Masters of Disasters

By Robert Charm

A key player in the $1-billion Valdez cleanup, Marine Pollution Control is on a roll. In the last two years David Usher's company has seen a quantum increase in jobs, profits ... and family headaches.

IT WAS EASIER. Managing the business was so much easier last March when all hell broke loose.

Up in Prince William Sound, in Alaska, the super-tanker Exxon Valdez smashed onto the rocks spreading 11 million gallons of oil through wilderness waters with another 42 million still aboard ship. It was the worst spill anyone had ever seen, in the last place anyone ever wanted to see it; and it guaranteed every kind of nightmare for Exxon: environmental, economic, public relations. "When All Hell Breaks Loose" is a slogan of the Marine Pollution Control company of Detroit, and it was to them that Exxon made one of its first calls. It didn't matter that it was a Saturday and MPC's founder and chief executive officer, David Usher, was on the West Coast while the rest of his operations group was scattered to their weekends. Dave had spent a bundle on communications equipment and within hours a twelve-man team was flying to Alaska to set up a command post. The next day was Easter Sunday, but that didn't matter either. Word was going out and the guys were flying in from as far away as Aberdeen, Scotland. The equipment was arriving too. Submersible high-capacity pump units were coming in from MPC depots all over the country.

MPC had cleaned up after stricken oil tankers before, a dozen over the past 23 years. That's how they cut their reputation as the best emergency response team in the business. They'd also been called in on hundreds of small, run-of-the-mill toxic waste disposal jobs — a few hundred gallons of PCBs here, a dozen drums of God-knows-what there. Maintenance work. The jobs that put the bread and butter on the table. You can't keep a business growing just waiting for big ships to sink.

But this was the jackpot. Never before had there been an opportunity like the Valdez spill. Exxon had deep pockets and it was in deep trouble. It was soon clear this job would last well beyond the immediate assignment of pumping off the oil remaining in the ship's tanks.

An unprecedented clean-up invasion force was being mounted. More than 1000 boats (ranging from rubber rafts to U.S. Navy vessels), a dozen other pollution clean-up companies, and more than 10,000 workers were hitting the beaches at Prince William Sound. Exxon was spending what it claimed would total $1 billion to fight the spill.

MPC was under long-term contract to the U.S. Government to crew Navy skimmers and that alone was serious money; now Exxon commissioned the company to clean up the clean-up equipment. The oil-gummed hulls of boats, containment booms, and steam hoses needed constant cleaning to prevent them from contaminating clean areas. The lucrative job of servicing this cleanup effort would go on for months, and at its peak, MPC would need virtually its full Alaskan roster of 70 employees.

It was a new kind of Alaskan gold rush, and 59-year-old David Usher was staking his claim. Back then his management team, his "Young Turks" — his son Charlie, son-in-law Mike Rancilio, and godson Jeff Heard — were working in smooth synchronicity.

In the days that followed, when they were crammed into a hot, stuffy 15 by 30 foot plywood cabin, working 20-hour days, living on fast-food; when they were hit with a dozen emergencies a day, praying for the Alaskan winter weather to stay mild ... well, sure there were frustrations and frayed nerves. But everything came second to getting the job done. Charlie ran the field operations; Mike coordinated the paperwork and logistics. Dave oversaw the whole show, double-checking the Turks and giving his orders. He didn't worry about hurt pride, jealousies, or his tendency to undercut others' authority.

NEITHER DID HE FIND himself dealing with petty irritations like this one, now, back in Detroit, over the fax machines.

David Usher looks down at the sheaf of papers on his desk, starts to say something but cuts it off with a deep breath. He seems to be trying to dissipate tension... and why not? It is only 10:15 in the morning, Monday morning, only the first day of what promises to be a very sticky work week. He has just come into his office, and already ... already...

Dissipating tension isn't easy, however, when a human fusion reactor of exasperation stands three feet over your left elbow. It is Charlie, Dave's son, and he is radiating impatience. He watches his father riffle through the paperwork for the transport of two more pumping units from Detroit to Alaska. Dave is rereading one of the clauses and Charlie gives a little shake of his head. His father isn't looking at the right thing.

