Barbara Spector Yeninas had the moxie to launch a business serving the male-dominated maritime industry 45 years ago. That determination has kept her going for more than four decades, although these days she’s wearing sneakers instead of stilettos.
Yeninas established BSY Associates Inc. on August 1, 1974, at a time when females were rarely seen on the docks let alone running a PR agency dedicated to the maritime industry.
Yeninas, an NYU grad, is a journalist by training.
“My first newspaper job was the Asbury Park Press,” she said. “I worked there a year and got a couple of statewide writing awards and wanted to move on to something a little bigger. Then I went to the Newark News” as a general assignment reporter.
“I started covering maritime news because with containerization coming on board, Newark and Port Elizabeth were the container capitals of the world. I knew some people in the industry and they said, ‘You should make this a beat.’ And so I did.”
Then the presses stopped.
“It was the 11th largest daily in the country, and it folded. It was the start of the folding of papers. I folded with it,” said Yeninas, who had noticed “no one was doing a good job of covering what was going on with maritime.
“I was offered a job with The New York Times to resurrect their maritime coverage. And I’d married recently. My husband was going on to Associated Press to be their graphics director. I said, ‘Well, one of us has to have normal working hours.’ So I went into my own business. It’s never been normal since,” Yeninas said with a chuckle.
“Shipping I knew.”
“It was kind of a yearning within me to run my own show. Having been a reporter, I knew where all the pitfalls were — who was doing a good job, who wasn’t doing a good job. I decided I could do a good job. I was bringing a history of newspapering with me. I knew what was news,” she said.
“I couldn’t sell Wheaties,” Yeninas said. “Shipping I knew.”
Her first client was Associated Container Transportation’s Pacific Australia Container Express Line.
“ACT’s PACE Line was big in the Australia trade. And they said to me, ‘If you set up your own shop, we’ll become your first clients.’ I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ They said, ‘Look, let’s make it easy. Let’s make it a five-month contract, bringing us up to January 1. If you like what you’re doing and we like what you’re doing, we’ll continue. If not, it’s the first of the year, time to make a break.’ So I gave it a shot. I’m still shooting.”
Yeninas granted, “It was unusual for a woman. There was one woman who was involved in maritime and that was Helen Delich Bentley, who ended up becoming a congresswoman over marine panels and all that. She was with The Baltimore Sun originally. She sort of mentored me, mostly by saying, ‘Don’t let them get away with anything.’”
The second client she landed was Evergreen Marine Corp.
“Evergreen had just started in this country. I said to the president (Svend Hansen), ‘Before you sign the contract, full disclosure, I’m three months pregnant. You’re having a bunch of maiden voyages. Do you really want a pregnant woman climbing up and down the ship ladders?’ What the president said to me at the time was, ‘We’re buying your brain, not your belly.’ I kept them as a client for 43 years,” Yeninas said.
Pregnancy, as it turns out, did not slow down Yeninas, who gave herself maternity leaves when each of her two daughters were born of “24 hours — and they were both cesareans. When my second daughter was born, I wanted two phones in the hospital room — one for incoming calls and one for outgoing calls.”
Moving up the ladder
Yeninas was a one-woman shop for about two years. Today the agency, headquartered in Cranford, New Jersey, is a seven-person operation. All seven are women.
“I’ve employed men, and they’ve been terrific. Some of them don’t like working for a woman. That’s their problem, not mine. I happen to have an all-female staff now. It’s not a plan. It’s just the way it worked out,” she said.
“I found I could do as good of a job as the men — if not better. I have a lot of clients and a lot of long-term business that has allowed me to accept the marks of success from the male world,” Yeninas said. “It doesn’t matter if you wear a skirt or put your clothes on one leg at a time. You have to be valued for what you can do. Now I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to hire really good people. I owe a great deal to my clients, to my people who have worked for me and a little bit of credit to myself for having the moxie to go out and do it.”
For the record, Yeninas wears skirts. She always has.
“I learned how to climb up ship ladders in 4-inch heels — always wore a skirt. It wasn’t blue jeans days at work at that time, always a dress or a skirt. It’s a little old-fashioned, I guess, but I’m always dressed, as they say,” Yeninas said.
The Containerization & Intermodal Institute has been a client since 1985. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea awards dinner has been a client since 1980.
