Giants of the Sea: Ships & Men Who Changed the World

From his home in New York, Mobile native John D. McCown Jr. discusses his mentor, shipping titan Malcom McLean, and the book that their relationship inspired.

John McCown portrait
John D. McCown Jr.

In the preface to his book “Giants of the Sea,” John D. McCown explains that he simply never grew out of his boyhood obsession for enormous machinery. “This was kindled by a father who would load five pajama-clad children into his 1962 Impala convertible and, after an ice-cream cone stop, tour fire stations in Mobile, Alabama,” he explains.

This fixation would eventually lead McCown, a Mobile native, to a 40-year career in the shipping industry and a close relationship with Malcom McLean, the celebrated “Father of Containerization” with a Mobile connection of his own; convinced that he could create a container that could be transferred between trucks, ships and railroad cars, McLean purchased Mobile’s Waterman Steamship Company and set out to bring his revolutionary idea into existence. On April 26, 1956, container shipping was born when McLean loaded and launched the SS Ideal X at Port Newark, New Jersey.

“In less than eight hours of cargo activity,” McCown writes, “the new process had loaded the same amount of cargo that it would have taken some three days to load with the traditional breakbulk loading process.” The ramifications of McLean’s breakthrough has since been compared to the invention of the steam engine.

As McCown set out to tell the life story of his mentor, he realized that the story of the shipping industry at large is one that is seldom told or celebrated. With this entertaining yet informative book, McCown sets out to change just that.

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Korea’s Hyundai Merchant Marine vessel is one of the world’s largest ships.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your career in the shipping industry?

I was born and raised in Mobile and educated at St. Ignatius and McGill. After graduating from LSU with a business degree, I headed north to work for a bank in NYC and a couple of years later made my way up to Boston to get an MBA at Harvard Business School. Towards the end of my first year, a professor started class by holding up a Business Week magazine. Malcom McLean was on the cover with an article titled, “Malcom McLean’s $500 Million Gamble.” My professor said that this is the sort of risk-taking entrepreneur we hope to make you think like here at HBS. 

I knew Malcom had a Mobile connection, and it piqued my interest. Reading the article, I was inspired and ditched my plans to work for an investment bank the summer between business school years. Instead, I took a summer job in financial analysis at U.S. Lines. After graduation, I joined the McLean Securities parent company. I’ve been broadly involved in shipping for over 40 years since then. 

The book’s preface includes some wonderful memories of your childhood in Mobile. Tell us about some of those memories, and how did the city foster your interest in large, moving objects?

My father, who had been in the Navy and had worked for Waterman Steamship, shared his love for vessels with me. Once he read his Navy League magazine, he would always pass it on. He would also take me to the state docks where we shared an admiration for the ships we viewed, at the time, as giant. When I was 14, I accompanied him on a Navy League outing to Pensacola for a cruise on the aircraft carrier Lexington. I’ll never forget the size of that ship. 

I was extremely fortunate to grow up in a port city with a father who nurtured my fascination for most things maritime.

Though this book tells the stories of “nine visionary titans” of global trade, it is dedicated to one of them: Malcom McLean. How did you come to work with McLean, and how would you describe your relationship with him?

My book is a broad sweep of the modern cargo shipping industry, but the person who had the most profound impact on that was Malcom. I had the benefit of an extraordinary education at Harvard Business School, but it hardly compares to what I learned about the shipping and transportation business from my mentor.

I went from Harvard to McLean Securities and worked closely with Malcom for two decades. As our professional relationship grew over those years, so did our personal relationship. Just as almost every meeting with Malcom had you learning something new, every social encounter was also memorable. Malcom was both a wonderful teacher and host. If you were to meet Malcom by sitting next to him at a dinner party and not know anything about his background, the overriding impression you would have was that he was a pleasant and polite Southern gentleman. An industry colleague hit the right chord when she referred to him as a “gentle giant” in one of the many articles published following his death in 2001.     

This is the most detailed telling of McLean’s life I’ve ever come across, full of stories from his early days working at a gas station to his rise as a titan of industry. Did the stories come from McLean himself?

Yes, they all did. I’d encouraged Malcom to cooperate with a professional writer to get the full story of his remarkable life out there. I got close to making the case, but in the end Malcom didn’t believe, as he would say, in “tooting his own horn.” Malcom did say that when he was gone, maybe I should write the book. My initial focus was on a book just about Malcom. But as that expanded into the story of the impact of his innovations, a broader narrative began to take form.

Malcom McLean overlooking the port
Malcom McLean at Port Newark, 1957

In your opinion, what exactly made McLean such a visionary?

He had an insatiable curiosity coupled with the uncanny ability to not just “look” at something, but to really “see” it. He took in information like a sponge, separating the wheat from the chaff and focusing on the key items that could make a difference. The big picture came to Malcom because he knew how to break things down into key components and put them back together in a better way. He constantly had a yellow pad and pencil within arm’s reach.   