"The fax machine didn't feed all the pages," Charlie says. He seems inordinately tense. He can get that way when his father supervises his work too closely.

Dave, stocky, with broad features and a heavy salt-and-pepper mustache, sits stolidly at his desk. He knows Charlie is tense. He's trying to teach his son the business, but so many aspects of it turn into points of contention between them.

"Did you call them up?"

"Yes," Charlie says again. "The machine didn't send the pages right."

Charlie, slighter in build, is not looking at his father. He is not looking at the contract. He is looking into the middle distance about two feet above his father's desk. He is exasperated that his father even has to be involved in this.

"Son, we have to get those out today," Dave says, and now his voice is getting edgy. He's impatient too. He likes action. He likes results. He likes things to go right the first time and he judges a person's competency by his ability to make this happen. His son knows this.

"I know that."

"Well, call them."

"I did call them!" Charlie says sharply, with more anger than he means. Charlie, 28, wants to be taken seriously as a manager; wants to be trusted with business responsibility; he takes everything his father says personally. His father knows this.

"What did they say?"

"I'm going to send it again," Charlie says stiffly and starts for the door.

"We need that signed, son. We have to get the barges up there."

"I know."

"Let me know what they say."

Just outside the squat, cinder block building that houses the MPC offices, the two barges in question float quietly on Detroit's narrow, torpid Rouge River. The water moves slowly in the summer heat. The faint sound of burbling and rushing that can be heard in this office, however, is not river water but stomach acid. Sometimes in these head-butting sessions, Dave sees himself reflected in his son and thinks, "God, what a son of a bitch I must be."

IT'S A GOOD TIME to be in the marine pollution clean-up business. Medical waste on East Coast beaches in the summer of 1988 followed by the 1989 spill in Alaska refocused public attention on the pollution problem. Additional oil spills off Rhode Island and Chesapeake Bay reinforced it. Strict state and federal regulations are in the works, and while some offenders in the past have either let a problem go out with the tide or tried to clean up after it themselves, few risk that anymore. Industry experts expect ten billion dollars to be spent annually on pollution clean-up across the next decade.

All this puts MPC in a strong position: The company is an established leader in emergency response to pollution disasters on lakes, rivers, and oceans. The company, with over $10 million in revenues, has seen a 50 percent growth in the last two years and this year the Valdez windfall will pump it up significantly. Although such performance is unlikely every year, the company could double its revenue and size within five years.

Behind most of the tension is the question of whether MPC will make changes to handle this growth.

The sons contend they are hamstrung by an arbitrary-seeming, "Dave-centered" management structure in which virtually every decision must be cleared with Dave. Big jobs like the Valdez one stretch this kind of structure to its limits and underline its weaknesses. Charlie and the others want Dave to delegate more authority so the company has the depth of management needed for the future.

Dave, for his part, says he recognizes the need to delegate. He believes, however, in the loosely organized system that brought the company success, and he worries about losing touch with day-to-day operations. The same entrepreneurial personality that drove him to build the company won't allow him to let go of any part of it.

It's a tough transition for any growing business to make, but when it's a family business: When the boss is a parent figure and the middle managers are the next generation, the emotional element complicates matters. The children need authority delegated because they need to know the parent takes them seriously. The parent does take them seriously, but doesn't believe they are "ready." He sees them perpetually somewhere in the middle of an endless learning curve. Sometimes change won't occur until outside pressures on the business become unmanageable. Then the challenge is to make the changes before those unmanageable pressures become destructive.

"I understand what they're saying," says Dave of his middle managers. "But I also know we're built for emergency response and we can't lose the flexibility that lets us deal with those emergencies.

"I'm in sympathy with the Turks' ambitions and I don't want to dampen their enthusiasm ... but to get responsibility, they have to have the capability for it."

"What they're really saying," and he has to chuckle at this, "is that they want me to get out of their hair."

Well, yes, they are saying that.

THERE IS A "LOOK" the Turks get when the question of Dave's delegating authority comes up: it is an ironic half-smile, accompanied by a pregnant pause, often followed by a pithy one-liner such as, "Management structure? Sure. There's Dave, and everyone else," or "He'll give you responsibility, so long as you don't mind him taking it away." Last February Dave brought in Toni Stafford, a personnel consultant, to assess relations among the managers, and she agrees. "Every company has a corporate drift, a direction it naturally tends to go in," she says. "Here it's 'Dave is king'." Dave doesn't deny this. "I built this company on my way of thinking. I want it run the way I want it run."

