Meet Valrie Campbell, General Manager – Group Operations, Kingston Wharves Ltd..
By Mike Jarrett
When Valrie Campbell arrived in Kingston with her mother, the bright, young high school student from the cool mountains of Clarendon had no idea what her life in the relatively fast-paced Jamaican capital city would be like. She could not have imagined then that, in a relatively short time, she would be working in the port sector. And she certainly would not have expected that, within a few decades, she would be carrying the title and responsibilities of General Manager – Group Operations in Jamaica’s largest domestic marine cargo terminal, Kingston Wharves Limited.
Of course, she would not have had such thoughts. For centuries and ever since human beings found commerce by traversing large bodies of water, work in the maritime sector has been overwhelmingly dominated by the male of the species. All through the Industrial Revolution to the modern era, women had been sidelined, largely excluded from work in ports and on ships. Working at Jamaica’s main port would not have entered the teenager’s mind, let alone ascending the corporate ladder to break the glass ceiling.
As Portside Caribbean continues its advocacy for inclusion in the maritime sector, hoping to inspire young women to list the shipping industry as a viable and worthy professional choice, I spoke with Valrie Campbell about her career and advancement in Jamaica’s maritime sector.
Mike Jarrett: Where did you go to school?
Valrie C: I attended two high schools, first in Alston, Clarendon (parish in Jamaica) and then Kingston Technical High School.
Mike Jarrett: Sounds rural.
Valrie C: Yes. [chuckling] I am a country girl.
Mike Jarrett: And so, you were now in a technical environment at Kingston Technical High School.
Valrie C: Well, I actually did business and not technical subjects at KTHS.
Mike Jarrett: And then you graduated. In what year?
Valrie C: I graduated in 1996.
Mike Jarrett: And then?
Valrie C: I was desirous of attending University immediately after High School, however, I did not have the financial meals and so, after graduating, I worked at Life of Jamaica as a Clerk for approximately three years. I commenced working at Kingston Wharves Limited (KWL), as Receptionist and Telephone Operator, on the second day of January 2001 and I have been employed to the company since. January 2, 2024 will mark my 23rd work anniversary at KWL. I’ve been promoted 10 times during my tenure at KWL and would you believe I’ve only applied for one role since joining the company?
Mike Jarrett: So, were you disappointed when you got here first … in the first year or two perhaps?
Valrie C: I was not. I think the role of Receptionist and Telephone Operator is often viewed as a menial job; however, for me, it was one of the most important roles in the company because I was then, in many respects, the voice and face of the organization. I applied myself with that fact in mind. I took pride in what I did. Each time I answered a call I was thinking that the Chairman could be calling and I would be the first person that he would be speaking with. I therefore took that approach every day on the job … to be respectful, pleasant, and to represent the company well to whoever was calling on the phone or whoever would come to my desk. So, I actually liked that job.
Shortly after joining the company, I enrolled in and started studies towards a bachelor’s degree at Nova Southeastern University . It was really difficult, living on a Telephone Operator’s salary at that time. At the time, all of my co-workers were buying houses or cars. But, I took a decision that, based on the salary I was earning, I could save towards the deposit to purchase a house; I could purchase a car; or I could invest in my education. My decision was to invest in my education.
I used my salary and credit card to finance my way through university. I did very well in my studies and I finished at the top of my class with a three-point seven-five grade (3.75) point average (GPA).
While pursuing my first degree I received two promotions in the Customer Service Department.
Shortly after completion of degree in 2005, I applied for a new post, that of Claims Officer and I was successful. I was one of the only young persons in the organization that had a degree at that time. I had to learn very fast and on the go, as the role was very new to me. I learned very fast and excelled in the role.
Mike Jarrett: It seems that at every step of the way you’ve had a burning desire to be the best you can be; to always move forward professionally.
Valrie C: Yes. I think that is a part of what drives me. I have always had this burning desire to defy the odds. I have never been average, ordinary and normal and I have newer followed the proverbial path that was set for me. Instead, I charted my own course.
I wanted to excel. I wanted to do well and I knew that to succeed I had to work hard which I did in order to consistently deliver at a high standard and in so doing I was able to make multiple moves up the corporate ladder in a short period of time.
I made many sacrifices on my journey. For example, as I mentioned, during the period of study for my degree, I resisted the urge to purchase a car. My friends at the time were often critical of the fact I utilized public transportation. I was however focused on ensuring that my income was used wisely as an investment that would give me valuable returns in the future.
Mike Jarrett: Your first job in shipping was at the front desk at Kingston Wharves? How long were you in that position?
Valrie C: I was Receptionist and Telephone Operator from 2001 to 2003. I completed my first degree in 2004 and by mid 2005 I was appointed Claims Officer. Later, as I progressed through the company, I completed a MBA at Nova Southeastern University. I also completed a Diploma in Port Management from North Kent College and IBC Academy in the United Kingdom. Additionally, since 2010, I have pursued numerous professional certification and training programmes in several areas including, operations management, terminal management, security and risk management.