“It was really word of mouth. I considered events — anything you need to get to the customer — was all part of public relations. So I started to pursue them,” Yeninas explained. “When people were having events, they said, ‘It’s not a bad idea to have a woman do it. They know what kind of flowers we should have and what kind of menu we should have.’
“And so our business grew — writing speeches and doing the press releases, planning the events literally from soup to nuts. We caught on,” said Yeninas, who also was the executive director of the NY/NJ Foreign Freight Forwarders and Brokers Association for 18 years and spearheaded its annual dinner.
No more strippers
“When I started to do the Freight Forwarders dinner, their entertainment was a stripper. That’s a true story. The entertainment for the Freight Forwarders dinner and the Rudder dinner was a stripper. The year after I started working for them we were able to get Chubby Checker to be the entertainment,” Yeninas said.
Was there any backlash from conventiongoers who had been looking forward to a striptease?
“Yep, but they loved Chubby Checker. He kept his clothes on, thank God,” she quipped.
Yeninas has seen many other changes over her 45 years in business.
“When I started my company, there were American-flag liner companies. Now there about no American-flag companies, except for the Jones Act companies. There’s merger and acquisition, merger and acquisition,” she said. “Maersk Line is made up of at least eight companies that I can think of. That’s the way it became. It didn’t seem to make sense to these companies to have such a major investment in equipment and ships when some of the ships were half empty, some of the equipment was half used.
“It was good business, but it wasn’t really good business for the American flag. They were the most expensive ships to run because of the labor costs. And they would have gone out of business anyway, so it was a good idea to merge and acquire, merge and acquire,” Yeninas said.
Are the glory days of ocean shipping over?
“The glory days will never be over when 78% of the world is water. It’s the oldest form of transportation. And you’re not going to put 40-foot containers on an airplane and you’re not going to carry diamonds on a ship, so there’s room for everybody,” she said.
Yeninas does expect to see some port consolidation in the United States.
“I think we’re going to see a little more of what happened in the Pacific Northwest, where Tacoma and Seattle became one operating unit — separate brands but one operating unit. I don’t want to predict it, but it’s not unlikely that a Lauderdale and Miami might think it’s the thing to do,” she said. “Even Long Beach and Los Angeles, the two largest ports in this country, while they like their own brands, the ports sit side by side. Do they each need a port director? I don’t know.
“What about Oakland and San Francisco? Some seem natural. I don’t know whether natural means next year or 25 years from now, but it seems like it could happen. It’s happening all over in every industry,” Yeninas said.
While Yeninas does not publicly endorse the Jones Act, she does support it.
“I believe in the Jones Act because I believe in the American flag. I think that cabotage makes sense. Foreign-flag companies shouldn’t be allowed to call on San Francisco to carry cargo from San Francisco to Los Angeles or from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico. There should be some protection there,” she said. “The foreign-flagged ships are less expensive to operate than the American-flagged ships. We can’t give away everything.”
But Yeninas quickly added, “I also believe in foreign-flag shipping where it counts, where it matters.”
The ranks grow.
Yeninas said she began to see more women in the maritime industry in the 1980s — first in Europe and Asia. The Port of Hamburg’s PR director was female. The PR department at Evergreen’s headquarters in Taiwan primarily was made up of women.
“In the United States, it was a little slower. The men weren’t quick to accept the women here,” Yeninas said, noting that times have changed. “The United States is leading it now.
“Where you saw the women come in really was in the forwarding and brokering business because the level of the job at the time was more secretarial,” she explained. “Suddenly they were growing into becoming brokers or forwarders. They worked so closely with some of the men that their value was understood.”
Today Yeninas, a grandmother of seven, remains CEO of the company she founded, but she handed over the reins as president last year to Lisa LoManto Aurichio, who worked for BSY Associates in the 1990s, left and then returned about seven years ago.
“She came back and I saw a succession plan,” Yeninas said. “She’s like the chief operating officer and chief executive officer. She makes sure that the work for the clients gets done, and I make sure that the business stays alive.
“I have a really terrific team now,” she said, “and, as it turns out, all women.”
And Yeninas is not retiring from the team.
“I knew I could still do the work and was still relevant. The minute I’m not I’m outta here. I believe women stay relevant longer. Women are so used to multitasking. I know more women working in their 70s than I know men working in their 70s. Women just don’t give up easily,” she said.
“I’ve graduated to sneakers now, but I’m still wearing a skirt.”