No surprise there. The kind of man who builds a business in the competitive, arms-and-elbows atmosphere of Detroit's industrial riverfront tends to be what you might call "high profile." Cleaning up oil spills and toxic waste is a relatively new field with few established methods. It's been a matter of "make it up as you go along": it was Dave who invented (and markets) the submersible high-capacity pumping units used to remove crude oil and liquid chemicals in emergency situations like the Valdez. His ability to improvise new solutions earned MPC a solid reputation for doing hard, dirty, dangerous work under the worst of time pressures.

Still, a high-profile style has its downside. Dave had asked Stafford to find out why the level of tension between the Turks and himself was so high.

"He was concerned that all the meetings were turning into shouting matches," she remembers. In the course of a three-day seminar, she asked the Turks a series of questions about how they related to Dave as well as to each other and to subordinates. "The key question was on working together: what requests can they make of each other without involving Dave?" The answer, she found, was almost none. Dave Usher is involved in everything and his involvement always raises the emotional stakes.

"Because I'm his son, I get defensive," Charlie admits, relaxing for a moment in the small office he shares with another man. "I try to remain calm and objective when things get heated, but I get frustrated."

He's not the only one. Mike Rancilio is feeling the special burden of being "married to the boss's daughter." Thirty-four years old, he joined the company six years ago and handles billing, safety, and work documentation. His father-in-law generally describes Mike's duties as "quality assurance and quality control," but Mike says job descriptions are elusive.

"I can't really say what my job [description] is," he says with a certain resigned frustration. (Among other things, Dave says, he's an intrepid negotiator.) "We're still rooted in the way things were done 12 years ago when this was a small company. As creatures of habit, we're stuck with the 'whatever it takes to get it done' style.

"It can be real difficult being the son in-law," he says. "I've been contributing my perspective on bettering the organization and I have ideas about it. But it doesn't matter what I do, how hard I work. If my ideas are accepted, some of the others here, who've been here so long they don't understand why we have to make changes, think my ideas are accepted because I married the boss's daughter. Then, sometimes, I think Dave will reject my ideas because he's conscious of this attitude and doesn't want it to look like I'm getting special treatment.... I think that's even reflected in my pay."

The Young Turk having the least trouble with Dave's management style is the godson, Jeff Heard, whose father and uncle were one-time colleagues of Dave's. Some of Jeff' s first summer jobs as a teenager were with MPC clean-up crews. He spent a couple of years in his early twenties in a Michigan county sheriff 's department, then went back to work for MPC in 1980. He runs on-site operations for MPC Environmental, a division that cleans up toxic sites, ground-water pollution, and chemical spills.

Jeff, 35, is a self-described workaholic whose front-office job makes him, unofficially, first among equals under Dave. Like Dave, he thrives on action and pressure, and he seems less dissatisfied with the "whoever's handy does it" system. At times, he even seems to like it.

"Mr. Usher [the former lawman still calls his godfather 'Mister'] has a problem giving up the reins," he says. "But the longer we [the Turks] are here, the more responsibilities we take on. It's not a giving of reins, it's taking them."

In fact, Toni Stafford sees Jeff as having less trouble with the status quo and more with new ideas, particularly ones Mike pushes for, such as better coordination between his billing department and Jeff's operations. There is occasional tension between the two men. Jeff calls Mike "Slick" and sometimes deprecatingly refers to him as "an idea guy."

Charlie's is the main voice in the Turks' effort to get the company reorganized. "We all talk about it. The company has grown so, that delegation is inevitable. But this started out as a small business; it's hard for my father to reorganize."

He says his father is slowly accepting the need for some kinds of changes — a computerized billing system, for example. Accordingly, they hired a programmer friend of Charlie's to get the system installed. When it comes to letting go of control, though, things aren't happening very fast. Lately, Charlie's been urging him to bring in a management consultant to take a look at MPC's organization and make some recommendations. Dave's initial objection was the cost; so Charlie came back with the idea of bringing in an MBA pursuing his doctorate. He could do his thesis on MPC; the company could have the analysis free. His father resists, citing the special circumstances and emergency nature of MPC's business.

