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Obituaries

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W. Bruce Seaton: 1925–2015

Peninsula man was a pioneer in the global shipping industry

By DEIRDRE McCROHAN
dmccrohan@thearknewspaper.com

Wilbur Bruston "Bruce" Seaton Jr., a retired former head of shipping giant American President Lines who lived in Belvedere and Tiburon for many years, died Dec. 26, 2015, at Marin General Hospital after a short illness. He was 90.
Mr. Seaton's financial career started in the oil industry. He worked for Douglas Oil and Occidental Petroleum in Los Angeles before joining Natomas Company of San Francisco, the big oil company that owned American President Lines — now called APL — as chief financial officer.
In 1977, Natomas named him head of APL, which was founded in 1848 as Pacific Mail Steamship Company and remains the oldest continuously operating steamship company in the U.S. Mr. Seaton began to focus APL on trans-Pacific routes, pioneering intermodal service, or using ships, trucks and trains under a single flagship brand to transport shipping containers. The company's LinerTrain, started in 1979, was the first dedicated transcontinental service linking port cities in the U.S., connecting New York to Los Angeles.
When parent company Natomas merged with Diamond Shamrock Corporation in 1983 in a $1.3 billion deal, American President Lines was spun off as an independent company, American President Companies, and listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Mr. Seton was named chairman and CEO, a position he held until he retired in January 1992. During that time he pioneered the use of ultrawide or "post-Panamax" container ships, those too large to fit through the Panama Canal, as well as "stacktrains," where rail cars were built with a well that allowed a second container to be stacked on top.
"He was a classic industrialist who moved from the oil to the shipping business and took the best practices from the former with him — and he was willing to take risks," said his stepson Rick Barbaria, an executive who worked for the same company for 33 years, but not at the same time as Mr. Seaton.
"Bruce came from the oil industry," said Tim Rhein, who served as president, CEO and eventually chairman of the board of directors of APL from 1995 to 1998. "He was different. He didn't grow up in the shipping industry and didn't have any bad habits. He knew what was right with the shipping industry and what was wrong with it. He took a company that was nearly 100 years old — sleepy, old-fashioned, and not a leader in any sense — and he transformed it into the premier shipping line of the 1980s and 1990s. He brought in experts in technology, systems, logistics, marketing. He brought in railroad people and lawyers. It was quite a thing to witness."
When Mr. Seaton took the lead, APL sold off its three passenger ships, Rhein said. Mr. Seaton had new container ships built, he purchased and had new inland railroad terminals built, and he introduced the use of the double-stack trains.
The ultrawide ships Mr. Seaton commissioned had better stability and better fuel efficiency. The fact that they couldn't fit through the chutes of the Panama Canal wasn't seen as an obstacle: Mr. Seaton worked with railroad companies to develop the domestic rail infrastructure to move more and more containers off ships and onto transcontinental freight trains, which in turn carried them to major metropolitan areas and inland destinations.
"The economies of that were fantastic," Rhein said. "It was much faster and cheaper to not have to go through the Panama Canal. It was very revolutionary."
At the same time, Rhein said, Mr. Seaton was not a dynamic personality.
"He was almost shy," he said. "But he was very intelligent, very kind, very good to his employees. We were able to attract the best people in the industry. Those people brought a lot of expertise and knowledge with them."
In 1988, Gartner Group Inc. named Mr. Seaton the recipient of its Excellence in Technology Award.
The United Seamen's Service presented him with its 1989 Admiral of the Ocean Sea award for his contributions to advancing the role of the U.S. in ocean shipping and the American seafaring community.
The Containerization and Intermodal Institute honored him with its Connie Award, given to maritime executives who have had a significant influence on containerization in world trade and transportation.
Born in Philadelphia to Wilbur and Elizabeth Seaton, Mr. Seaton graduated high school in Merchantville, N.J., and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war, he attended the University of California at Los Angeles and graduated in 1949 with a bachelor's degree in business administration. While still in school, he qualified as a certified public accountant.
He moved to Belvedere in 1974 after his marriage. He and his wife, Joyce, moved to Tiburon about five years ago.
After his retirement, he took up tennis and played regularly with the senior men's group at Belvedere Tennis Club, and he was a member of the San Francisco Yacht Club. He served as chairman of the United Way of the Bay Area from 1994 to 1996 and was a two-term chair of UCLA's board of visitors. He served on the governing board of Marin General Hospital from 1997 to 2004.
In addition to his wife of 41 years, Joyce Seaton of Tiburon, and his stepson Rick Barbaria of Tiburon, Mr. Seaton is survived by two nephews, Phil Seaton of Memphis, Tenn., and Joseph Deacon of Winfield, W. Va.; three nieces, Penny Swan of Charleston, W. Va., Joanna Greene of Evanston, Ill., and Patsy Homberg of Charleston, W. Va.; and stepsons Fred Barbaria of Santa Barbara and Greg Barbaria of Alsea, Ore.
His siblings, David, Joseph and Patricia, predeceased him.
Private services have been held.

(Published January 13, 2016)

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