Women in Shipping with Laura Markham

For many of the women we’ve interviewed so far as part of this series, being a woman in maritime already comes with its own challenges. In this interview, join INFORM’s Matthew Wittemeier as he chats with Laura Markham, Vice President, IT Operations at Maher Terminals. Laura takes us through what it was like being a woman in IT and rising to the top.

An Introduction

MW: Laura, welcome.

LM: Thank you for having me.

MW: My pleasure. I always find people are best at introducing themselves. So would you mind giving yourself a quick intro?

LM: Sure. My name is Laura Markham. I’m the vice president of IT for Maher Terminals in New Jersey. I have been in the industry since around 2001. I hate to say that out loud because it seems much longer than it feels. I started with what was P&O Ports North America, which later became Ports America. I was there for quite some time. My last role there was CIO, and then I moved to Maher Terminals in 2010.

MW: How did you start working in maritime? What attracted you to the industry?

LM: It’s interesting. When I saw that question, I started to ask myself that, and I realized I wasn’t attracted to the industry. The industry attracted me. I fell into it. I was looking for a new job, and I answered an ad, went for an interview, and got the job. I didn’t really have any clue what this industry was. And I have to say, born and raised in New Jersey, I drove past the port of New York and New Jersey all the time, especially when I was coming in and out of Newark Airport, which is right near there. I never gave it a thought. I never thought, “What are those cranes? What’s going on over there?” Never.

I couldn’t believe what was really happening there and, from a technology perspective, the amount of technology that was in use even at that time. It has drastically changed to today, but even at that time there was an opportunity for me as a technologist to really make a difference. So, it attracted me, and once I got into it, I found that you just don’t get out. It just stays with you. It gets in your blood.

MW: Definitely – slippery slopes. What were you doing before you joined maritime?

LM: I was working for KPMG in New Jersey. I was not a consultant or an auditor. I was actually working in their internal IT department, supporting many of their offices in the northeast.

MW: So, that’s interesting. You’ve worked in two industries now, maritime and accounting, and you could argue you still work in IT. They’re both very traditionally male-dominated industries.

And now you’ve moved into quite senior roles, both with Ports America and now at Maher. What’s it been like to succeed on both of those fronts?

LM: I was so used to being one of the only women in the room that it became normal to me. I never thought about it as “I’m succeeding as a woman.” I just think about it as “I’m succeeding.” And it has been challenging. I’ve had to work harder at proving myself than perhaps my male counterparts have, but to me, that was part of the challenge.

That’s what draws me to IT, the challenge of seeing something and finding a solution, so it was just another piece of that pie. It was challenging at the beginning when I was coming up through the ranks because there were many times when I felt I should be the next in line for a promotion, and I had to prove myself that much more. That’s very frustrating, but I think it’s true across all industries. I really looked at it as just a challenge that I could overcome. I don’t know any differently, so I can’t say, “Compared to so-and-so, it was so much easier,” because I’ve just never had it that way.

MW: So, during the challenges when you were looking at a promotion and had to prove yourself that much more, what were some of the things you found yourself doing to achieve that?

LM: Really, it was just taking the lead on things, trying to show that I could do this. In many cases, either there were people currently in the role ahead of me or the position was vacant, they were looking for people, and I was there. So, I would try to show that while the role was interim, I could lead and let it organically evolve to “Well, she’s already doing it.” I was very fortunate, in a lot of those cases, to have a great team of people working with me who supported me in that or came to me saying, “You know what? You’re the right person for this role. So, we support you taking the lead on this.” And so it naturally happened.

In one case, there was a promotion I was up for back in the P&O days. They literally wanted a coach to do a profile on me, so I had to fly to Australia to interview with this person. When I got there, he said to me, “I don’t know why they’re doing this. You’re the right person. You and I are just going to go have coffee. This is fine.” So there were those extra things I had to do, but having him say that to me validated to me that the extra steps were my reality. I accept that, but I have the backing, so I know I can do this. And I think I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with really great people who were supportive and weren’t seeing me as a woman but as a peer.

MW: The follow-on from that is that I have an attitude that might sound a little insensitive, and I really hope you take it the right way. That was probably, what, a decade and a half ago?