"I'm not that excited about bringing in that kind of consultant," Dave says. Toni Stafford was one thing, a human relations consultant brought in for a long weekend to tone the shouting down to a dull roar; smooth things out between the Turks and him. She didn't propose to turn the management structure upside-down and inside-out. But a management consultant ...

DAVID USHER AND CHARLIE are having lunch in the section of Detroit known by the locals as "Downriver." Downriver has seen hard times, following contractions of the auto and steel industries. The streets are desolate, as after a war, and there are only vestiges of the old Hungarian neighborhood left now: Zabbo's Meat Market on one corner, and this place, Al's Lounge, on another. Lunch is sausage and boiled meats on rye bread and the talk is of succession planning.

"The University of Michigan has a seminar on succession planning," Charlie is saying. "I wanted to go but he didn't think it was worth it."

"Oh, that was four or five years ago," Dave says.

"They have it every year," Charlie says. "It's an every year thing. They send me the brochure."

"I don't know. What is it? Five thousand dollars?"

"It's not five thousand dollars," Charlie says, irritation rising.

"It's a lot of money for a couple days of some college professor..."

"It's not five thousand. I think it's three thousand. Maybe that's a lot of money, I don't know."

Dave shakes his head, looks at his sandwich and says, "Succession planning..." he looks unhappy. "I don't want to think of myself as being at that point of my life where. . ." his voice trails off but it's not hard to fill in the blanks.

There is no more common story in the world of family business.

DAVE'S FATHER, CHARLES USHER, began a business salvaging waste oil from Detroit area gas stations and industrial plants in the Thirties. It was a steady, if unspectacular, business, and Dave's conservative older brother was satisfied to be part of it.

David Usher, however, was not. Since childhood he'd worked for his father, doing every dirty job: from skimming oil out of catch basins with hand buckets, to driving collection trucks. He wanted out. After graduating from a naval prep school and pulling a stint in the Coast Guard Reserve in the Fifties, he got involved in Detroit's jazz scene. He always loved the music and he worked, for a while, as a concert promoter before getting involved in producing record albums. For a brief time in the late Fifties he had his own label, recording jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie.

They needed him back at the family business, though, and he needed more steady money. He was married and had a baby now. Jazz didn't pay, so Dave soon found himself shuttling between two worlds.

Then his father became ill and he ended up back at the company full time, running it now with his brother, looking for another channel for his creative energies.

He saw it in 1960 with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the dramatic upsurge in ship traffic on the Detroit riverfront. He sent letters to ships' agents, offering cleaning and general maintenance service for tankers and freighters in transit.

"It used to be that they'd just go and find rummies to do the work," Dave says. While it was economical for ships' managers, the quality of work tended to be erratic. Dave promised them a trained, reliable crew.

"I embellished a little." He didn't, in fact, have a crew trained for shipwork. He barely had a crew at all: just some men from the tank-cleaning company plus a few strays he figured he could round up.

He got one reply so he got his men together and issued them hard hats. An artistic friend came up with a logo that looked like a red cross with an anchor. They painted it on the hats.

"We show up and they see this crew in these hats — it looked pretty impressive," Dave remembers. And thus the Marine Services Corporation was born. David Usher was 30 years old.

His father was never keen on Dave's ambitions for the company. After he died, Dave and his brother went their separate ways. Dave ran the company, working his contacts up and down the river, trouble-shooting every kind of problem involving ships and cargo.

Then, in 1967, a call came from the massive Ford Rouge River plant a few miles downriver from Detroit; 55,000 gallons of Number 5 oil had spilled into the water. They called the guys with the now familiar red anchor and Dave's outfit recovered the oil.

"Five days later the guys from the Ford Steel Division came into my office and gave me an open purchase order," Dave remembers. They asked his company to handle all future oil spills. In Detroit, a Ford contract is the kiss of life; word spread to other Detroit-area industrials about the company that cleaned up oil and waste spills. Marine Pollution Control was incorporated in 1968 — with the most industrialized section of navigable water in North America as its private preserve.

