Longtime ferry service critic calls for management change

To the Expositor:

For the past four years I have actively written letters to your paper and to Ms. Susan Schrempf, president/CEO of the Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC). In this correspondence I detailed my extensive experience in using the ferry service to access my cottage on Manitoulin, along with numerous suggestions as to how the OSTC better needed to market the service in the face of tougher economic conditions and the fact that Highway 69 offers a fast, cost effective alternative to accessing the Island via road only.

Last October I attended and spoke at length during the public information session in Tobermory conducted by the consulting firm hired to analyze the ferry’s business operations while also identifying market opportunities that would reverse the 27 percent decline in ridership that has taken place since 2005.

Prior to the hiring of the consultants some of my pleas and or suggestions to the OSTC were as follows: Allow reservations on all sailings in order to provide greater convenience and assurance to users that you will secure passage when desired; eliminate charging a fee to merely book a reservation, no other service provider does this; reinstate some form of a discount or rewards program for frequent users of the ferry ie: cottage owners such as myself that have become an increasingly important sector of the ferry’s business; review the onboard cafeteria service, it’s slow and very inefficient in providing good food at a reasonable price while crossing; and look at ways of making the ferry ride an enjoyable family activity for people to “experience” make the ferry more than just a connecting link on Highway 6.

Despite writing annual letters since 2009 to the OSTC with copies on occasion to the MPP for Algoma Manitoulin along with a letter to the Honourable Michael Gravelle, Minister Northern Development Mines and Forestry that subsidizes the ferry, my pleas and suggestions were ignored.

Earlier this spring I read your article regarding the ferry’s upcoming season and was encouraged, but not surprised that virtually all of the initiatives that I had been lobbying for in recent years were finally being implemented in what was billed as a “repositioning” of the ferry service.

As has been extensively reported by The Expositor and other media over the past week and a half, the most significant “repositioning” that is now needed is with respect to the dock fenders at both the Tobermory and South Baymouth terminals. Water levels have been trending downwards in Lakes Michigan, Huron and Georgian Bay for the past 12 or 13 years. This too has been widely reported in the media and is not a new or unknown fact. Throughout much of 2012, the prediction was for these bodies of water to reach a record low level, below that recorded in the mid 1960s which subsequently happened late last year.

There appears to be considerable finger pointing going on between the provincial and federal governments with respect to where the responsibility for the necessary dock modifications resides. Some are even calling for the resignation of the federal Transport Minister. Ultimately however the responsibility for this latest fiasco pertaining to the dock as well as the significant ridership drop rests with one party and one party only, senior management at the OSTC.

Why is a president/CEO that has presided over the 27 percent drop in ridership still employed? Coming from a lengthy career in corporate management I know of no situation where that would be tolerated. Knowing full well that water levels were in a state of decline for many years with a record low imminently forecasted, why was the dock issue not only just recently disclosed less than two weeks before the start of the season but more importantly, not dealt with months or even a year or two ago? Any competent manager, knowing full well that their company’s revenue stream not to mention regional tourism depended on the ship’s ability to dock for the unloading and loading of cars and pedestrians, should have been all over this issue daily if need be until results were obtained.

By all accounts the plight of the OSTC is as much bad management as it is a weak economy, a drop in US visitors due to an unfavourable US exchange rate, a vastly improved alternate route to the Island (Highway 69) or the lack of usable docking facilities. Responsibility and accountability for the ongoing operation of a successful company resides at the top with a competent, effective, results driven president/CEO. Managing in the face of adversity takes skill, foresight and often tough decisions, but that is the mark of a good manager no matter what circumstances are encountered.

In closing, I commend the employees of the OSTC and sympathize with their current dilemma. During my frequent use of the ferry over the past 38 years, I have found the ferry’s staff to be friendly, efficient and safety minded. As for the ongoing viability of the ferry service as a link to Manitoulin and as major driver of the Bruce Peninsula and Island tourist economies, a change in senior management is long past due if this government agency is to survive and prosper.

Respectfully submitted,
Rick Crouch
Collingwood and South Baymouth