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Insights: Cherrie Felder, Vice President, Channel Shipyard Companies

March 21, 2024   Marine News

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For Cheryl “Cherrie” Felder, the path to the maritime industry was both untraditional and seemingly meant to be. After studying African art, she began her career working in a museum in New Orleans before landing a role directing professional rodeo in the Big Easy.

“It was a lot of fun, and I learned a whole lot,” Felder said. “But as you may imagine, New Orleans is not a rodeo town. After the third year, the board of directors decided, okay, that's it. No more rodeo.”

And that’s when Felder’s doorway to the maritime industry swung open, setting in motion a career that’s had a significant impact on this vital sector. “It was pure serendipity that got me into the maritime industry,” Felder said. “Coincidentally, several of the rodeo board members happened to work for maritime companies. And the chairman of the board, Dennis Steger, at that time, owned Lower Mississippi Marine Services.”

“I was the one-man band at the rodeo. You name it, I did it. Booking the entertainment, working with the stock contractor, putting the program together. [Steger] saw how hard I worked and said, "We need you in the maritime business.’”

Steger placed a call to recommend Felder to Bill Johnson, who was leaving Ingram Barge to move back to New Orleans to open the marine division for Torco Oil Company. She took a position as office manager.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God. What do I know about towboats and barges?’ Nothing at all, but it sounded cool and a challenge, and I was always up for a challenge,” Felder said. “I didn't know a barge from a boat from the garbage truck.”

That all changed with a call from Raymond “Gator” Pixley, the captain and owner of the Torco Houston, who was putting his tow together below the Huey P. Long Bridge. “He said, ‘Miss Cherrie, if you're not busy, you might want to come on out here,’” Felder said. “He spent about four hours walking that tow with me, explaining the differences between hopper barges, and deck barges, and tank barges, and lash barges, and high-low couplings, and efficiencies. I can remember that moment all these 43 years later. It was an aha moment. And I remember thinking this is about as cool as it gets. Brown water started running through my veins right then and it still does to this day.”

Felder said she was given opportunities that, at the time, were particularly unheard of for a woman. “I rode our boats for months on end, and was out on the deck, and in the engine room, and up in the wheelhouse just listening and learning. I was never made to feel like I didn't belong there because I have so much respect for the job those guys do.”

“Over time, I've learned how important the industry is for the country for moving commerce,” Felder said. “The United States is a maritime country, and the Mississippi River and its tributary is the backbone of this country, and that's important.”

Felder has gone on to rise through the ranks, and now serves as vice president at Steger’s Channel Shipyard, where she has worked for more than 20 years. Today, she also serves as chair at Waterways Council, Inc. (WCI), which advocates for a modern network of inland waterways ports and infrastructure. “It’s no longer a choice whether to stay in this industry; I fell in love with it, and it's still the case. So that's why I'm still here.”

Marine News had the opportunity to interview Felder at the end of February, and the following are excerpts from that discussion.

MN: You've been involved in a number of different industry trade groups and associations through the years. From your point of view, why is this type of collaborative work important? And do you think the industry should be doing more of this type of thing?

CF: Personally, I think we're doing a pretty good job of it. Over my almost 43 years, I have been witness to a lot of changes in this industry. Technology, customer demands, public perception, all of these things have really changed the industry. Wheelhouses now are jammed with every imaginable electronic communication device, and we serve our employees and our customers now in a range of demographics, online through websites and social media, email, and text, and phone. And of course, Subchapter M has totally been a game-changer for the industry. And I think these changes are possible because of the collaboration, because we've had strong leadership in this industry, leaders that are willing to compromise. I feel our representatives on Capitol Hill could learn something from these folks, competitors who are willing to work together for the common good of the industry, leaders who have embraced change.

We've been able to develop partnerships with the Coast Guard and the Corps of Engineers to build on hard-earned trust and respect for similar goals to ensure safe and commercially viable operation. It's not to say there aren't bumps in the road, but at least now we can work with our Coast Guard partners to develop regulations that make sense and with the Corps to resolve waterway infrastructure issues like low water, and high water, and lock closures that interrupt the flow of commerce and really affect our bottom lines. And then, over the years, as the system has deteriorated, making it harder for us to move commerce and to provide jobs, and regulations got overly burdensome, these leaders came together and stood up organizations, and committed time, and money, and people to the job of educating Congress and the public on the value of investing in waterway infrastructure and the maritime industry.

I personally believe these collaborations are working. I'm sure there's more that we can do, but I feel like we're doing a pretty good job of collaborating.

MN: You mentioned the critical importance of the inland waterway system. Despite how important this system is, there's still a large need for maintenance and repair. As you see it, how dire is the situation, and where do you see the most urgent needs to improve the system?

CF: 2024 is going to be a critical make it or break it year, in my opinion, for the advancement of the inland waterway infrastructure projects. We're going to need to get the 2024 and 2025 appropriation bills signed into law to get this program set up for future success. If we fail at it, there'll be a domino effect, and I can't even project how bad it'll be further down the road. If we can get it done, funding will be available to complete four out of the six currently ongoing construction projects and get those finished, and then it frees up our resources for the other projects that are in the pipeline that are part of our capital investment program.

