When Adrian Teel was appointed director of the Maryland Port Administration last year, the only boat he knew anything about was his fishing boat.
But the former accountant is being credited with righting the port of Baltimore after one year at the helm. "I'm a pretty confident person. I felt like I could do it," said the soft-spoken Mr. Teel.
Despite his lack of maritime experience, his performance has won unanimous praise from labor leaders, management, classified employees, port customers and peers.
When Mr. Teel took over the director's office in the World Trade Center last June, the port administration was facing a $5.5 million deficit, a poor reputation in the maritime industry, dwindling cargo, labor-management tensions and low morale among employees.
"What I had to sell was my management skills and my communication skills," Mr. Teel said.
By almost everyone's account, he has succeeded so far. Mr. Teel is being credited with:
* Eliminating the port deficit in six months and turning a profit for the first time in three years.
* Negotiating a 10-year lease with Maersk Inc., one of the most important container lines at the port.
* Negotiating a contract with CSX Intermodal to extend rail service from the Seagirt Marine Terminal to Cincinnati and extending service to the South.
* Concluding an agreement that returns Orient Overseas Container Line to the port after a three-year absence.
* Completing the lease of a portion of the Dundalk Marine Terminal to Ceres Marine Terminals, a plan designed to save the state money and boost efficiency.
* Instituting a personnel reorganization that reduced staff by 15 percent.
* Improving communications within the port community and lifting morale at the port administration.
* Returning credibility to the port administration.
Mr. Teel said he still has a lot of work ahead of him. The port continues to lag behind other ports on the Northeastern seaboard in cargo tonnage. Cargo tonnage in the first quarter of this year was 3 percent less than in the same period last year.
He says his job now is to explore niche markets for the port, such as cocoa, fruit, coffee and lumber. He also wants trucking and rail services from the port to be expanded. And, he says, he still believes he should communicate more effectively with his staff.
But O. James Lighthizer, the secretary of transportation, who put Mr. Teel in his new job, said he is pleased with Mr. Teel's effort. "He's got just about all the pieces in place," Mr. Lighthizer said.
When port director Brendan "Bud" O'Malley resigned in April last year after two years on the job, Mr. Lighthizer stepped in as interim port director. Within a few weeks he recognized that what the port needed more than anything else was a good manager.
Mr. Lighthizer turned to Mr. Teel, who had been chief administrator in Anne Arundel County when Mr. Lighthizer was county executive there.
Although Mr. Teel had spent his career in county government and knew nothing about the maritime industry, Mr. Lighthizer said his only reservation was whether Mr. Teel was too nice for the job. He worried whether Mr. Teel could exert the force needed to reshape the agency and make personnel changes.
"That fear proved to be groundless," Mr. Lighthizer said.
Mr. Teel dismissed three managers and initiated a reorganization at the port administration that cost 46 people their jobs and cut 26 vacant positions as well.
The reorganization and other cost-cutting measures pulled the port out of the red. A $600,000 profit is expected when the fiscal year ends Tuesday.
Royce Treadaway, president of Local 140 of the Maryland Classified Employees Association, said that a number of employees were hurt by the reorganization but that Mr. Teel tried to make the changes as painless as possible. "He's forthright and honest, and that means more than anything," she said.
When Mr. Teel came to the port, morale among the classified employees was low. Ms. Treadaway said workers believed that the personnel system didn't provide a fair means of evaluation and advancement. Although the system will remain in place for at least a few more years, Mr. Teel has promised to try to improve it.
"He finds ways to take care of the employees," Ms. Treadaway said.
The Steamship Trade Association, which represents the port's employers, and the International Longshoremen's Association often are at odds on port issues, but they agree in their assessment of Mr. Teel. Both credit him with promoting a spirit of cooperation at the port.
"I think he's done a remarkable job," said Maurice Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association. "He's made everybody doing business at the port feel like they're important."
"I think he's made a tremendous difference," said Richard Hughes, president of Longshoremen's Local 333. "The ILA was never treated as an equal entity, and now what we have to say is listened to."
In the past, labor, management and the port administration worked together to market the port, but Ed Burke, president of Longshoremen's Local 953, says the cooperation now is more sincere.
