Port sales force makes pitch to attract, retain customers

The sales force for the port of Baltimore travels the country and the world, looking for business.

It could be farm equipment manufactured in the Midwest on its way to Australia or furniture coming from South America or Alabama-built Hondas headed for Russian dealerships or outdoors gear ordered by U.S. retailers.

"We want it," said Richard Powers, director of trade development.

Baltimore's sales plan, formed several years ago, targets autos, containers, farm and construction equipment, forest products and passenger cruises. The sales brochure consists of the port itself: its location in the middle of a pocket of prosperity, its efficient workforce and tranquil labor relations, its sense of maritime community built over generations.

And like any good sales pitch, it is reinforced by endorsements from customers, who love its traditional services and laud it for unusual touches, such as an aggressive environmental program.

"It's a pretty persuasive package," said James White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration.

It has to be. Competition is fierce along the East Coast, and Baltimore — with New York to the north and Norfolk, Va., and Georgia to the south — scraps for every customer.

As a result of hustle by the trade team, Baltimore led the nation in the number of autos processed two years running (it holds 22.8 percent of the market) and is on target to exceed last year's volume. Container business rose 5 percent last year over 2011, though it's still well behind its rivals. It leads the nation in exporting farm and construction machinery and importing sugar, aluminum and gypsum. This year, the port is poised to scoop up a major portion of a new wood pulp market in Brazil.

The peak container season that begins in June shows signs of being robust, port officials said, especially with the addition of four super-size cranes ready to move boxes from ship to shore at record speed. Plus, Baltimore's marketing strategy is hitched to Ports America, the largest U.S. terminal operator, which has a 50-year agreement to run the Seagirt Marine Terminal.

There could be rough waters: The weak European economy and a softening market in China pose near-term threats, while the port also is running out of waterfront property for expansion. State budget cuts in 2005 by the Ehrlich administration closed the Chicago and Detroit marketing offices, leaving a single trade outpost in Taiwan as the port's only physical presence outside Baltimore.

Also, port officials are watching to see whether new federal regulations that require cargo ships to burn cleaner, more expensive fuel will cut into a major advantage over other East Coast ports: Baltimore's inland position makes it cheaper to get goods to and from Midwestern markets.

"It's five times more expensive to move products by land than by water. When you're moving high volumes, that adds up," Powers said.

Mauro Dalbo, office manager for Mediterranean Shipping Co., the port's largest container line, said Baltimore's central location and easy access to Washington and Midwestern markets such as Chicago are attractive but not its only selling points.

Monthly quality-control meetings involving shipping companies, dockworkers, processors, port managers and security ensure the best service, he said.

"We like the community," Dalbo said. "There's a commitment to each other. If there's a problem, we work together to solve it. No one walks away until it's fixed."

Port officials know the competition isn't standing still, and customers are constantly looking for value. Requests for proposals "are constantly out there as companies look for a better deal," said Larry Johnson, who handles Baltimore's auto trade.

By offering a deal on 110 waterfront acres three years ago, Philadelphia was able to woo South Korean manufacturers Kia and Hyundai to its port, which translated into a 10.3 percent increase in car imports there last year. With lots of open land to store vehicles, Brunswick, Ga., is hoping to increase its 19.6 percent share of the market by drawing manufacturers with plants in the South.

"Brunswick has targeted us," Powers said. "You need to have a big parking lot, and they have that."

Baltimore has pushed back by adding Fiat cargo vans, Mitsubishi SUVs and Hondas imported from Mexico. It is courting Mazda and Volvo. The port has four auto processors to reduce the time it takes to get vehicles from ship to tractor-trailer trucks; New York has a single processor.

Powers would like to get Kia and Hyundai back in the fold. But to do so would require more land, he said.

The sales force has to be nimble, looking for rising products to replace declining ones. With newsprint and high-quality magazine paper slumping, the port invested in massive storage sheds — the latest a 300,000-square-foot expansion at Dundalk Marine Terminal — to attract consumer paper product companies such as Kimberly-Clark and Procter & Gamble.

"People wipe their faces with napkins, not iPads," Powers said.

Last year, Baltimore's direct-call container business inched up slightly to 7.5 percent of the East Coast market, but that remained far behind Norfolk's 24 percent. To beef up that aspect of port traffic, the trade team has set its sights on increasing business from shipping companies Maersk Line of Denmark and CMA-CGM Group of France.

One of the best ways to do that, said Joseph Greco Sr., the port's deputy marketing director, is to get buy-in from companies building huge regional distribution centers, such as IKEA, Costco and REI. The ships will go where their customers want them, and such retailers want access to the third-most prosperous market in the country and cargo-moving efficiency that is among the best in the nation.

"If we can make them see what Baltimore can do for them, they tell their carriers they want service in Baltimore," Greco said.

Often, that's enough. But officials sometimes need a deal sweetener.

When REI, the outdoor gear retailer, decided to build a 525,000-square-foot distribution center on 43 acres in Bedford, Pa., it began shopping for an East Coast port. The search included New York, Philadelphia and Savannah, Ga., said Scott Searcy, logistics technology manager.

Costs, fuel use, travel time and traffic congestion all figured into the equation, but so did carbon footprint and environmental strategy. The Bedford center supplies almost half of REI's 132 cooperative stores and direct-to-customer business.

The port's efforts to replace fuel-guzzling trucks with biodiesel vehicles, build wetlands and restore habitat, along with its recycling program, all impressed REI officials.

"We quickly realized that Baltimore was aligned with REI's values," Searcy said. "They didn't do things because it's a nice thing to do. They do it to make a difference, and they're doing it far and above what other ports are doing."


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