Jenkins manages company in man-oriented cargo business

Published 10:30 pm Saturday, February 23, 2008

Her red lipstick and two-inch heels look strangely out of place among the steel and testosterone. But don’t tell her that. Carla Jenkins is as much at home on a tugboat as any man — maybe more.

As general manager of Vidalia Dock and Storage Co., there’s plenty of opportunities for Jenkins to be the sole woman in the male-dominated world of river boats. But after 28 years in the business, it’s not something she thinks about very often. Boats and rivers are all she knows and that’s just fine with her.

“I grew up in this business and I love it,” she said. “I love the river, and I love working on it. Just look at that river, who wouldn’t want to be out here all day.”

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Jenkins spends most of her days in her small office overlooking the Mississippi River. From there she can run the day-to-day operations of her company and take in the one-of-a-kind river views at the same time. For Jenkins, it’s a perfect combination.

On any given day, Jenkins handles a variety of tasks most would categorize as manly. She may be overseeing a tug boat repair, dispatching boats, ordering parts or managing crew changes. But for Jenkins, it’s all just part of the job.

“As a woman, you have to be able to roll with the punches out here,” she said.

If her handshake is any indication, Jenkins can roll with any punches that come her way. Her grip is firm enough to impress even the manliest of the opposite sex.

“You have to be a little tough to do what I do. Traditionally, this is a very man-oriented place, but it’s all I know.”

Most of what Jenkins and her company does goes unnoticed by the majority of people. Their facility is tucked away just north of the bridge on the Louisiana side of the river. There’s a few pieces of heavy equipment, a dry dock and of course, tug boats. But other than Jenkins’ office, there’s very few buildings or other signs of a thriving business.

Her facility may go unnoticed, but without it, river commerce in this area would suffer. Jenkins and her crew provide tug services for area river facilities 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They also service grain elevators. Vidalia Dock and Storage also has boats that work on nearby rivers and travel as far west as Shreveport and as far north as Monroe.

“Most of what we do is to take barges offline and hold them in our fleet or take them to the Natchez port to be loaded or unloaded,” she said. “When they are finished with them at the port, we keep them in our fleet until the tug boat comes back through again.”

“For example, you might see a boat pushing a long line of barges, but only two or three of those may be designated for this area,” Jenkins said. “So we go out with our boats and pull those barges off and deliver them to the port.”

Jenkins’ company also handles crew changes for the river boats. Typically, the boats will have crews on board for 30 days, she said. If those shifts end while the boats are in Natchez, Vidalia Dock and Storage will change crews for customers.

Jenkins and her crew have also pitched in to help rescue grounded boats and barges. On more than one occasion, they have caught loose barges or boats before they hit the bridge or casino. Through the years, she’s handled a lot of difficult situations, all without breaking a nail or smudging her makeup.

Jenkins is proud of the work her company does, but is quick to give credit to her crew members.

“Our crews do a great job and they really don’t get the recognition they deserve,” she said. “We have some great boat pilots here. Piloting the river is not like driving a truck. You can make a maneuver 100 times in a truck and get the same result. On the river, you can do something 100 times and get 100 different results.”

Those same crew members are quick to point out that Jenkins is a great boss. They also said that they don’t find it strange to work for a woman in a business like this.

“It’s not odd to me having her here,” veteran crew member Michael Melton said. “She does a fine job. I’ve been here for 20 years and this is what I know, it’s what I do.”

Vidalia Dock and Storage was started by Jenkins’ parents in 1956 and by the time she was in junior high, Jenkins had learned how to dispatch boats. She grew up watching her dad pilot boats and learned the business first hand.

“I spent a tremendous part of my life growing up on the river,” she said. “This is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

The company started small — her mother worked as secretary and dispatcher while her father was on the water. Her dad even built one of the company’s tug boats that is in service today. That boat is named after her mother, Bettye M. Jenkins.

It’s a family business and Jenkins is hopeful that it will stay that way in the future. She loves the river, loves working on it, and has no plans of leaving any time soon.

“As long as the river is here, people will use it,” she said. “There will be always be cargo to move around.”