Many of the jobs were small ones — 112,000 gallons of oil in Cleveland Harbor, 3500 gallons spilled on Lake Michigan, pumping the tank of a stranded barge on the Missouri River. As the company's reputation spread, however, it got called in on more complex problems involving all sorts of toxic and nontoxic wastes: caustic soda in a stream, molten sulphur on a damaged freighter, even a molasses spill in Saginaw.

Dave never forgot the music, though. He still hung out with musicians and kept a close friendship with Dizzy Gillespie — the two of them are currently working on a documentary film project.

"Dizzy says we'd better hurry up because we're getting older; there isn't much time left."

But making more time for music would mean giving up to a general manager the hands-on control of MPC. None of the Turks expect that to happen soon.

"I would pity whoever had the job," Rancilio says. "They'd be on the line constantly. Dave couldn't deal with it."

Twice in the past Dave appointed general managers and, when they thought he was constantly undercutting their authority, the men simply gave up and took other jobs in the company.

"For me to delegate, I have to know the business is secure," Dave says. "I've seen people who don't pay as much attention to their business and it falters. I'd delegate so long as I knew they were doing things the way I see that they have to be done." A singularly personal definition of "delegation," to say the least.

His successor is not likely to be an outsider, unfamiliar with David Usher's philosophy. It will be one of the Turks. He is grooming them to take over... when he feels they are "ready."

"I've pretty well sized them up," he says. "I see their shortfalls and I try to work on them. It's the teacher's role. But sometimes I find myself being more the critic."

Each of the Turks acknowledges that Dave's role as a teacher has its value: they have more to learn, they aren't as experienced as Dave, they do make mistakes — but they find his critic's role frustrating. The godson has the least trouble with it; the son, the most.

"I expect to become general manager through attrition," Charlie says. By attrition he means that either company growth will overwhelm his father, forcing more responsibility on him; or attrition will take a different form: illness, retirement, or death. This isn't how he wants it, Charlie says.

Charlie wants to stay. He left once before to take a series of jobs on the West Coast before coming back five years ago. Since then he's worked in every phase of MPC's operation: from slogging through toxic waste in a safety suit — he has a nasty suphuric acid burn on his wrist from a day he got sloppy with the gloves — to financial and operational aspects of the Valdez job. Of the Turks, he has the best grounding for running the business.

"I find Charlie a very sensible guy," his father says. "He's very logical and I'm very proud and pleased about that. Capability for responsibility is developing in him, and in Mike and Jeff too.

"But he is also beginning to realize slowly what else it takes to make the machine move. He needs experience to make decisions." Charlie is currently a degree candidate in environmental science while he's working full time.

Until he can make those decisions, his father is going to keep stepping in, frustrating his son, setting off those head-butting sessions and making the whole process much harder.

"Dave is a doer," says Toni Stafford. "His standard of excellence is very high. Other people don't have his velocity, so he often takes over. His love for the business is bigger than his recognition of the need to delegate, so it gets in the way. On a conscious level, he recognizes it. But if change is to occur, he really has to get it. I don't know ... Using a consultant would assist them [but] I don't know if he can learn. Often events have to overtake a person like him."

"Logic isn't what he'll react to," Mike says. "Dave does what he feels. He won't react until he has to make a decision."

HE DOESN'T HAVE TO right now. Things are quiet for MPC. The Valdez operation was suspended in September for the long Alaskan winter. (There is, however, ongoing controversy over responibility for the disposition of the oil still left on the beaches.) Exxon is not expected to resume clean-up efforts next spring, banking instead on winds and naturally occurring bacteria to destroy much of the remaining crude oil. Although MPC has a steady stream of smaller clean-up jobs elsewhere, the crunch is over for the time being. The immediacy of the need for delegation has abated.

Dave is making some moves to address the Turks' frustrations. By the end of summer, short daily meetings had been instituted to improve communication, and there are plans for retreats with the Turks at a friend's north Michigan hunting lodge. But the Turks say progress is slow and inconsistent. The emergency: that's what they say Dave is waiting for. He always works best "When All Hell Breaks Loose."

—R.C.

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Premiere 1989

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