Volume 16 • Issue 51 | May 14 - 20, 2004

Keeping their heritage alive

Two men revive ferry company founded by their grandfathers

By John Arbucci

Downtown Express photo by Aaron M. Cohen

Kevin Moran, left, vice president and JB Meyer, president of the Circle Line Statue of Liberty Ferry in their office at 17 Battery Place.

At first, it seemed difficult enough. Take two men who barely know each other, put them in charge of a family-owned business, and have them breathe new life into a company that hadn’t changed much in 50 years.

As it turned out, that was the easy part. Within a month of those two men assuming control of the company, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center. The fallout from that horrible day put the company, Circle Line Statue of Liberty Ferry, temporarily out of business. And the two men, Kevin Moran and J.B. Meyer, found themselves in a situation they had never imagined. Instead of managing gradual change, they scrambled to keep the company going.

“The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island were shut down,” Meyer said, “and that was the only business we did.”

Circle Line Statue of Liberty Ferry was founded in 1953 by five men of Irish descent who knew each other from working in and around New York Harbor. For almost half a century, the company did one thing. It took tourists from downtown Manhattan to the Statue of Liberty and back again. (There is another Circle Line, at Pier 83 on West 43rd Street, which runs cruises around Manhattan. The same five men also founded that company, which they sold to investors in 1981.)

For fifty years, the men and their descendents owned and managed Circle Line Statue of Liberty Ferry. While the families held onto their shares in the company, many descendents of the five founders never worked there.

Kevin Moran, 45, for instance, never did. J.B. Meyer, 42 only worked there as a student. After college, he didn’t see Circle Line as a viable career option.

“It wasn’t enough to make a living and have kids,” he said.

Instead, the men, both grandsons of founders, worked far from the water.

Moran was a consultant, guiding companies through the intricacies of government contracts. Meyer worked on Wall Street, eventually becoming a global director at Deutsche Bank.

When they were first asked to get involved in Circle Line, their obligation with the company was supposed to be minimal — to fill two slots on the board of directors. At the company’s annual meeting in April 2001, they were nominated and voted in, said Moran. It was the first time the two met.

A month later, the company was looking for a new president. Moran was approached. Living in a Virginia suburb 30 miles west of Washington, D.C., Moran said his response was, “‘I would never move back to New York.’”

Moran’s consulting business had already required him to move his family from their home in Clifton, Virginia to Long Island and back again. He didn’t want to move them a third time.

Then the board members made an unusual suggestion. They proposed that Moran and Meyer take the job together, and work as partners. They started kicking around the idea.

They both felt an obligation to this family business. It was why they had joined the board in the first place. Moran is the oldest of seven children, and his family’s shares in Circle Line were his mother’s only income. Meyer’s mother, who passed away in November 2000, had been a board member. He felt responsible for protecting his family’s interests.

Recalling his thinking at the time, Meyer said, “I wasn’t going to do it if Kevin wasn’t going to do it. I thought it required the two of us as a team.”

With Meyer as his partner, Moran and his family could stay in Virginia. He would work four days a week in New York and one day a week with the company’s lawyers and advisors in Washington, D.C.

“I talked it over with my wife,” Moran said, “and we agreed to give it a go.”
Moran became company president in August 2001, with the understanding that Meyer would join the company full-time as vice president in 2002. Until then, the two would work together over the phone.

A month later, the planes hit the towers.

The company had no place to land its boats for three months. The National Guard occupied Battery Park, the location of Circle Line’s landing site in downtown Manhattan. The company’s other landing site, in Liberty State Park in New Jersey, was turned into a family counseling center for relatives of the 9/11 victims.

Although Circle Line had no income for three months, the company was managed like the family business that it is.

“We didn’t lay anybody off after 9/11,” Moran said.

Even when Circle Line regained access to their Battery Park landing, the company still had a huge problem. The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island remained closed.

“We had to think real quickly about diversifying,” Meyer said. “We decided to initiate harbor cruises from lower Manhattan because tourists were still coming down here.”

The next thing they did was enter the chartered boat business. They hired a salesperson to market their existing fleet for corporate outings and cocktail hours. Meyer said that while the chartered cruises did “quite well,” there was one basic problem. Their existing fleet had been designed to take large numbers of people to the Statue of Liberty — not for hosting events for upscale customers. To be a serious player in the charter business, they were going to have to take a serious financial risk.

“We decided just to go all out and design a boat that we thought would be like nothing else in the harbor,” Moran said. “And that’s where Zephyr came from.”

Zephyr is a $7 million luxury catamaran that can hold up to 600 passengers and go as fast as 35 miles an hour. Meyer said the boat has 10 flat-screen TVs, and can host everything from business meetings to bar mitzvahs. The harbor cruises leave from South Street Seaport daily. They also acquired a high-speed thrill-ride boat that they’ve christened the Shark. It runs out of the South Street Seaport.

And the company is starting to bid on the kinds of jobs not ordinarily associated with Circle Line.

“We’re getting into the commuter business, which we haven’t done before,” said Meyer. They have made bids to run a ferry service between a New Jersey suburb and downtown Manhattan, and another service to LaGuardia Airport.

For guys running a company that lost 45% of its business between 2000 and 2003, Moran and Meyer sound remarkably upbeat.

“We’re real excited about the future here,” Moran said.

They have good reason to be. Despite business being down, they managed to turn a profit last year. This year promises to be even better.

“With the statue’s reopening, there are people coming down here,” Moran said. “The phones are ringing. We’re real optimistic about this year and next year.”

And the two men have forged a bond.

“Some people think we’re brothers,” Moran said.

In addition to Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island tours, Circle Line also offers:

The Zephyr
A luxury harbor cruise, leaves from Pier 16, South Street Seaport
Daily, from 10:30 a.m. Adult $16 and Children $10.
Passes sites such as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.
Also a close up view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

“High Speed Thrill Ride Aboard the Shark”
Will leave from Pier 16, South Street Seaport
Daily, from noon beginning Memorial Day weekend

Special Cruise
“Happy Hour on the Harbor”
Leaves from Pier 16, South Street Seaport
Thursday nights beginning in late June. $16

For information on all boats and tours call 212-269-5755 www.circlelinedowntown.com

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