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Blessey Marine takes students inside shipping industry

December 02, 2016 11:14 AM

What started as a two-person operation in Walter Blessey’s garage has grown over almost four decades into a 750-employee company that is one of the largest haulers of petroleum products, alcohols, lubricating oils, residual fuels and other products on the Mississippi River and inland waterways across the eastern United States.

A civil engineer and Tulane Law School-trained lawyer, Blessey (E ’67, L ’70) also is a savvy businessman who easily navigates political channels to advocate for his industry.

In early November, Blessey and his executive team at Blessey Marine took Tulane maritime law students on an insider’s tour of the breadth of their work, from vessel purchasing to risk management and much more. 

“We wanted to stress the role of an in-house counsel as sort of a quarterback dealing with all of the departments,” said Blessey, chairman and chief executive officer of the company that bears his name.

Even after the session was finished, students spent another hour asking questions of Beau Bethune (MBA ’99), general counsel and vice president of corporate affairs. 

The visit was a foray into establishing another collaboration in Tulane Law’s growing array of opportunities for students to learn the challenges facing in-house lawyers in complex and highly regulated industries. Examples: A three-year-old partnership with Valero Energy Corp. gives students insight into the energy sector through visits each semester to the company’s St. Charles Refinery, one of the world’s largest and most-sophisticated plants of its kind. And a new corporate counsel externship is designed to provide exposure to a variety of business settings.

Blessey offered students numerous examples of his legal training playing a critical part of building his business, which has its headquarters in Harahan, Louisiana. For instance, when a major firm broke a contract with his company, and his attorneys said he didn’t have a case, Blessey was able to show why he did — and secured a $2.4-million settlement. A different dispute with an international bank over fiduciary duty resulted in a $10 million settlement.

“I do not think that we could have survived these battles if I did not have the legal foundation that I received at Tulane Law School,” Blessey said in an interview.

“In my mind it is this simple. If you are wrong, pay up. If you are right, fight like hell and do not be intimidated.”

Students also heard from Clark Todd, the company’s president and chief operating officer; Randy Adams, vice president of corporate security; and Ray Schaefer, vice president of risk management and benefits claims. Executive team members each explained their daily interactions with the legal department on issues including hiring, human resources questions, contract drafting, financing, managing outside counsel and dealing with Homeland Security.

Blessey also shared stories about inviting senators, members of Congress and governors of states where his tugs and barges operate to visit the region so they could understand the impact of regulations on the industry.

“Maritime law is a subject that depends very much on commercial relationships, and expertise in the area is much assisted by a deep understanding of how commercial maritime enterprises work, as Beau Bethune explained very clearly to our students,” said Professor Martin Davies, director of Tulane’s Maritime Law Center. “The Blessey visit helped our students see some of that deep background that helps them understand the commercial imperatives that drive the maritime law that they study in class.”   

Andres Mejia (L ’17) of Panama, who’s pursuing an LLM in admiralty and maritime law, said the presentations showed the advantages of being an in-house lawyer, such as the opportunity to practice different areas of law. He also saw “the importance of having all the departments of a corporation connected to the legal department,” he said.

But he was most impressed by Blessey’s focus on family even as the company has grown: “I dare to say that this is the secret of his success: keeping his company as a family business.”