Baltimore-based freight logistics firm John S. Connor celebrates 100th anniversary

When John S. Connor founded his customs brokerage during World War I, he headquartered it at 33 S. Gay St. — close enough to Baltimore’s old Customs House for messengers to ferry documents back and forth by hand.

One hundred years later, the family-owned company uses an international network of agents to guide clients’ goods and materials through a complex web of international shipping regulations and customs requirements.

The business, named for its founder and now based in Glen Burnie, has grown to more than 100 employees, making it one of the biggest sea and air freight forwarders in the Mid-Atlantic.

It will celebrate its centennial with an event Sept. 28 at the Maryland Historical Society.

“For all the automation and technology, we still look at it as a personal service,” third-generation president Lee Connor said. “There’s a huge market out there of customers big, small and in-between that don’t want to be just a number.”

John S. Connor navigates the import and export of products ranging from heavy machinery to clothes and whiskey, and clears those shipments with any number of U.S. or other government agencies.

“A lot of businesses complain about regulation,” Lee Connor said. “We’re in the business of regulation.”

Freight-forwarding companies seldom touch the product being shipped. Their role involves planning the shipping, trucking, export, import and associated customs regulations to ensure that it arrives on time.

Jeff Smith, supply chain management professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business, compared the role to that of a real estate agent — connecting buyers and sellers, and handling all the paperwork.

“It’s like a big puzzle,” Smith said. “Essentially, they’re given a task: ‘I need a product located in middle of Europe. I need to get that to a distribution zone in Knoxville, Tennessee.’ They have to figure out all the pieces of that puzzle.”

One longtime client, Phillips Seafood, knew nearly nothing about international shipping when it entered the global distribution market 20 years ago.

Phillips had started as an Eastern Shore crab processing plant, then opened a chain of restaurants to sell its surplus seafood. As demand for crabs grew nationwide, executives saw an opportunity to expand with plants in Indonesia and Thailand, said Jimmy King, vice president of finance.

King credited Lee Connor with helping Phillips through a thicket of shipping conundrums: “Custom codes, imports — which carriers you going to use? Which are the best carriers? Which ports do you bring it into? Where do you move it?”

“He made something that was very difficult and hard to understand very easy without us having to worry about it,” King said.

Despite occasional lower offers from freight-forwarding competitors, he said, Phillips has no plans to switch.

“We wouldn’t have been able to grow as fast as we did without their advice and their knowledge,” King said. “We have no reason to change. It would be a detriment to our company if we had to change.”

Baltimore remains John S. Connor’s home port, and the company has a large local customer base, as well as relationships in countries around the world to accommodate clients who want to ship cargo elsewhere.

The Maryland Port Administration called the company “an integral part of the port of Baltimore since their inception.”

“They are known for providing outstanding customer service in transportation and logistics and assisting shippers in their supply-chain management, both internationally and domestically,” port spokesman Richard Scher said in a statement.

The firm’s tenure in the industry is remarkable, given all the changes in global shipping economics and the rise of technology, as well as day-to-day challenges like shipment delays or overseas contacts changing jobs, Smith said.

“It’s phenomenal that a company can stay in business doing that type of work for 100 years,” he said. “To be able to sustain that for the long term is quite an accomplishment.”

The company’s age gives John S. Connor a reputation that can be an edge over younger competitors, Smith said.

“Several new companies are emerging, moving into that space,” he said. “Being a long-term, established player gives you legitimacy above them.”

Especially when unforeseen problems arise, clients take comfort in knowing they’re dealing with a company that knows how to handle them, Lee Connor said.

“It’s not uncommon for things to go wrong, and that’s when we really add value,” he said. “It gives people some peace of mind that we’re a stable and credible organization.”

The company’s customer focus is the main reason for its century of success, said Butch Connor, another grandson of the founder and the company’s vice president of ocean freight.

“That personal service really has a major impact,” he said. “It revolves around the relationships we’ve built over the years.”

John S. Connor must constantly adjust to make sure cargo can go where it needs to, said Charles Atkinson, a regional manager for Bahri Logistics, a Saudi Arabian steamship line that serves the U.S. East Coast, Europe and the Middle East.

A Bahri ship sails from Baltimore about every three weeks, and the two firms have worked together for 44 years, he said.

“We’ve collaborated to solve logistics problems for customers,” Atkinson said. “Their dedication from the leadership at the top trickles down to their employees.”

John S. Connor has served Atlantic Container Line’s largest container and roll-on/roll-off customers, the shipping company’s spokeswoman Renee Sisk said. She called it “an outstanding logistics company and a valued customer.”

“It has been a pleasure working with them over the years and we look forward to strengthening our working relationship for future years to come,” Sisk said in a statement.

The last century has seen two moves of John S. Connor’s headquarters — first to the World Trade Center in Baltimore, and then to Glen Burnie — and a slew of other changes.

One thing that’s stayed constant: the Connor family ownership, which they hope will continue. One of Lee’s sons currently works for the company, and two others formerly worked there, as did Butch’s son.

“It gets in your blood. A lot of people get into it and never leave,” Lee Connor said. “If it could go to the fourth generation, that’d be great.”

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