Is there one anecdote about McLean from your book that sums him up best?

I’ll always remember spending one Saturday morning with Malcom sitting in a car in Port Newark and watching a container ship being discharged. The company was in the process of being sold, and after looking at the numbers, we wanted to observe firsthand its unloading process and productivity. We were intrigued with the possibility of buying this company and transitioning it to be more like the company we already controlled. Coincidentally, the ship was being worked just a few hundred yards away from where the Ideal X launched containerization more than 40 years earlier.

As we sat together, much of Malcom’s observations were related to that historic day four decades ago and his vision that containers would be handled just as we could see them now being handled in front of us. At one point, after a number of minutes intently watching in silence as a series of containers were discharged, he turned and asked, “So, do you think this new system is going to work?” We both smiled broadly. 

Although McLean is recognized throughout Mobile’s GulfQuest Maritime Museum (which includes a replica container ship named the SS McLean), why don’t more people in Mobile know his name?

That question goes to something I hope my book will help rectify. Malcom would be better known if shipping got the recognition it deserves. Malcom was a private person focused on his business with little interest in promoting himself in the media. He let his accomplishments speak for themselves.

Malcom received many accolades during his life, but he would usually brush them aside while crediting other people and saying that if he hadn’t done it, somebody else would have. But an award he was posthumously given last year would have moved him. The Human Progress project was started by a large think tank a couple of years ago to chronicle and share data related to the improvement in human well-being. As part of this effort, they published a series of profiles referred to as “Heroes of Progress.” In those, they recognized individuals whose lives have significantly improved human well-being. People like Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, and Jonas Salk, the discoverer of the polio vaccine, were so profiled.

The 17th Hero of Progress recognized by Human Progress was Malcom. They accurately said his invention of container shipping was the key to growth in world trade that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. Malcom was effectively the only businessman that was included in the 50 people profiled by Human Progress. That is quite a legacy for anybody, but one I think the facts support as being well deserved by Malcom.

Giants of the Sea book cover

When and why did you decide to write this book?

This book has been some 20 years in the making. I knew after Malcom died that I would eventually write something about his remarkable life. I first started putting pen to paper around eight years ago. I would take it up and put it down, as time allowed between work and various projects. The pandemic gave me the time I needed to pull everything together and complete the book.

In addition to telling the story of Malcom’s life, a broader goal of mine was to tell the story of just how vitally linked the modern shipping industry is to everyone on the planet. It’s a story that everyone should be more aware of. In one way or another, this powerhouse industry is linked to the daily lives of just about everybody. It is literally the invisible industry that delivers the world economy. The impact of this irreplaceable service also goes well beyond the economy. The trade, made possible only because of these efficient ships, has helped reduce world poverty. That same trade has also made the world more peaceful than it otherwise would have been.

There is a direct link between the most important part of the shipping industry today and Mobile. That link is Malcom McLean, and it should be a point of pride for all Mobilians.

By writing this book, you took on a massively technical subject. How did you walk the line of writing a book that would appeal to both industry insiders and outsiders?

The audience I had in mind for the book evolved. From a book targeted at shipping folk, it transitioned to one aimed at the public. With that broader focus came a need to stay away from technical aspects and industry jargon and focus just on explaining things in easy-to-understand layman terms. While my book is targeted at the public, I’ve been gratified by the feedback I’ve received from shipping industry insiders and descendants of the people profiled. 

Where do you live now, and do you ever make it back to Mobile?

I live with my wife Kathleen in Pound Ridge, New York, a bucolic town that is an hour north of New York City by commuter train. We moved there from Manhattan a little over 20 years ago to raise our son, Jack, and daughter, Caroline, in open space.

All of my friends in Pound Ridge are aware of my Alabama connection, and it is reinforced with my frequent wearing of an Alabama T-shirt. Indeed, I’ve bonded with our local police chief who happens to be an Alabama Crimson Tide football fan. On the other side of the spectrum, it turns out my next door neighbor, former White House press secretary Ari Fleisher, is a diehard Auburn fan. Bragging rights have been solidly on my side recently, but it doesn’t stop Ari from bringing up the “Kick Six.”   

While I’ve now lived more that twice as many years up north compared to the years I lived in Alabama, Mobile will always be home. I visit as often as I can. When I’m there, my time is spent almost entirely with family. Both Jack and Caroline, now in their 20s, love becoming acquainted with their Southern heritage. My Boston-born bride has always loved Mobile, and each time we’re down there, if I listen closely I can hear a slight Southern accent that she has picked up after a few days.  

How can people find and buy the book?

It is a hardcover, large format book available on Amazon and other popular reseller websites and can be accessed by searching for “Giants of the Sea.”

John D. McCown Jr. has four decades of maritime experience, including 15 years as CEO of a container shipping company he co-founded. He lives in Pound Ridge, New York, with his wife Kathleen.

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