Malcom McLean; Pioneered Use of Shipping Containers

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Malcom P. McLean, whose innovative use of large cargo containers revolutionized the global shipping industry and changed almost overnight the way goods are moved around the world, has died. He was 87.

McLean died in New York on Friday of complications related to heart failure, a family spokesman said.

In the 45 years since he introduced the use of containers as a more efficient method of moving cargo, McLean has been honored as one of the most influential people of the 20th century.


“He was probably the one individual who had more impact on world trade and transportation than any other living human being,” said Nick Cretan, executive director of the Maritime Assn. Port of New York-New Jersey.

“He created containerization,” Cretan added, “which allowed for faster delivery of bigger cargoes. It’s just incredible how his achievements changed the lives of so many people, and yet so few know his name.”

McLean himself scoffed at the idea that he changed the world. “The method of shipping didn’t change the world,” he told the Journal of Commerce in 1999. “It just made things easier to ship, more economical to ship. . . . Customers change the world, not the one who moves the freight.”

Although he created and ran a series of trucking, shipping and investment companies, McLean spent most of his life moving freight in one way or another. Born on a farm in Maxton, N.C., the future businessman demanded a commission on his first job--selling eggs for his mother.

After working as a clerk in a grocery store and pumping gas, in 1934 he scraped together $30 for the down payment on a used pickup truck and founded McLean Trucking. By the time he sold it in 1955 for $6 million, he had built it into an industry giant.

In 1937, the young trucker drove a load of cotton bales from Fayetteville, N.C., to Hoboken, N.J., where he sat at the docks watching the stevedores load cargo.


“The thought occurred to me, as I waited around that day,” McLean said in a 1996 interview with American Shipper, “that it would be easier to lift my trailer up and, without any of its contents being touched, put it on the ship.”

McLean made history with his container idea on April 26, 1956. Using a converted World War II tanker called the Ideal X, he sailed 58 cargo-filled containers from Port Newark, N.J., to Houston.

Naming his new shipping company Sea-Land Service, he shepherded its growth into the world’s largest container carrier before selling it to RJ Reynolds in 1969 for $160 million.

His container concept drastically reduced labor costs and losses from theft, economically opening up distant ports such as Asia. Currently, 90% of all cargo is transported in containers.

On the 40th anniversary of that first sailing, President Bill Clinton said: “Containerization has created international trading relationships that have fueled the world’s economy and helped to keep its peace.”

McLean was the only person to have founded three companies that were later listed on the New York Stock Exchange. He founded two other companies later listed on the Nasdaq stock market.

Fortune magazine inducted him into its Business Hall of Fame in 1982, and American Heritage magazine in 1995 named him one of the 10 outstanding innovators of the past 40 years.

Last year, McLean was named Man of the Century by the International Maritime Hall of Fame.

McLean is survived by his second wife, Irena; three children; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.