Blood: thicker than water?
The late Capt. Beau Payne’s two ex-wives, Isabella and Heidi, unite to run P&L Towing to preserve their family legacy.
Behind every good man is a good woman. Or two? In the case of the late Capt. Beau Payne, founder of P&L Towing and Transportation in Miami, Fla., there were three: his two ex-wives, Isabella Clark and Heidi Payne, and his sister, Cathy Sedano.
A Miami River Rat, Payne’s sudden death at 52 was a shock to his family and friends. Cathy found her big brother, Beau, dead, apparently of arrhythmia, on March 6, 2017. Payne was the type of man who never went to the doctor. While Payne never saw a doctor, he did see an attorney.
A shrewd Payne took his best shot controlling from the grave as his last, loving act of paternalism. With a detailed last will and testament and his best friend, John Wilson, designated as his personal representative to oversee P&L’s transition and his personal assets in the event of his demise, Payne made what he thought were appropriate arrangements for his largely debt-free enterprise, which was reportedly worth more than $5 million.
Payne did it the hard way. Climbing the hawsepipe, he also amassed quite an estate. Starting his career as a deckhand, Payne died with a fleet of four tugs, a successful business and an acre of coveted land directly on the Miami River. He also established a trust for his three children from his two families with ex-wives Isabella and Heidi.
Court was familiar terrain for Payne, who’d grown accustomed to fighting with his ex-wives during his life. His untimely death united the two women against the executor of his estate. After launching a protracted legal battle, the Broward County Circuit Judge removed Wilson as executor and ruled Heidi and Isabella as co-representatives in charge of P&L and the estate of Herbert “Beau” Payne in October of 2018, according to court records.
Getting Started Again
Now teamed together as partners after years of loathing, Heidi Payne, 53, and Isabella Clark, 52, cheerfully manage P&L with their sister-in-law, Cathy Sedano, 52, the office manager. From a cursory glance, the two ex wives are polar opposites. Nevertheless, the former rivals grew to respect each other while also comforting Payne’s grief-stricken children. They speak lovingly of their common ex-husband in each other’s presence and today, their personal support group of two fuels ‘girl power’ to run Payne’s towing company, a totally new challenge.
“We fought to get the company for our kids,” said Heidi. “The bonding wasn’t immediate. It was awkward and took time.”
Heidi and Isabella rotated out uncooperative crew and had a few quit. After attending their first Workboat Show, they hired John Tomlinson as operations director in December. “We assembled a good team,” said Heidi. “We believe in them and they believe in us.”
“I am protective of them,” said Capt. John Tomlinson, operations director at P&L. “There are companies who won’t answer their calls, but take mine. I don’t know if that's because I know what I’m talking about or because I’m a man.” A captain with an unlimited master’s license, Tomlinson is an experienced mariner and a 2003 U.S. Merchant Marine Academy graduate. Managing P&L’s fleet and personnel, Tomlinson is the point of contact for captains and quotes jobs while pursuing new business opportunities and niche markets for P&L.
Beau’s angels tackle Subchapter M
“Heidi and Isabella are shrewd and intelligent women with strong business sense,” said Tomlinson. Tomlinson initially worried that people "would smell blood in the water,” and take advantage of his principals. “I believe in them and have put my reputation on the line for them,” he said. “I want this to work. I’m in it to win it.”
After meeting Isabella and Heidi, any blood that might be in the water would probably emanate from these two piranhas defending their turf against predatory sharks. While neither had experience in towing or the shallow draft market, Beau’s angels were so charmingly green they actually wore Dramamine bracelets to prevent nausea when meeting their crews on board for the first time. “I was envisioning chumming over the side,” said Isabella. “But we won’t quit, no matter what,” said Heidi, in sync with her partner’s thoughts.
In truth, both women were instrumental to Payne’s successful career. Isabella helped him study for his captain’s license, encouraging a young deckhand’s dreams after their first date on a tugboat. As Payne’s second wife, Heidi invested capital, helping him establish P&L. Individually tenacious and collectively relentless, Heidi and Isabella have keen legal minds complemented by strong work ethic. Heidi is a former criminal defense attorney with Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office.
After taking over P&L, Isabella left her longtime career as a paralegal with challenging appellate work for the Florida Attorney General.
The fact that Isabella is so organized and unafraid of paper bodes well for P&L. In terms of Subchapter M compliance, she insists that she won’t be intimidated by what’s become the bane of existence for many towboat operators, but admits initial anxiety pangs. The daunting Subchapter M process actually provided a beneficial crash course in tug 101 for the ladies.
“When I saw that boat taken out of the water and all the parts on it, I was taken aback,” said Isabella. “Subchapter M is all about safety and P&L will have the safest, cleanest and prettiest boats. Sub M gives us the opportunity to train with our crews. The challenge is keeping the boats running while complying.”
“It is very expensive,” said Heidi. “Just having the fire alarms and extinguishers inspected and certified was over $7,000 for two boats.”
The Rikki will be P&L’s first vessel to comply with her COI sometime prior to July, which is the official deadline for a quarter of our fleet to be certified” said Isabella. “But we’re determined to conquer Subchapter M and are on target, so far. We want to be flawless when we get in front of the Coast Guard.”
P & L contracted their Sub M audit services to Brian Downey (USCG Ret.) of Marine Compliance Solutions. “Based on his advice, we decided to go with the USCG route mainly due to the fact that cost of hiring a TPO wasn’t an expense we wanted to incur due to the size of our fleet,” said Tomlinson, adding “We also feel confident that we can handle the inspection process internally.
“We’re here to stay and are not giving up,” said Heidi. “It’s a challenge, breaking through in this industry, if you’re not in the boys’ club. It’s who you know. It helped that everyone knew Beau.”
Is it possible for a couple of middle-aged women in steel-toed construction boots and helmets to fall off the banana boat and make it in a commercial marine network dominated by old-salts? “We’ve learned to stay one step ahead with the paperwork,” said Cathy. “Others want us to fail.”
“We have what it takes; give us a chance to do it,” said Heidi. “The fact that we’re women in this industry makes us fight even harder to prove ourselves.”
P&L intends to add another towboat to its fleet of four stationed in New York, South Carolina and Florida. The ladies and Tomlinson have ambitious plans to obtain federal contracts. We have a lot of dredge assist jobs,” said Isabella. “We did a big job for Great Lakes and pulled in Cashman and Weeks. We’ve learned how to bid jobs.”
And what might Capt. Beau Payne say from his perch above, seeing his feuding exes running his company, side by side?
“He’d be shocked,” said Heidi. “What he couldn’t achieve in his life was achieved in his death. We motivate each other. I love this woman. We refuse to sink.”
This article first appeared in the March 019 print edition of MarineNews magazine. ALL images courtesy P&L Towing.