Jeff Heard, left the company about eight years ago to start a smaller industrial services business, also based in Detroit. The company continues to employ family members: David Barrett, Charlie's wife's brother, is MPC's chief financial officer and treasurer. Barrett joined MPC in 1999, when the company's comptroller retired.

The next generation of Ushers is not yet actively working in the business. Charlie and his wife, Hope, have three sons. The eldest is in graduate school studying social psychology. The middle son wants to be a writer, although he has worked summers at MPC. The youngest is a senior in high school. "Working in the family business is not expected of them, but is always something open to them, if they're interested," Charlie says.

Keeping pace

The business of pollution cleanup has changed since MPC was founded, the Ushers note. Superfund legislation in the 1980s and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 "did a good job of getting the industry to become environmentally conscious," says Charlie. Before that, he says, "You didn't hear much talk about 'HAZMATS.' We also got better at not spilling oil."

In the 1980s to 1990s, the services primarily offered by MPC were oil and hazardous/toxic spill response and waste handling for various sectors, including power utilities and the petroleum and chemical industry. Consulting on waste cleanup and making disposal arrangements on a client's behalf have also always been important sources of revenue for the company.

MPC has continued to be involved in many high-profile environmental cleanup projects. The company sold containment booms for the Deepwater Horizon cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico. MPC also participated in oil cleanup after Hurricane Katrina. The company removed water from the subterranean floors of the new World Trade Center after Superstorm Sandy in a 24-hour, round-the-clock effort with 18 workers and three high-capacity pumps. "We pumped out a total of about 2 million gallons," notes Charlie.

During Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf, MPC personnel served on the U.N. International Maritime Organization's Inter-Agency Assessment Team. Dave Usher served as the U.N./IMO's representative, administering cleanup projects funded by this non-governmental organization, and a number of MPC's senior staff played supporting roles in this effort.

There's more competition now, says Charlie, so MPC has diversified by increasing the volume of services the company provides to the high-voltage, regional electric transmission sector while decreasing services to the more local electric power generation sector. "The emergencies have been fewer and farther between, which makes for some rollercoaster years," says Charlie. Many companies have left the industry, he notes, but MPC has found a way to endure..

Copyright 2014 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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September/October 2014

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