Mike Jarrett: What was that like?
Valrie C: Reflecting on my journey, I am quietly very proud of my progress and many achievements over the past two decades, including moving up the ranks of the organization to a senior management position in just over 7 years of joining the company and being the first female Head of Operations in the KWL’s almost 80-year history.
Serving as Claims Officer, I was the company’s liaison with insurance brokers, claimants, and regulatory agencies, I played a pivotal role in representing the company in matters referred for mediation. This responsibility was at the core of a significant function within the organization, allowing me to contribute substantial value. Throughout this period, I not only added considerable value to the company but also underwent substantial training, professional growth, learning and developing immensely.
In 2007, I was promoted to Safety and Security Coordinator. During this period I was exposed to numerous training and certification programmes which helped to further develop my competencies. This was never said to me, however during this period I believe that I was being prepared for a more senior role, and in 2008, I was promoted to Safety, Security and Claims Manager. I was also appointed Port Facility Security Officer some time after.
Mike Jarrett: Up to this point how much direct interaction did you have with cargo coming in or going out?
Valrie C: I became very involved in the cargo handling processes of the operations when I took over the Claims portfolio. It was critical to have a good understanding of these processes to be able to effectively investigate reports of loss giving rise to claims.
During 2013, I was approached by the senior management team and asked whether I would be interested in a role in Operations. As I recall, our then veteran Operations Manager had retired and there was a suggestion that I was a prime candidate to transition into Operations.
At first, I indicated that I was not interested but after thinking about it for some time, I reconsidered.
I mean, let’s be honest, Safety, Security and Claims are all really support roles. Though critically important, these functions are not the core business of a Terminal. And so, after some deliberations, I thought why not give it a chance? I was appointed Operations Manager in 2013. I have since held other senior positions in the company including, Terminal Manager and Director of Terminal Operations. My current role is General Manager for Group Operations.
Continuously expanding my horizons, since 2011 I have participated in numerous study tours and training programmes at major ports and terminals in the Caribbean, South America, the United States of America and Europe.
Mike Jarrett: What are your present tasks? What does an average week entail?
Valrie C: As the General Manager for Group Operations at KWL, a multi-purpose terminal, I now oversee the full breadth of our operations, which encompass a wide range of cargo types. My role involves the day-to-day management of terminal operations, including planning, stevedoring operations, and the efficient functioning of yard and gate operations. This comprehensive portfolio keeps me and my team fully engaged, ensuring the seamless execution of various aspects of our terminal’s activities.
I also have responsibility for some of the Group’s shared services, including Facilities Management and Security. In fact, I still retain the title of Port Facility Security Officer (PFSO) with policy level oversight of the security portfolio.
KWL also has a subsidiary company – Security Administrators Limited – that is responsible for the day-to-day industrial and specialist maritime security services. This has a separate management structure, headed by a Managing Director.
Mike Jarrett: So, on a weekly basis, you’re dealing mostly with these three legs of your portfolio?
Valrie C: Yes. And one of the other roles that I play-we could refer to it as stakeholder management-is dealing with regulatory entities such as the Customs Agency, the Port Authority and various other regulatory entities that we interact with in carrying out our daily operations.
Mike Jarrett: Given all the experience you have gathered over decades, how do you feel about the shipping industry today, in contrast to when you first started?
Valrie C: Before I started working at KWL in 2001, I had no idea how vital the shipping industry was to a national economy and to global trade. After over two decades of working in shipping, I have a front row seat to the inner workings of the industry, and in my view, the port is the gateway to a country. Ports and the various related companies involved in shipping and trade are essential to national and global trade and economic activity.
The Covid-19 pandemic really amplified the point of how important a port is. When most industries were closed for business, the shipping industry, and specifically, our port terminal was open and operating. Our team members were at work every day – and night – keeping the flow of food, medical and sanitization supplies and other cargo items going. These were critical to our citizens’ survival at that time.
Mike Jarrett: And, finally, what does the Caribbean port sector need at this time to deliver the kind of efficiencies that the global supply chain is increasingly demanding of every port, large and small.
Valrie C: My top three areas of focus would be (1) Technology, to actively explore ways to integrate technology for smoother, more cost-effective operations. (2) People: Putting significant effort into attracting, retaining, and nurturing the right talent to build a team that consistently delivers outstanding results and who are well-prepared for the future. (3) Environmental Sustainability: Given our context as mostly island states, it is important to ensure our operations align with environmentally friendly practices. It’s a commitment to sustainable environmental and social governance.
Mike Jarrett: Thanks Valerie. 
- First published: December 12, 2023
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