Craig Tornga is the new marine director for the Alaska Marine Highway System. His first day on the job was April 3, 2023. (Photo/DOT)

Craig Tornga became the new head of the Alaska Marine Highway System this month.

He comes to the job with 46 years in the marine industry. He worked at Crowley Marine Services for a few decades transporting fuel and supplies in Alaska. For the last six years, Tornga served as a senior vice president with Kirby Offshore Marine in Houston, Texas. It’s a large company with 6,000 employees. It distributes petroleum products with 1,400 barges.

Now, Tornga is in charge of a fleet of nine ships and hundreds of ferry workers. 

He spoke with CoastAlaska’s Angela Denning about his new role. He says his number one priority is seeking reliability.

Tornga: We don’t have a service to sell if we’re not reliable. And the last thing we want to be doing is selling something and disappointing people. So we will focus on reliability, it’s not a quick fix, working on making sure we have the foundational processes and procedures in place to be focused on reliability. And having our preventive maintenance, run through what you call it CMMS, a computer maintenance management system, so we’re pretty scripted on how we do our maintenance. So I’ll be real focused on that to start with.

Denning: There’s ships that are 50 and 60 years old, and they get tied up for mechanical problems and maintenance. So can you kind of tell me a little bit more about what you’re talking about?

Tornga: Every component on the vessel from the main engines all the way to the to the steering pump, has an OEM required maintenance schedule, we just need to make sure that we’re, we’re digging that far. And so we’ll make sure that our system has a hierarchy built up in it that gets down to every component. And that’s what I’ll be looking at. Now, age as you mentioned in the fleet, that gives another challenge. And so there are some things that are related to age that that do make it hard. And so, you know, we will be working on the long term portion of it, we will be working on fleet plants, replacements and at least have a retirement date set for different vessels based on their conditions as well. So every vessel gets to the point that is it worth even putting any more money into it, just like everybody’s vehicle, it’s really that same analysis.

Denning: I’m interested in knowing why you went after this job. There’s a lot of challenges. We talked about the aging fleet, but there’s also a severe, you know, shortage of crew, and some staffing shortages.

Tornga: You know, you’re not the first one asked me that question. So it’s, like I mentioned, I had done my six years, I was ready to get out of Houston. I’ve always liked the ferries, you know, they’re a unique ferry with a good big ship’s bow, they’re ocean going, I like that. And as far as challenges, you know, when you’re in business sometimes challenges are fun. You know, ‘Let me come tackle that’. And that’s just what I was doing at Kirby to be a part of that solution there. And here, we’re going to dig in, see if we can do. And as you point out, there’s a lot of challenges. The hiring or trying to find qualified, licensed individuals is not unique to the ferries right now. It is an industry problem across the US. We were the same way at Kirby. And we had to be proactive, to strategically try to beat out our competitors out of every, every licensed guy or gal coming out of a Maritime Academy. And as they graduate them each year, we’re there. We’re there. We’re taking them out to lunch, we’re taking them to dinner, we’re just trying to sell them on coming to work for us. And we need to do the same thing here.

Denning: How would you describe your leadership style, because in your past job, and now, here, you’re working with hundreds of people.

Tornga: You know, Kirby’s large, like I said, you know, there’s 6,000 employees there, as far as on the vessels, so it’s…and a lot of vessels. But I’m still very much a people’s person. I’m involved. I like to be on the boats. And I really like to have the office knowing that we’re here to support the vessels, and I like to see us on the boats. I have a program called boots on steel, others use it but I just need to make sure everybody’s out there engaged, knowing what the needs are, and that we’re here to support the vessel so they can deliver the customer service we need.

Listen to the full interview with Craig Tornga below: