The Smith family traces its control of SSA to 1949, when eighth-grade dropout Fred Smith borrowed heavily and found partners to form Bellingham Stevedoring. In 1954, Smith bought Seattle Stevedoring and later took in Melvin Stewart as a partner to run the Seattle operation.
The Smith and Stewart families embarked on a series of expansions and acquisitions, diversifying into the food-distribution business. Eventually, Smith and Stewart retired, replaced by their respective sons, Ricky Smith and Thomas Stewart, whom observers described as "oil and water." Together, the sons ran what became known as Services Group of America, one of the nation's largest private companies.
The successful partnership ended abruptly and bitterly in 1989, when Smith says he was effectively barred from company offices by Stewart. Smith declines to discuss the split in detail.
"Tommy felt it was time to do something different, and he demonstrated it in a very clear way," Smith says.
Stewart, a major donor to conservative and Republican causes, has a policy of not giving interviews.
A corporate divorce was quickly arranged, with the Smiths getting control of SSA and Stewart retaining the food-distribution company and other assets under the Services Group name. The court file is sealed.
Ricky Smith has turned over day-to-day management of SSA to Jon Hemingway, company president and son of Ralph Hemingway, who is married to Smith's sister.
SSA today provides an array of transportation services, including rail-yard operation and marine-terminal management at 150 locations worldwide, including the West Coast, Gulf of Mexico, New Zealand, Panama, India and Vietnam. The company handles all sorts of cargo except oil.
In contrast to Stewart's Services Group, SSA has no corporate political action committees. Smith doesn't regard himself or his top management as significant players in campaigns.
Ricky Smith's father, however, was a major contributor, especially to former Gov. John Spellman. Ricky Smith traces much of that involvement to the company's promotion of log exports, once a major source of business for SSA.
Outsiders speculate that SSA has a special relationship with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, whose husband, Rob, works as a computer specialist at the company. But Hemingway says that he supported Murray's Senate race only out of respect for her husband and that the company has not lobbied her, except for a letter urging her to support most-favored-nation status for China.