LM: Yeah.

MW: And I don’t mean that to sound as bad as it does.

LM: No, it’s fine.

MW: What’s changed for the better?

LM: For me, going to conferences or meetings where I used to be one of maybe five women in the room. There are so many more women involved now, and it’s definitely for the better. Because of that, it’s no longer “Oh, my goodness, there’s a woman running it!” or “How do we act because there’s a woman in the room now?” It’s just become more part of the landscape, so I think it’s fantastic. When I go to these conferences now and see so many women, it just makes me so happy because it really means we’ve broken through, and the value is there.

MW: Has anything changed for the worse?

LM: For women in the industry? I don’t think so.

Industry Challenges Moving Forward

MW: In general, then, has anything changed for the worse in the industry?

LM: From an IT perspective in the industry, one of the challenges is it’s a big, small industry. So there are terminals all over the world, but it’s a very niche market, and the number of really long-term, dedicated providers or vendors is very small. It actually might’ve been bigger at one point, and then so many companies have either merged, been acquired, or just gone away that it leaves you, when you’re looking for a solution, with very few players. I think that’s detrimental because those players then own the market, and you have very little choice or leverage. That’s one of the worst things that has happened, but I understand why. Once you’re in, there’s not a lot of growth.

MW: What do you think is a potential solution to that challenge?

LM: That’s a struggle, because some of these solutions a TOS, a gate system, a DGPS system – once they’re in, are so hard to take out because they’re the heart and soul of everything that’s going on in your terminal. Somebody recently asked me, “If you had the opportunity to take the TOS out of the terminal, would you do that?”

I said, “Even if a company came to me and said, ‘It would cost a dollar for you to license our product and our product is perfect and can do everything you want, but you need to take the TOS out and to do this,’ I don’t even think that would be an attractive business case for me.” Because, for the risk and the amount of effort involved, it would have to be a tremendous business case. To remedy that, once these companies are in, they’re in. I think it takes a lot, and then other players don’t see a rich market there.

So, I don’t know if there’s a good solution for it. I wish I did because I think it’s a big challenge. Five or six years ago, I was looking for a new gate system, and some of the companies I looked at aren’t even doing business anymore. The market changes constantly.

MW: Yeah, definitely. I could talk at length on that topic.

LM: I’m sure.

MW: And I think we could probably agree on a lot of things, but that’s not the point of this interview. Let’s change track and stay on the topic of the industry. What do you see as the biggest opportunities in maritime over the next five years?

LM: What I’m about to say is what you’re reading everywhere, so I’m not saying anything brilliant or new. Still, I think the pandemic has pushed us into accepting technology faster and digitalizing it all. So many companies out there are primed and ready. This is an industry that hasn’t really been using data the way it should, and we should be doing that. We were getting a start on that, and now there’s so much more focus on it. We’re trying to move very quickly to get to that point because so many people are now more remote, and that’s because we need to be able to make better predictive decisions than we were making before. It’s a huge opportunity. Again, some players are already steamrolling through that, and I’ll be interested to see where it all ends up because I don’t think all of them can own that space. There’s just not a big enough space, but I think it’s a big opportunity.

MW: Outside of technology, what opportunities do you see?

LM: In my life, I don’t think outside of technology, but for the industry, the young talent that’s coming up is a different breed. There will be much more thinking outside the box, many more creative solutions, and a different kind of culture. They’re not as afraid to speak up and say, “Hey, if we did this thing this way, it might be better.” I think in the past there was, at least in my experience, more reticence to do that in the lower ranks. By the time those people got up to leadership positions, they had very boxed-in thinking. People are now thinking outside the box and outside of their silo. There’s a lot more collaboration between groups.

When I first started, you were IT, you were engineering, you were operations, and you didn’t really collaborate. Operations ruled the house, and they told you what they needed and when they needed it. Then, you delivered your service, whether that was engineering, whether that was finance, whether that was IT. Now I think it’s come together a lot more. When we sit in meetings, there are representatives from all the different groups at the table. Just because you’re in finance doesn’t mean you can’t make a suggestion to operations – and it’s welcomed. The reaction used to be “Who are you?” So I think that’s a really great thing.

