Alaska shipping pioneer Sears officially retiring

KODIAK (AP)  — In 1965, Ronald Sears came to Alaska for the first time.

Serving as a messman onboard a barge escort, he plowed the choppy ocean between Washington state and Whittier six times — seasick each time.

The experience was enough to make him swear off sailing for a while. More than a decade later, he arrived on Kodiak Island as his own boss, owner of freight company Southern Alaska Forwarding.

During the 31 years between Sears’ 1979 arrival and today, Southern Alaska grew into one of the largest shipping companies on Kodiak Island. 

Last week, Sears announced he is calling it quits — Southern Alaska is scheduled to be sold to Pacific Alaska Freightways, and Sears will sail into retirement.

“I’m sad, in a way,” he said. “It’s been here 31 years, and we’ve always felt close to the community. I wanted to thank all of my great customers and friends in Kodiak.”

Southern Alaska is what’s called a “less than truckload” carrier. It takes packages from customers who can’t fill a whole shipping container on their own.

“We put all the shipments in town into a container,” Sears said, “and we load that container on Horizon.”

Sears said the sale shouldn’t change things for most of the company’s Kodiak customers.

“The only thing that’s going to change is the logo on the side of the truck and the logo on the jackets,” he said. “This has been in the works for two years. We’re just trying to get the bumps out.”

No layoffs are expected, and the company’s Kodiak office will remain in the same place.

“I’m here and I’m not going anywhere,” said Mike York, who manages the office.

Southern Alaska’s Seattle office will merge with Pacific Alaska’s existing operations in Fife, Wash., but other than that, the changes should be minimal.

“There’s not a thing that’ll change,” Sears said. “Even our Seattle numbers will revert the same. The goal of this is to have a very seamless transfer.”

Sears has been around long enough to see Kodiak grow and change as a port. When he first visited Alaska in 1965, containerized shipping was a new innovation for the state, and much of its cargo was still shipped loose.

By the time he came to Kodiak Island in 1979, the island was receiving containers, but only one ship per week.

“We saw Kodiak as virgin area,” Sears said.

“Like any business, we started with one van (container) a week. We had to dig away with it,” he said.

As the business grew, so did Kodiak’s economy. Safeway came to the island, requiring another ship each week. Floater-processor ships arrived, and so did luxuries like same-day television.

“When we used to watch television, it was always a week late,” he recalled.

Sears, who turns 68 next month, said he has been offered a job as a consultant to smooth the transition from Southern Alaska to Pacific Alaska, but isn’t sure if he’ll take it.

“My wife and I want to travel . take time for family,” he said. “I am going to come back to Kodiak. My wife loves to fish, and I’m sure we’ll be back.”

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