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Miami Women Take Helm in Ship Brokerage Industry,
Defying Tradition of European Male Domination


MIAMI -- Ship brokerage tends to conjure images of men in smokefilled rooms in London or maybe New York. But, in Miami, it is women who have taken the leading role in a business long-dominated by males.

"When I got into this business 20 years ago, there were virtually no women in it," said Michelle Danoff Merlin, 44, who seven years ago took over as president of S. Danoff USA Ltd. from her father, Stuart S. Danoff. "We're still dealing mostly with men, and I would say the only disadvantage is that foreign travel to visit with clients in certain cities is risky for a single female."

Merlin and four other women are now the only full-time workers at S. Danoff USA Ltd., which acts as intermediary representing ship charterers, owners and operators in transactions valued at more than $85 million a year. Stuart Danoff, 65, who started in the shipping industry 45 years ago, remains as chairman of the company he founded in 1979.

At the time Danoff opened his business in Miami, it was just as unusual to be in ship brokerage outside Europe or New York as it was for women to be working in the industry. "I came down here to be closer to Latin America and the Caribbean, to which Miami serves as the gateway," Danoff said. "While we do business throughout the world, many of our clients are here in Florida and in Latin America and the Caribbean."

Indeed carriers represented by S. Danoff USA Ltd. include such industry leaders as Miami-based Seaboard Marine Ltd., Port of Palm Beach-based Tropical Shipping, Jacksonville-based Crowley American Transport and Miami River-based Antillean Marine. But Danoff, who recently has cut back his involvement to a part-time level, said, "We don't boast of success, nor do we sell a big image. What we do pride ourselves on is being respectable and ethical -- things that seem to be becoming extinct in today's world."

Merlin said her father's solid reputation throughout the international shipping community has helped open doors for her with company presidents and other industry leaders. Being females hasn't hurt either, she added. "It has made me very easily recongizable," said Merlin, who recalled, for example, being one of only two women among 700 male delegates at a 1981 industry conference in Hamburg, Germany.

"Historically, I guess in part because of the long hours, this has not been a business to attract women. "There's still a novelty factor in being a female voice on the other end of the phone," she continued. "I would say it has to be an advantage in that a lot of the men see their daughter in me and give me an opportunity, if you will, because they would hope someone would do the same for their own daughter."

Merlin got into the family business shortly after her parents opened the office in its original Brickell Avenue location, with corporate secretary and treasurer, Zita Danoff, handling administrative accounting matters. For the past 18 years, the firm has been located on Coral Way, about 15 minutes from both Miami International Airport and the Port of Miami.

She joined her dad's company shortly after earning a master's degree in international economics from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., the same university from which she earlier had received a bachelor's degree in international studies. Danoff said he was delighted to find a willing apprentice in his daughter. Ship brokerage, however, is learned on the job, not in the classroom, according to Merlin, who could not have had a better teacher.

Danoff, whose own father had been involved in the export business worldwide as early as pre-World War II, already had a quarter century of industry experience when he started the Miami firm. He was involved in the pioneering days of containerization as an executive with Seatrain Lines Inc. and headed the western hemisphere operations of Common Brothers Ltd., a U.K. based shipowner.

His work led him to live in the Netherlands, London and New York, so it is no wonder that, when he moved to Miami from New York in the 1970s, he found South Florida to be culturally lacking. His response was to become founding president of the Miami City Ballet.

A key principle that Danoff has taught his daughter is to get charterers the best deal on ships -- even if it means displeasure on the part of the owner. For example, a so-called "owner's broker" might tell the charterer that the market value is $10 per position per day, while the "charterer's broker," such as Danoff, recognizes the true value as closer to $8 per position per day and endeavors to fix at the best competitive level.

"It takes several years before you are able to charter a ship with any degree of competency," Merlin said. "You really have to know the market. It's a long learning curve."

The other women in the S. Danoff USA Ltd. office also are well along the learning curve, each having worked there for 10 or more years.

Karen Webb, ship broker in the sale and purchase department, who has been with the firm 11 years, commented, "The job is great fun, especially the negotiating. The only downside is the occasional rough language." Webb, 47, formerly in marketing for record and kitchen and office equipment firms, also is finding diversity in her role as a broker. The company is involved in buying and selling everything from containerships and bulk vessels to tankers and tugboats and recently has added some passenger ferries to its "for sale" list. Contracting of newbuilding container vessels is currently a key component of this department.

Melissa S. Lobree, who joined the firm 11 years ago, after graduating from the University of Miami with a marine affairs degree, is a ship broker in the chartering department. She received a certificate of achievement from the New York-based Association 0f Ship Brokers & Agents (USA) Inc., as did her colleague, Webb. Lobree then went on to complete the three-year accreditation course of The Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, based in London, earning her M.I.C.S. degree.

Rounding out the staff is administrative manager Ana Castillo, 40, former manager of a secretarial service, who holds a business administration degree. She joined the firm 13 years ago.

Already taking part in the business a few hours a week, assisting with typing and filing, is Elysa Merlin, the oldest of three children of Michelle and her attorney husband.

Asked if her daughter would one day take over the reins of the company, as she did from her dad, Michelle Merlin said, "While it's too soon to tell, it's quite possible. This business seems to be in our blood. And, maybe by then, there'll be a few more women in it."

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