Truck Driver, Entrepreneur, Billionaire
In 2012, I earned my LLM in Maritime Law and during that time I learned of a man who revolutionized the Maritime Industry and International trade – Malcolm McLean. An American truck driver who became a businessman when he saw the need. He developed the modern intermodal shipping container and also developed a way for the containers to be stacked on top of one another. That was the origin of the modern-day shipping container.
McLean’s development of standardized shipping containers significantly reduced the cost of transporting cargo across the world. Lower shipping costs significantly boosted international trade which, in turn, helped to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. McLean’s “containerization” remains a vital pillar of our interconnected global economy today.
Before McLean developed the standardized shipping container, nearly all the world’s cargo was transported in a diverse assortment of barrels, boxes, bags, crates, and drums. A typical ship in the pre-container era contained as many as 200,000 individual pieces of cargo that were loaded onto the ship by hand. The time it took to load and unload the cargo often equaled the time that the ship needed to sail between ports. That inefficiency contributed to keeping the cost of shipping very high. This is where McLean enters our story.
Malcolm (later Malcom) McLean was born in November 1913 in Maxton, North Carolina. When he graduated from high school in 1935, his family lacked the necessary funds to send him to college. Instead, he began working as a driver for his siblings’ trucking company.
In 1937, McLean made a routine delivery of cotton bales to a port in North Carolina for shipment to New Jersey. As McLean couldn’t leave until his cargo had been loaded onto the ship, he sat for hours watching dozens of dockhands load thousands of small packages onto the ship. McLean realized that the current loading process wasted enormous amounts of time and money, and he began to wonder if there could be a more productive alternative.
In 1952, McLean thought of loading entire trucks onboard a ship to be transported along the American Atlantic coast (i.e., from North Carolina to New York). Although this idea would dramatically reduce loading times, he soon realized that these “trailer ships” would not be very efficient due to the large amount of wasted cargo space.
McLean modified his original design so that just the containers—and not the trucks’ chassis—were loaded onto the ship. He also developed a way for the containers to be stacked on top of one another. That was the origin of the modern-day shipping container.
An Ambitious Entrepreneur
In 1969, McLean sold his first shipping company for $530 million ($3.8 billion in today’s money) and went on to start a string of other business ventures. Most notably, he purchased the shipping company United States Lines in 1978 and built a fleet of 4,400 container ships. McLean continued to refine his shipping containers for the rest of his life. He died at the age of 87 in Manhattan in 2001. When he died, Forbes Magazine called McLean “one of the few men who changed the world.”
In 1956, hand-loading cargo onto a ship in a U.S. port cost $5.86 per ton ($55.58 in today’s money). By 2006, shipping containers reduced that price to just 16 cents per ton ($0.21 in today’s money). HumanProgress’s Board Member Matt Ridley has noted that the development of containerization in the 1950s made the loading and unloading of ships roughly twenty-times as fast and thereby dramatically lowered the cost of trade.
This dramatic reduction in shipping costs boosted international trade. That means that consumers now have access to goods from around the world at a price lower than was previously thought possible. Similarly, reduced shipping costs have helped to boost the living standards of hundreds of millions of people in export-oriented developing countries over the last few decades.Without McLean’s containers, global trade and the maritime industry would be far below the level that it is today, and nearly all of us would be less well-off.
From truck driver to billionare, Malcolm McLean never gave up. He is an example to never give up on your dream if you truly believe in it, then make it your passion. Become obsessed in its success and obsessed in your clients success. I truly believe that is what Goldfinch Winslow has that separates it from other law firms. It is easy to be obsessed in yourself, but to be obsessed in our client’s needs is what drives our success.