Women in Maritime

MW: I’m glad I pressured you for an outside-the-box answer because that was brilliant. Thank you. We’re going to circle back to what it’s like to be a woman in the industry. The maritime industry is traditionally very male-dominated. How do you envision inspiring more women to join?

LM: We tend to focus on maritime colleges, not the regular universities. We’re also not good at talking about the pleasantries of the industry. We’re so focused on how this is a rough industry to work in, and it is. It’s 24/7. It’s all kinds of weather. It’s dirty. But I think there are so many positives that would attract people if we just looked at it through that lens and then said, “Okay, how do we go out after people and give them the whole picture?” instead of being so focused on needing maritime people. Quite frankly, I didn’t come from maritime. A lot of the people I work with didn’t come from maritime. You have to learn, just like in any other industry. If we did that a little bit more, it would help. Other than that, I think it’s a struggle.

MW: Is there something in the industry from your perspective that needs to change to make it more attractive to women?

LM: I don’t think it can. It’s the nature of the job. You’re not going to Fifth Avenue in New York and going up into a nice, cushy office with a view, then coming down at lunchtime and there’s shops and restaurants. You’re on a port; we’re lucky if we have a cafeteria in our building, but that’s it. You get dirty. You have to sometimes climb up on a piece of equipment to see or go into a crane to actually see for yourself what that user’s experience is like. So, it’s different. You have to look at it from that perspective. It’s a different group of people. When I worked for KPMG, I was in that cushy New York office, and I had all that luxury. There are times when I miss that a lot, but there are so many benefits in my current role. This industry has been so good to me personally as a whole that I wouldn’t trade it for my former job.

MW: Closing thoughts: If you had one piece of advice for a woman, young or old, looking to succeed in maritime, what would it be?

LM: I would say you have to be in there with the team. As a woman coming in, like we talked about briefly, you have to prove yourself differently. It was a bit overwhelming for me when I first started – understanding the lingo, understanding the industry. I had no idea about the difference between an RTG and a straddle carrier and all that stuff, and it’s overwhelming! Until you understand that, you really don’t get that validation from the rest of the team that you belong because you’re not speaking their language, and you don’t know.

So, I would say you have to show that you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, be in there just as much as anybody else, listen, and learn. Then you can insert your suggestions. If you do that, you’ll be very successful. It’s the people who come in as though they know it all without knowing anything who put people off – and that’s male or female. But when you’re a woman doing that, you’re done. You’re done.

MW: Laura, it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you.

LM: Thank you. It was a pleasure speaking with you. I hope that was helpful.

Who is Laura Markham?

Laura is a 20-plus-year veteran of the IT industry, with 20 of those years spent in transportation in various key roles. Her start in the industry came in 2001 when she began working for P&O Ports, which eventually morphed into Ports America. As Director of IT, she rose through the ranks of the organization during its aggressive period of acquisition and growth to become their Senior Vice President/CIO. During her tenure at Ports America, Laura successfully managed and integrated several proprietary systems, thus streamlining the company’s IT infrastructure, which resulted in increased efficiencies for the largest stevedoring company in the USA.

In 2010 she joined her current organization, Maher Terminals, in a consulting capacity and was quickly identified as a key member of the team, resulting in her appointment as Director of Project Management. Laura has since been promoted to her current role of Vice President, IT Operations, again managing and facilitating the introduction of state-of-the-art technology for Maher. 

Laura holds a Bachelor of Science in Marketing from the University of Massachusetts. Born and raised in New Jersey, Laura currently resides in Morristown.

What is Women in Maritime?

The Women in Maritime initiative is a combination of a series of interviews and conference sessions brought to you by INFORM as part of their broader diversity program. The first step in increasing the scope of diversity in any industry is highlighting the diversity that exists and creating opportunities for conversations about diversity. While it is often men we think of when we consider the mental image of most logistics roles, women contribute to the industry in all its facets and at all levels of seniority. The initial aim of Women in Maritime is to show that diversity and bring the conversation around it to life.

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