January, 2021

Post Archives

Spotlight Series: Robert Palaima of DRS

Friday, January 22nd, 2021


Robert Palaima
President of Delaware River Stevedores and President and Chairman of the Chilean & American Chamber of Commerce

CACC: How did you begin your career in the stevedoring industry? Did you always envision yourself working in this field?

Robert Palaima (R.P.): No, not hardly. My academic background had me pointed toward diplomatic service, but life has a way of intervening in surprising ways. As it turns out, few professions have as transnational an outlook as stevedoring; the employment of longshoremen to handle cargo from around the world. I was rewarded with opportunities to travel to just about every continent, and to develop friendships with the best and the brightest in the maritime industry. I always found it intellectually stimulating to get to know a little something about the exigencies involved in the production and transport of so many different commodities from Chilean fruit and Ivorian cocoa to Brazilian pulp, Indonesian plywood, and steel from the Benelux countries. At the same time, there is something satisfying about the whole down to earth waterfront motif, and having the privilege of working with talented DRS managers and ILA union labor. I always advise younger people to keep an open mind about the career choices before them, and not to get too discouraged if their initial plans do not work out.

CACC: How does DRS support Chilean trade?

R.P.: For decades, Chilean fruit was a mainstay seasonal cargo for us. Although we were always engaged in several different commodities and cargo types in Camden, Philadelphia and Wilmington, there is no denying the seminal role that Chilean fresh fruit played in the history of our Port. With upwards of 60% of Chile’s exports in this field flowing to the US via the Delaware River, it was important to be involved. Carriers and ocean transport modes evolve, and while today DRS is not as physically engaged as we once were, we respect the positive impact this trade has on the overall health of the Port and on employment, so we support all efforts to have our region remain on top. It is also important to realize that trade opportunities with Chile exist beyond fruit per se. Minerals and rare earths from Chile represent important cargo opportunities, as well as more consumer-friendly products such as Chilean olive oil, salmon and, of course, wines.

CACC: What is your favorite part of working within the maritime trade industry?

R.P.: As I said before, I really take great pleasure in feeling so connected to the rest of the world. However, this COVID plagued period in particular has given me a new sense of pride in our industry. Despite risks and challenges, the Port did not miss a day in keeping vital supply chains going, and perhaps the public at large needs to better know that. There is no such thing as a remote vessel discharge, or remote warehousing, or rail or truck loading. People have to physically rise to the occasion and answer the bell. When I think of all the seafarers who remained true to their profession despite dangers and almost unconscionable restrictions on their shore leave and repatriation, I feel we owe them a debt of gratitude. I am proud to be associated with the region’s strong cadre of steamship agents, vocal Pilots, and organizations such as Seamen’s Church Institute, who have advocated on their behalf. When I think about the longshoremen, terminal workers and supervisors who have helped keep food the shelves, goods in the stores, and primary commodities for our factories and plants, I am thankful to their families, and grateful for how the Philadelphia Marine Trade Association and the International Longshoremen’s Association have cooperated to keep our port facilities functioning at a high level these past many months. I am also appreciative of all the behind-the-scenes efforts of the Maritime Exchange, PhilaPort, South Jersey Port Corporation and Diamond State to provide support.

CACC: What makes the CACC a special and valuable organization to you?

R.P.: In and of itself, the promotion of good relations between the Republic of Chile, a strong US ally, and our tristate region is important. Beyond the commercial ties, there are important cultural and political ties which bind two new world nations which share democratic and free market values, however they may be imperfectly implemented in either country from time to time. Similar to the Maritime Exchange in orientation, CACC is one of those rare organizations which bind Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in common purpose. Conversely, it is a vehicle by which Chile can access leadership in three important US states. When I think back to the poisoned grape scare of 1989, CACC played a pivotal role in allaying unfounded fears and helping to stabilize the trade. Speaking of trade, CACC was there to support major free trade agreements in 2004 and 2015. On a human level, I am also gratified by how CACC reacted to help after major earthquakes in Chile in 2010 and 2015. Also, on a very personal level, few public diplomacy events in Philadelphia were more successful than the far-reaching Viva Chile week in 2009. This exposed our region to Chilean arts, music, cuisine, literature, and even Mapuche culture in unprecedented ways. It manifested strong educational and financial ties, and even resulted in Chilean vintners becoming the first from the new world to receive the coveted Thomas Jefferson wine makers award. The person who really made this happen was one of CACC’s Directors, Ben Leavenworth, the highly respected Honorary Consul of Chile in our region. If you indulge me for a minute, what also makes CACC so valuable to me is the chance to work with fruit industry legends like Andy Economou and the tireless Miriam Borja-Fisher, and all of our Board members who contribute so much of their time, brain power, money and goodwill to our cause. I must also say that allowing Christina Lista to grow into such an effective Executive Director of CACC gives me great satisfaction.

CACC: As President and Chairman, what do you hope to see the CACC accomplish in the future?

R.P.: It may be hard to believe, but in 2011 Philadelphia came close to losing Chile’s Consulate. I like to think that the determined action taken by CACC at the time helped to save it. I am very pleased to have recently realized one of my strategic goals. The Ministerio De Relaciones Exteriores had ProChile actually open up a formal office in Philadelphia to help promote trade. This office is headed up by Alexander Philip Grabois, and I look forward to working with him to accomplish our mutual goals. Now with efficacious vaccines being administered, I look forward to a post-pandemic return to more normal times so that we could continue our educational efforts with effective fruit workshops, and with the promotion of Chile’s growing IT industry. I also look forward to the in-person return of two of our most celebrated events – the Taste of Chile Dinner in Wilmington and the Friend of Chile Award Luncheon in Philadelphia. Of course, our advocacy efforts never abate, whether they concern cold chain issues, USDA Marketing Order windows, methyl bromide regulations, or more recently, to protect free trade for one of my favorite fruits – blueberries. It is hard to believe an effort to impair our ability to consume blueberries year-round, but there you have it. Perhaps with an incoming President from Delaware, our region will receive more attention and a sympathetic ear.

Many thanks to Bob for so graciously participating in this week’s Spotlight Series.