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In Praise of the Unbalanced Life

Dorothy Julian, CEO, single mother, and tugboat-company owner, is never -- literally never -- off the job. Which, thank you very much, is just the way she wants it.
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Dorothy Julian's phone is ringing. The phone is a mobile, a four-year-old Motorola equipped with Nextel two-way radio service, an oversize antenna, and two lines backed up by voice mail. It's one of five phones owned by her company, Henry Marine Service Inc. -- one for her and one in both the wheelhouse and the engine room of two tugboats that ply the reaches of New York harbor around the clock. Tugboats pushing barges loaded with gravel, oil, garbage, and -- since September 11 -- debris from the World Trade Center. The phone needs no caller ID. Julian takes all calls, anytime, anywhere. She takes business calls at the grocery store, at the dinner table, aboard the WaveRunner that she and the children ride across Raritan Bay, and in the middle of the night. She takes family calls during tense negotiations with a customer, on the water with her crew, and while inspecting a new boat in a New Orleans shipyard. There is no such thing as an intrusion. Her children grew up knowing that. When the phone rang, Mom worked. It's a fistful of phone, this one -- heavy and fat, sheathed in leather like a police radio. It's an extension of her arm, Julian says. The weight is a comfort; she'd lose the phone in her bag if it weren't so heavy. The phone is no burden. She takes it everywhere. It carries her business.


Dorothy Julian's phone rings at the bar. The bar is the Tottenville Inn, a quiet watering hole at the mouth of the Arthur Kill, a channel coursing between Staten Island and New Jersey. The inn is a maritime bar, where I hope to buy Julian lunch. I find her wearing jeans, a black sweater, and bright red lipstick, sharing a noontime drink with four crewmen heading home after a week on the water. Beer for them. A chocolate martini for her. A night off in the middle of the day for everyone -- a day defined by the ebb and flow of the New York harbor tides, the ever-changing water levels that dictate delivery times for shallow-draft tugboats in narrow marine channels. Tugboats charge by the hour and work by the tides, sometimes changing customers as quickly as they tie up to a new barge. When Julian has a customer on the line, she needs to know where the boats are. She phones her captains on the water. This bar, like everywhere, is her office.


"She's not obsessed with her business. It's part of the ebb and flow of her daily life."


Julian hands me the phone. "Meet my banker," she says, and orders another martini. Nancy Reynolds works for Middlesex Bank & Trust Co. in Newton, Mass., an odd partner for a tugboat-company owner in New York City. Julian worked with Reynolds in 1999, when she bought the Dorothy J from a Boston broker, and tracked her from one lender to the next when she needed another boat. Julian sticks with good bankers as she sticks with good crewmen. Reynolds, who called to confirm that $750,000 was ready to transfer, knows all about Julian's roaming office. When the two women first met in person, three years ago on Staten Island, Reynolds felt something that Julian's employees had long since learned. She had come to do business, but she was invited into the family. Julian brought her mother to lunch. Business conversation eddied around family stories and calls from Julian's three children. Short discussions with boat crews interrupted negotiations. "It seemed as natural as breathing for her to keep in touch with her captains," Reynolds remembers. "She's not obsessed with her business. It's part of the ebb and flow of her daily life."


Dorothy Julian's phone rings at home, which is where the business started. Home is a four-family Victorian that stood alone for 90 years before a subdivision surrounded it. She owns the whole building today. In 1989 she was a tenant, a mother home alone with her children, looking to build a business. Her youngest child, Rachel Marie, was a newborn. Mom talked on the phone and rocked the cradle with her foot. "My name is Dorothy," she would tell prospective customers. "And I have a tugboat." In addition to her own children, she raised her sister's three kids. As Julian learned the business, one tug grew into three piloted off and on by her business partner and longtime boyfriend, Bob Henry. They were married briefly and, in 1997, divorced. Bob got the boats they had named for their daughters, Rachel Marie, now 12, and Shelby Rose, 14. Dorothy kept the Robert IV, named for their oldest child, 17, and she got the name of the business, Henry Marine. She began to expand again.


The phone rang and rang. It started ringing after the children were asleep at night. The city's Department of Transportation would call at 2 a.m. to ask Julian to move a barge. She got up and made the calls. As the children grew older, Julian practically raised them in the swimming pool in her backyard. When the phone rang, she herded the little ones indoors before she picked up the call. Later she taught them never to touch the cordless phone on its ledge by the pool. Three years ago she installed a hot tub 10 feet from her back door. When she has a tough call to make, she crawls into the warm water, relaxes for 10 minutes, and dials the Motorola. Not that she doesn't have an office. In a small room hung with paintings of her boats, she maintains a desk with a phone, a fax, and a computer. There she assesses likely competing bidders, considers the boats they might use, analyzes their likely crew and fuel costs, and figures how to undercut them. "Bidding is an art," she tells me. "But marketing is just working the phone. I'm really a marketer."


