Mike Lee remembers standing on the side of a Colorado ski slope when Carnival Cruise Lines called.
It wasn’t the first time they had come to him for help. On Christmas Day 2004, as his family was finishing lunch, Lee’s phone rang with another dire call. A dairy truck had slid off the road en route from Wisconsin to Mobile. A cruise ship needed milk, about 950 gallons. Lee, his son and son-in-law drove their SUVs to every Walgreens in the area and met at the port with about 500 gallons. The chef, still wearing his chef’s hat, came out to hug them, right there in the sleet and rain.
This time, as Lee took thin breaths at 11, 000 feet, the voice on the other line said: “There’s been a fire on board one of our ships. We’re going to have a tug tow it into Mobile. Start making preparations.”
And with that, Lee got to work. As the president and CEO of Page & Jones Inc., his duties as a shipping agent include organizing a ship’s arrival in port — from the bar pilot who steers the ship to dock to the stevedores who load and unload the cargo. The company also takes care of dealings with customs and port authorities around the world, importing and exporting and freight forwarding.
Lee is the man behind the curtain, the “solve” button on a game of Solitaire, the one you count on to answer his phone, even if he’s on the side of a mountain 1, 500 miles away and your ship’s the Carnival Triumph.
For as long as he can remember, Lee has been witness to the trust clients put into Page & Jones. The company was founded in 1892 and received the government’s 10th issued customs brokerage license, still proudly displayed on the wall. Arthur Page worked at the firm for just a decade, his name outlasting his employment by some 110 years. His co-founder, John Jones, marched the company through World War I, in which Page & Jones actually owned and operated U.S. military ships, as well as the Great Depression and World War II, before his death in 1949. Shortly thereafter, three employees — brothers James and Rufus Lee, plus the cofounder’s nephew, Frank Jones — bought and incorporated the company.
“One of the questions we’re asked all the time is why we’ve never changed the name, ” Mike Lee, 65, says. “There hasn’t been a Page or a Jones since the 1970s, when the last Mr. Jones retired. It’s because the name recognition is more important in the industry than any vanity you get out of changing the name.”
Growing up the son and nephew of the company’s new partners, Lee recalls playing in the top floor of Mobile’s nine-story First National Bank building, as hot summer breezes entered through the windows and combined with whirring fans to create such a blustery workplace that paperweights sat like chess sets atop the tables. When he was old enough, Lee took his first job at the docks. The suntanned 15-year-olds, among other duties, were responsible for fixing torn jute sacks used to ship Brazil nuts.
“They’d holler if a sack broke, ” he explains, “and we’d run over and sew it up. We got the jobs nobody wanted to do. I spent a lot of that first summer repairing loading pallets. They’d give us crowbars, and we’d take off the broken boards and nail on big new sections. I went through a pair of gloves I think the very first day.”
Lee served as a Page & Jones runner the next summer, delivering documents he sends by email today from the company’s downtown headquarters to various recipients around the waterfront. Crisscrossing Mobile’s scalding downtown streets, Lee says he “went through shoes just like I went through gloves the first year. I wore several sets of penny loafers out through that summer.”
After entering the University of Alabama and deciding that he was uninterested in pre-law, Lee remembers telling his father over dinner that he wanted to begin prepping to join the family business. “Are you sure?” his father asked, before repeating himself with more emphasis. Mike was sure, and upon finishing his degree in finance and a stint in the National Guard, he moved home to help his father open the first satellite branch of the 10-person company in Birmingham.
They next established offices in New Orleans, then Huntsville. Last December, the company opened its 13th branch, next to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Lee points out the value of telling a company like Hyundai that Page & Jones is represented at the 13 closest air and seaports.
Despite 65 employees around the Southeast and offices in major cities like Atlanta, Dallas and Jacksonville, Mobile has remained the headquarters since 1892.
“Mobile is a great base to come home to, while still being in the type of work where you get to see the world and travel, ” says Lee. “It’s the best of both worlds. The quality of living here — the ocean, the water, the lifestyle we lead — comes at a relatively manageable price.”
Lee sits comfortably underneath three portraits in the second-floor conference room a few blocks from the waterfront. To his right is a picture of Frank Jones, the co-founder’s nephew. In the middle hangs a 1890s photo, the only one they could find of John Jones, wearing a stately black hat. And in the photo on the left is the face of Rufus Lee, Mike’s father, who handed the reigns to his son in 1994. Mike’s grandfather also worked for the company, so Mike is the third generation of Lees to work at Page & Jones. His son and son-in-law currently comprise the fourth, and Mike makes no secret of his hopes to work alongside one of his five young grandsons someday.
“He was almost 84, ” Lee says, raising a thumb to his father’s portrait. “He worked till 10 days before he died. Somebody said to me recently, ‘Geez, you’re 65. Are you thinking about retirement?’ I said, ‘I feel like I’ve got another 20 years, just like my dad.’”
Ellis Metz is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Mobile.
text by Ellis Metz • photo by Todd Douglas