And just to underscore the really dire situation with the maintenance program, Demopolis Lock on the Black Warrior, Tombigbee is the current poster child. The lock has been closed since January the 16 when half of the upper miter sill broke off and crashed onto the floor of the chamber. The current forecast is not to reopen until mid-May at best, which means in the meantime, operators trying to get to and from Mobile are forced to go the long way around by Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi Rivers, and then the GIWW, which adds about 1,600 miles to the trip. Instead of taking a week round trip, it takes a little over a month, adds three to four times the cost. The maintenance and the system is really a serious issue, for sure, so we've got to get these appropriations bills in place so we can continue moving forward with these programs.

MN: A lot of people are hard at work trying to address these challenges, but many challenges stand in their way. What are some of these bigger obstacles, and what needs to be done to overcome them?

One of the largest problems right now is this situation with the inflationary cost increases. It's a huge problem. The projects that were funded to completion in the $2.5 billion that we got through that IIJA Act, those were thought to be funded to completion. Well, we're finding out now, because of inflation, they're not even close. So somehow the Corps is going to have to get this inflation under control somehow. And I know they are working on it. I think there's a team that's been doing some pretty good work on it. I'm not familiar with where the work currently is, but I know they recognize it as a huge problem too and are doing what they can to try to deal with it.

Another huge factor is how long it's taking to build these projects. We can't afford to take 20 or more years to build each one of these projects. The Corps is going to have to find a way to get projects built in six to eight years, like they did in the beginning when they first built the locks. I know they're looking at different ways of doing the projects, whether it's early contractor involvement or a number of other things that they're looking at. But they're going to have to shorten the length of time that it takes to construct these projects.

And finally, in my opinion, politics. The way the system works, all of our projects rely on annual appropriations, and it's getting harder and harder to get that done every year. What the solution is for that, I really can't tell you, but it's a huge problem in my view.

As Waterways Council, Inc. chair, what are your top priorities, and what are you hoping to achieve over the coming months?

Every year, WCI identifies its priorities for that year, and of those, on the top of my list are first to get the 2024 energy and water approps enacted so that we can fund the construction capability of $456 million for this year. Chickamauga Lock needs $236 million to complete, which will then allow us to move forward with the other projects. It's vital we get that done. Then, of course, we're already working on the 2025 appropriations to try to get full support. Every year, we put the money into the Inland Waterway Trust Fund, and it's about $125 million a year, and so we like to secure the appropriations to support that amount of spending. Then huge this year is to enact WRDA 2024, and we are well on our way to doing that. We want to keep on that two-year cycle.

Included in WRDA 24, this year we are working hard to ensure that the seven IIJA-funded construction projects remain 100% federally funded, which was the intention of Congress when they put the act forward. And then, one of our priorities, I just found out we can now take off the list, I'm very happy to report, at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing yesterday, Assistant Secretary for the Army, Michael Connor, announced the reallocation of almost $83 million in funding from the MCON's 12-foot deepening project to the Three Rivers project, which will get it completed efficiently.

And then, I want to continue to grow the diverse membership of WCI. One of the things that makes us so successful, I think, is the diversity of our membership. We have shippers, and carriers, and agriculture groups, and labor, and environmental groups, and ports. And when we go to the Hill together like that, it makes a huge impression. To continue to bring more people into the fold and continue the growth of WCI is a huge thing for me.

We have a great staff that has a depth of knowledge of our issues, they have wonderful relationships on the Hill with members and staffers, and we've become the go-to resource on Capitol Hill for anything to do with waterway infrastructure issues, and I want to keep it that way.

When you look back at your career and all of the things you've done in the maritime industry to date, what is something you're most proud of and why?

I've been so fortunate to stumble into a career that's just been more rewarding than I could ever have imagined one to be. I've had the opportunity to be involved in a number of organizations and activities. Early on, one of my mentors—and I was fortunate to have some really amazing mentors, folks who were actually icons of the industry—they encouraged me, one in particular, to always be engaged with groups and activities that are working to improve the industry. And I've had opportunities to do that, and it's been a gift.

I've been honored to be elected to serve in leadership positions in a lot of these organizations, but I truly feel that being chairman of WCI is the highlight of my career. Channel Shipyard was a founding member of WCI. We celebrated our 20th anniversary last year, and it has just been amazing. To watch this organization grow, and to become as respected as it is, and to do such good work, and it's truly an honor to serve as its chairman. I think the work we do is so important, and it's very rewarding to me.

I'm also very proud of this next generation of folks that's coming into this industry, and it's a privilege for me to serve as mentor to some of them. I'm hoping that my passion and my enthusiasm for the industry will rub off on some of them and maybe become contagious. I feel very optimistic about the future of the industry.

I wasn't looking for this career, it found me, and it's been great. And it's not over yet!