Reviving the New Jersey-New York private ferry industry was a second career for Arthur Imperatore, who made a fortune in the trucking business before he bought an old rail yard along the Hudson River in 1986 – and had to figure out how to connect across the water with Manhattan.
His solution was NY Waterway, which has 36 vessels, including the city’s most modern ferry, the 400-passenger high-speed catamaran Molly Pitcher that entered service in September 2015, and a sistership Betsy Ross scheduled for commissioning in June. In 2016 the company will mark its 30th year in business, and founder and CEO Imperatore's 91st birthday. This week, he sat down in his Weehawken, N.J., office for an interview with WorkBoat’s Kirk Moore.
How did you get the inspiration for starting the business?
“I owned two miles of land. That’s (Manhattan) where the money was. It was separated from New Jersey by the escarpment, down to the river plain. I bought it in 15 minutes, just like that. Now, once I got it, what the hell was I going to do with it? What was I going to do to connect it to the big city?... I had to make it work."
What kind of boats did you have?
“We had one boat … it was a (77’) composite aluminum and fiberglass. It was experimental. I bought it because the man who built it (the late Luther Blount of Blount Boats) was very good to us for making that boat available. We thought it would be high speed, but it had many deficiencies.”
How did you design the next boats?
“We had a lot to learn. And we misdesigned a lot. First boat we designed was the Manhattan. We built it in 1987. The second boat we built in 1987, we made 700 changes … The retrofits are not easy. It took a lot of time, but we learned a lot.”
How did the business grow?
“We had to design routes, and we were lucky in that we had a lot of routes you could do in eight to 10 minutes … and we had to be able to predict arrivals and departures within 20 to 50 seconds.
“We had experience with trucks, designing trucks, and we knew a lot about time – the value of time. So I counted on the value of time. The efficiency of getting people from the upland onto a boat, and with a schedule that was predictable, and with the addition of buses…we didn’t own buses, we had to charter buses, but it was the right thing to do.”
How do you recruit people to the company?
“Mostly blue collar. Training people to become captains, training people to become deckhands. We had to be very precise in knowing what we wanted, for customer service, and in particular for safety. We’ve moved hundreds of millions of people, and we’ve never had one fatality. And we’ve rescued like 215 people.”
What went into the design of the new boats?
“We have a good yard in John Yank (Yank Marine) at Tuckahoe, N.J. … a man of high integrity and commitment.
“Then we started the design with his designer Michael LeMole. Then you had Alan Warren (NY Waterway vice president of operations), who is a genius. And then you had Imperatore sitting here, with his nutty Italian ideas about beauty. I wasn’t just going to design a piece of floating glitz. I wanted to convey a sense of timelessness, and timeless beauty and reliability, and we didn’t compromise on anything.
“We’re still correcting one problem in a (propeller) strut for the second boat, which we think is going to resolve the problem of vibration and the ride. That boat Betsy Ross should be ready soon.”
Where is NY Waterway headed next?
“From Fort Lee to Jersey City there are 30,000 new housing units being built or waiting approval. That’s a lot … We’ll build whatever [new boats] we need.
“I’d like to do a ferry route from the north shore of Staten Island to midtown [Manhattan]. It’s easy. I could do it in my sleep. St. George, Bayonne, World Financial Center, midtown, no subsidy. I almost think we could do that for $8 or $9.
“So what’s the future? We’ll be here.”