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Charlotte Amalie
Monday, August 8, 2022
HomeNewsArchives@Work: Meme St. John Moves the World, One Shipment at a Time

@Work: Meme St. John Moves the World, One Shipment at a Time

After 30 years in the business on St. Thomas, Meme St. John says, “I’m kind of like the old lady of shipping here.”

Maybe, but her energy level is more like a teenager’s.

Currently working for Crowley Caribbean Services and also running her own related business, International Logistics Solutions, St. John has no time for boredom. In a warehouse across from the airport, perched on a folding chair, she talked recently about her work and why she enjoys it so much. Every few minutes, without missing a beat, she’d stop to take care of a customer or answer a question from staff.

It being towards the end of the week, the warehouse had been cleared of much of the merchandise that had come in over the previous weekend, but it still held a shipment of oversized tires, some small tanks for the Water and Power Authority, stacks of windows for the National Park Service on St. John, a load of office equipment boxed and concealed under a tarp, assorted cartons, and a few odds and ends.

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The transport of goods is important anywhere, but on an island, St. John noted, “it’s a major thing, it’s a vital service.” Regular customers include funeral homes bringing in caskets and the hospital bringing in medical supplies.

“If merchandise doesn’t arrive on time, it can be catastrophic,” she said.

Some things are shipped by air, but size, weight and expense favor sea transport. Containers are either 20 or 40 feet long. An LTL or “Less than Trailer Load” is a container that is not filled by a single customer; it holds goods for multiple clients.

Much of the business involves importers and retailers, but there are also individual customers, such as stateside professionals moving to the territory or island families relocating to the mainland. Sometimes there’s merchandise going to Europe or Asia. Once a year, a local school has to return computers to Virginia. There’s almost no one who doesn’t move something on- or off-island at some point.

“We can take care of moving pretty much anything in the world,” St. John said.

Originally from Texas, St. John was a child when her family moved to the Virgin Islands.

“I’ve lived here since I was 9 years old,” she said. She attended Sts. Peter and Paul School, then went to Texas A&M to earn a bachelor’s degree in international marketing. She then returned to St. Thomas.

Divorced, she has four children: Luke, 24, and Jeanna, 23, who work in the business; Amanda, 18, who is attending Seaton Hall; and Franzso, 18, a native of Haiti who she helped raise and who attends Antilles School.

The surroundings may not be glamorous, but for St. John the transport business “is the most fascinating career. I don’t have one single day that’s exactly the same.”

Success “takes the ability to multi-task,” she said. Some accounting knowledge is also helpful, as are so-called “people skills.” But mainly, it’s her talent for keeping numerous “balls in the air” at any given time.

“You have to be detail-orientated” and meticulous about filling out and reading manifests and bills of lading. One missing phrase and a shipment meant for Tortola can end up on St. Thomas.

One thing she’s learned is that if there is bad news, deliver it as soon as possible. If a snow storm in Chicago prevented a piano from making it to a Florida port and the instrument missed the boat that’s arriving on St. Thomas this week, let the customer know that before he comes to the warehouse to pick it up. And never lie about a delivery date.

Whether coming in and going out, items are subject to Customs regulations and inspections. “We offer Customs clearance and delivery” from the warehouse to the customer, St. John said. But many customers handle those things themselves.

“They (Customs officers) do come over and they do look at things” periodically, St. John said, usually checking for where an item was made to see whether or not the owner must pay duty on it. A different branch of Customs also monitors shipments for drugs and other contraband; an officer with a dog makes unannounced visits to inspect and smell cargo.

At Crowley, shipments arrive from Puerto Rico on Saturdays; those from Miami on Sundays. The goal is to have them all off-loaded by the beginning of the week and to have everything out of the warehouse before the next container arrives.

Shipping out is generally harder than shipping in, she said, because of Customs regulations. It is also far less frequent, presumably because most of the goods are consumed on-island. “We only do north-bound once a month.”

St. John works with three full-time staff and two or three part-time employees. But she said there are also a lot of opportunities in related businesses, including trucking and delivery, buyers and Customs clearance.

“There is room in this industry, ” St. John said, adding that she encourages Virgin Islanders to get into the business. “There’s always room for another person.”

St. John took her first job in the industry in 1984 and she says she doesn’t regret it.

“It’s interesting and it’s important,” she said. “What more could you want from a job?”

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