Although Mr. Burke said Mr. Teel "didn't know beans about the maritime business," he quickly impressed the unions with his willingness to listen.
"He came in with no preconceived notions," Mr. Burke said. "He didn't come in pointing fingers."
Mr. Burke says he believes part of Mr. Teel's success has been due to timing. When he took over, the major labor contracts had been negotiated, assuring him labor peace for at least four years. Mr. Burke said that in the past year, he has had no disagreements with Mr. Teel.
Ron Sorrow, vice president for sales and marketing at CSX fTC Intermodal, said Mr. Teel was a key factor in the company's decision to restore rail service from the port to the Ohio Valley.
CSX had discontinued the service because it believed there wasn't sufficient demand to justify the cost, but Mr. Teel presented market studies to show that the service was needed, then became directly involved in the negotiations. His commitment and involvement impressed CSX, which had been accustomed to dealing with lower-level port managers, Mr. Sorrow said.
The result has been good news for both the port and CSX. Mr. Sorrow said that in the year since Mr. Teel has been director, intermodal cargo from the port has increased 20 percent.
U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a longtime port supporter, said one way she can measure Mr. Teel's success is that she hasn't received any complaints from labor, management or customers. "I used to get criticisms all the time," she said. Now, "everybody feels the port is on the upswing."
Mr. Teel even wins praise from his peers around the country, most of whom have had many years of maritime experience, said Eric Stromberg, president of the American Association of Port Authorities.
"In one year we've seen remarkable evidence of success" in Baltimore, he said. "He's well-respected and admired in the community. He's a very nice fellow, very likable, very professional."
Mr. Teel, 48, certainly didn't start out to be a port director. The only son of a Harford County farm couple, he grew up quiet and introspective. He studied accounting and finance at the University of Maryland and planned to be a lawyer. But by the time he graduated from the University of Baltimore Law School, he was already a school administrator and found that profession more to his liking.
Through most of his career, he worked quietly behind the scenes, first in the school administration and later in the shadow of the more flamboyant Mr. Lighthizer.
After eight years as the administrative assistant in Anne Arundel County, he was ready for a new challenge. He had considered work in the private sector but came to the port instead. His $105,000 salary stayed the same, but he took on an administrative challenge.
"What really interested me was that the port had gone through a difficult decade," he said. "If I was able to make a change and turn the port around, it would be quite an accomplishment."
He began his study of the port by going to the library and reading every news article published about the port in the previous two years. He then talked to representatives from every segment in the port: labor, management, trucking companies, steamship lines.
His education was aided by the selection of Michael Angelos as his deputy director. Mr. Angelos, with more than 20 years' experience at the Baltimore port, including two years at the port administration, provided the maritime knowledge Mr. Teel lacked.
If Mr. Teel's confidence was ever shaken, it was during the first week on the job when his finance director told him that the projected $3 million deficit was actually going to be $5.5 million.
Mr. Teel took drastic action to reorganize the agency and cut costs. The deficit was eliminated in six months. "I couldn't be more pleased with the financial picture," Mr. Teel said.
Although he has made tangible changes at the port, perhaps his greatest contributions are less easy to define.
"He brought credibility to the top of the organization, and that needed to be done," Mr. Angelos said.
"I think he's done a lot toward bringing the disparate elements at the port together," said M. Sigmund Shapiro, president of Samuel Shapiro & Co. Inc., a freight forwarder.
Mr. Teel recognizes that a significant part of his job is symbolic. Much of his time is spent marketing the port, either domestically or on foreign trade missions.
"My job is to look sincere," he said.
He said he appreciates the opportunities to see various parts of the world but regrets that the job has meant more time away from his wife and two grown children. Even on weekends, he is apt to take home reports to read. He has largely had to forgo the tennis, racquetball and golf he enjoys, although he still goes boating on the Chesapeake Bay.
Although much work remains, Mr. Lighthizer said he expects Mr. Teel to meet the challenge and move on. "He's a top-flight manager,and that's an extremely valuable commodity."
If Mr. Teel has plans about his next career move, he's not saying. He recalls that when he came to the port job, he met with skeptics who questioned his commitment to he job. "I told them I've had two dogs and one wife in 28 years," he said. "I'm a pretty stable person. I plan to stay here for a while."