WisBusiness: Lake Express hires away Port of Milwaukee director

By Brian E. Clark

MILWAUKEE – Lake Express, which launched high-speed ferry service across Lake Michigan between Milwaukee and Muskegon on June 1, has hired Ken Szallai as president.

Szallai has been director of the Port of Milwaukee for the past 18 years and will start his new job on Monday. In his new post, he will be in charge of day-to-day operations for the ferry company.

He was paid $124,000 in his city job. His new salary was not disclosed.

Szallai, who became port director in 1986, said he was sad to leave the port. But he said he is excited to take over the top post at the Lake Express.

In announcing the hire, David Lubar, a principal in the investment firm that owns Lake Express, said reservations for the first three months of operations had topped expectations and exceeded 100,000.

Lubar — whose family business is called Lubar & Co.– also said the performance of the ferry has improved since its first trip and that the response from customers has been positive.

The ferry is touted by its promoters as the first high-speed automobile/passenger service to connect two U.S. ports and the first ship of its kind to operate on the Great Lakes.

Passengers aboard the Lake Express can travel between Milwaukee and Muskegon in just 2 1/2 hours.

The S.S. Badger, a 50-year-old ferry, takes four hours to go between Manitowoc and Ludington, Mich.

The Lake Express vessel carries up to 46 cars and 250 passengers on each crossing. The ship is powered by four large water jets, which propel it at a speed of about 40 miles per hour across Lake Michigan.

The Lake Express season continues through the end of December. It will start its fall schedule of two round-trips a day on Sept. 15. During the summer, it makes three round-trips daily.

Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for the Lake Express, said the hiring of Szallai does not necessarily mean the company will build a second ferry to operate on Lake Michigan.

"We have an option to do that," he said. "To date, we have not exercised that option. If we did build another, I don’t know if it would be for another market or the existing one."

Earlier this year, John Waggoner — the president and CEO of Hornblower Marine Services, the company operating the Lake Express ship — predicted that within three years passenger demand on the Muskegon-Milwaukee route will justify a second vessel. 

He said the factors that make the route so desirable are the population centers of West Michigan and Milwaukee, the connection of I-96 in Michigan and I-94 in Wisconsin and the time saved and convenience of not driving through Chicago.

Szallai, an ardent backer of Lake Michigan ferry operations, is the longest serving cabinet member in Milwaukee. He was hired by former Mayor Henry Maier, who left office in 1988 after 28 years. He also served in the Norquist, Pratt and now Barrett administrations.

Szallai is a native of New Jersey who grew up near Hudson River boat yards. He earned a B.S. in marine transportation in 1970 from the New York State Maritime College.

During his career, he has worked as a mate on 600-foot chemical and gasoline tankers on the East Coast. He also has been in operations management of chemical tankers worldwide for a Norwegian shipping company and has managed chemical and oil tankers for a Houston-based company.

In 1982, Szallai formed his own consulting company in Houston handling ship brokerage for chemical tanker operations in Latin America.

Milwaukee Harbor Commission Chairman Dan Steininger recruited Szallai for the port director in Milwaukee in 1986. Szallai took over a port that had a declining operation of 1.4 million tons of cargo a year and is leaving an operation with more than 3 million tons a year.

The port also owns much of Milwaukee’s waterfront — home to the Henry W. Maier Festival Park and the city’s Summerfest.