In the bar, Julian's phone rings again. The crew is on beer number three. The conversation turns to navigating without the landmark of the World Trade Center, which served as a beacon for captains from New Jersey to Long Island. Julian hands me the phone. "Meet my lawyer," she says. Edward Kenny wants to discuss incorporation papers. He has little time for reporters. He says he'll call her back. An associate of Kenny's, James Mercante, a partner at Rubin, Fiorella & Friedman, explains later that Julian is incorporating each of her boats separately. If one boat has an accident, liability may be limited to that vessel. Julian has seen tugboat accidents become nightmares. In 1999, when one of her own boats was not running, Julian called Bob Henry to tow a dredge in from Fire Island during "unfavorable weather conditions." Henry is the first to say that he has taken some risky jobs that no one else wanted. That was one of those jobs. The towing cable parted and the dredge ran aground on a beach in Far Rockaway, Queens. Neither party had the right insurance; each had relied on the other's coverage. Bob Henry's company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He borrowed against his boats to pay the claims, and Julian ate the other costs. Both businesses survived and no boats were seized.


Julian's phone rings on the deck of the Robert IV. The gang has migrated down the block from the bar to inspect the Robert in dry dock. The crew is still on the clock, painting the hull and installing new winches, cables, and fenders. A job that Julian thought would take three weeks will take three months. The caller is Bob Henry, who has a question about their youngest, Rachel Marie. Julian rolls her eyes, turns her back on the crew, and looks over the stern of the boat toward the harbor. I can't hear what she says, but I know she can see the Shelby Rose, her first tugboat and one of two she surrendered in the divorce settlement, docked a hundred yards away. Julian doesn't mourn the marriage, but she covets that boat. Small, nimble, and underpowered for many jobs, the 480-horsepower tug burns little fuel and draws only five feet of water, two feet less than most small tugs. With the light, maneuverable Shelby Rose, Henry Marine was built on doing jobs that bigger vessels couldn't do.


Julian hangs up the phone. She grabs a beer and gestures expansively at the men assembled on deck. "These are my guys," she says. "Do you know why I want to expand? Because I have so many good guys working for me." Some 35 men and one woman work regularly for Henry Marine as captains, engineers, and deck hands, most of them one week on board and one week off. Payroll exceeds $50,000 every two weeks. Julian expects loyalty, but she offers it as well. Her business is like an extended family, one that pitches in on big projects beyond the workplace. When Timothy Pisculli, one of the captains, was trying to father a second child, his wife faxed Julian her fertility timetable every month. Julian wrote the tugboat schedule to give Pisculli the crucial days off.


Sometimes the phone rings too much. At least too much for Rachel Marie. Rachel lost patience with her mother the week after September 11. Julian had mobilized her boats to help the relief effort. Like most tug owners, she went to work hauling debris from the site of the attacks to the Fresh Kills landfill before she knew who would pay her bills. At the same time, she chartered two more tugs to keep up with the rest of her jobs. Rachel began leaving Post-it notes for her mother on the Motorola, the kitchen phone, the computer screen, even the bathroom mirror. "Set office hours," they read. "Mom, set office hours." Julian told her children to remember where the shopping money comes from. Then she asked her lawyer to make Rachel a vice-president of the new companies that own her boats. "Mom says I'm the most rational one," says Rachel. Her mother retorts, "She has the business mind."


Dorothy Julian's phone rings at the bar. The crew has gone home. Night has fallen. Julian and I are having dinner. The caller is a captain, one hired since September 11, announcing a surprise inspection by the U.S. Coast Guard. "So let them board," says Julian. "Everything is shipshape on all of my boats." She hangs up and laughs. "These guys have to learn that I am not afraid of the Coast Guard," she says. "I run this business right. Ask anybody in the harbor. They will tell you that Dorothy Julian has a great reputation."


ALL HANDS ON DECK: Julian's children know where to find her: working or on her cell phone. "Mom, set office hours," one pleaded.


For a few months now, when the phone rings, sometimes I'm on the other end of the line -- the reporter calling with questions. Wouldn't it be better if Julian could separate her business and private life, at least a bit? I ask. If she could turn her phone off at 5 p.m., or 8, or on Sundays? Most people seek balance in life, I remind her, company owners included. Maybe company owners especially. Wouldn't she like to set some boundaries and turn off the business once in a while? Julian says no. But she is patient with me. We've been over this before. "When I was starting out," she tells me, "I needed a job I could do at home. I had six kids. I wasn't capable of going out to work." Some people learn to juggle demanding home and work lives. Their boundaries are their salvation. Julian chose to integrate work and home. She invited the business into her family, if only by phone most of the time. She extended her family into a tough and impersonal business, adopting captains and crew as brothers and uncles. She blurred a boundary where most CEOs draw a line.


Eventually, I quit asking. Julian isn't going to speculate about what she missed by melding home and work. She got the life she wanted by doing what she had to do: embracing opportunities and meeting challenges as they arose. Henry Marine was not hatched at a management seminar or fashioned after an M.B.A. case study. It was an intuitive labor of love, a success born of old-fashioned business sense and a natural feel for family ties. Julian grew a business. In the process, she groomed it to live under her roof. But she also reconciled herself to its demands. She embraced tides and children alike as relentless forces of nature. She accepted the hazards of rough weather and capricious fuel prices just as she endured the pains of teething and the angst of puberty. She invited the business in. She is happy to take its calls. She would never send it away. Yes, her business is always with her, but that's where she wants it. Like her family, her business sustains her. It is no burden. She takes it everywhere. The weight is a comfort.


Ron Feemster lives in New York City. His office is in his home. He turns his phone off when he sleeps. It's not a cell phone.


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Last updated: Jun 1, 2002




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