The 180 foot green hull of the freighter Norma H II is a familiar sight to residents of the Virgin Islands. The ship can be seen navigating Crown Bay, St. Thomas, or along the south side of the island as she makes passages to Road Town, Tortola, or to Christiansted, St. Croix.
“We make 50 scheduled runs per year, and do additional trips on the weekends if necessary. We are growing every year,” said Ian Stevenson, owner of Stevenson Formel Freight Services, which runs the Norma H. “We specialize in palletized cargo, but we can accommodate shipping containers, vehicles, heavy machinery, frozen and chilled food, and all types of construction materials. We can also assist with dedicated charters and agency services.”
Stevenson Formel Freight Services was founded in the early 1980s by the Formel family to service the construction trade, and was operated by the Formels until Chris and Ian Stevenson purchased it in July of 2008.
The company is headquartered in San Juan, Puerto Rico and recently purchased a second, larger ship, the 209 foot Linda D. The Stevensons were considering buying the ship, “but finances were not in the right place before the storms.”
“FEMA reached out to us in about 2012 or so looking for a local provider of shipboard transportation. They had previously had one with Black Hawk, but they were unwilling to jump through all the hoops annually to keep the contract current. We held the contract for years moving nothing – essentially in a standby position – just in case contract.”
After the islands were devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, the Norma H II went from shipping coconuts and rebar to full loads of Humvees and emergency generators for FEMA. The Norma H II can transport 400 tons of cargo, while the new ship carries up to 1,100 tons.
Stevenson met his wife, Chris, at the United States Merchant Marine Academy, King’s Point, NY. After they both graduated in 1998, Chris went to sea as a deck officer on a research vessel, while Ian sailed on oil tankers and large freighter. “I was in New Orleans as Chief Mate of a ship doing relief work after Hurricane Katrina. In 2004 I went around the world delivering the weapons of war to Uncle Sam in the Middle East.”
Chris Stevenson earned her MBA at the Wharton School after five years at sea, and then worked for a private equity firm. “She hated the corporate life, being in the office from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. She was miserable. She found Formel advertising to hire two managers to take over the operations. Between us, we exactly fit the job descriptions. After meeting with the previous owners, we decided we couldn’t be their employees. We worked out an owner finance buy out.”
Ian runs the ships, while Chris manages operations ashore. Ian has a United States Unlimited Tonnage Master’s license. “I also got my MBA on the weekends, graduating from the University of Miami in 2011,” he said.
When the Stevensons bought the business, everything was written on paper. Now computerized systems track the ships and cargo.
After Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas this year, the Linda D spent months delivering relief goods to the islands. “The new ship has just returned. Her first trip back arrived on Monday carrying the first load of equipment for AT&T to start putting phone infrastructure underground.”
The company now employs thirty-six people, twenty-three shipboard and thirteen ashore, including two that reside in the USVI. Four employees have been with the company since it was owned by the Formels. This year, the Stevensons hired two people on St. Thomas, a full-time manager and a part-time cargo clerk, who is a recent high school graduate. Overall, the company has added 15 new employees, including 10 crew for the new ship.
“We are big advocates for the maritime industry – especially within the island economy. We actively support the training mission of the SV Roseway getting underserved kids out on the water and showing them the opportunities that are available beyond their own little island. Also, I am the alumni recruiter for King’s Point for Puerto Rico; Andy Simpson does the same for St. Croix.”
Ian grew up moving around as his father worked on nuclear reactors for the U.S. Navy. But his inspiration for becoming a merchant mariner came when he was a kid living in Philadelphia. His neighbor worked on ships for Exxon, and he saw a profession that enabled his neighbor to be home six months out of the year, and earn enough money to have a nice house and cars.
Chris began college at the Webb Institute, the leading naval architecture college in the US, and planned to design and build ships. After spending a summer at sea as part of the curriculum, she decided she wanted to operate ships instead of designing them, and transferred to the USMMA.
When asked about running ships in the Caribbean, Ian said “the ocean between St. Thomas and St. Croix is some of the nastiest ocean I’ve seen. It can go from flat to twenty foot waves in twelve hours.”
“Our biggest challenges are typical to businesses in the Caribbean,” he said. “Reliable internet and electricity on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are critical issues. There are high-end computer applications that would let us track ships and cargo, but infrastructure problems prevent us from using them.”
After the hurricanes of 2017, the Norma H II delivered tons of plywood and roofing material. Volume has decreased now, with payments from the Department of Housing and Urban Development slowing.
“Our biggest motivation in business is to make the economy work better, to work inefficiencies out of the system. If we can save someone money in shipping, it allows them to spend money on other things. At this point of my life, I’m more interested in economics than beautiful sunsets and adventures at sea,” Stevenson said.