In a mahogany-paneled room overlooking New York's East River, dozens of top executives of steamship lines for years gathered in October to drink wine and Perrier and lunch on salmon and tomato aspic, compliments of the Maryland Port Administration.
The governor went, as did dozens of port officials and many of the state's maritime leaders. To shipping executives, the New York pilgrimage was an annual reminder that the port of Baltimore needed their business.
It still does. Perhaps more than ever.
But this year, the port's new executive director, Tay Yoshitani, scrapped the luncheon, opting instead to invite top steamship officials individually to lunch at the governor's mansion in Annapolis with Parris N. Glendening, one executive to another.
"The very top executives expect special treatment," said Mr. Yoshitani, the former No. 2 man for the nation's second-largest port, Los Angeles. "That's the way they conduct their business in Europe and in Asia."
On the job just three months, the 49-year-old graduate of West Point and Harvard Business School seems determined to quietly break the mold and set a new tone for the port of Baltimore as it enters perhaps its toughest era in history.
"The competition from the other ports is our greatest challenge," Mr. Yoshitani says. "We have the facilities and the infrastructure here."
In the coming months, he will be forced to tackle a host of issues that are certain to affect the outcome in the battle of the East Coast ports. Among them:
* Dredging Baltimore's shipping channels, an expensive necessity and always a political hot potato.
* Cutting labor costs to compete with nearby ports such as Philadelphia, as well as with nonunion ones in the South.
* Establishing a new management team at a turnover-plagued MPA.
* Aggressively pursuing cargo in the midst of an industry consolidation that means ships are using fewer ports.
"It's a dog-eat-dog fight among ports," said former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, now a consultant to the port. "He's coming here just as the port of Baltimore faces its most critical point since end of World War II."
Competitors from other ports privately wonder if Mr. Yoshitani -- coming from a port blessed with an abundance of cargo and revenue -- is prepared to run one that scrapes for every ton and barely ekes out a profit each year.
But state Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead, who oversees the port agency, says Mr. Yoshitani's background makes him well equipped for the job.
"He has a very analytical, business-like way of operating the port," said Mr. Winstead. "He's also got a true understanding of corporate decision making and who you need to get to."
In meetings with his managers, the soft-spoken Mr. Yoshitani candidly refers to the port of Baltimore as an "underdog." It is a rare admission, coming from an MPA director, yet one that reflects a geographic reality: With East Coast ports competing furiously for ships and cargo, Baltimore -- inconveniently situated 10 hours away from the Atlantic Ocean -- must work harder and harder.
But fellow workers say Mr. Yoshitani seems undaunted by the port's Avis-like status as he enters the East Coast battle, determined to capitalize on the port's modern facilities, its strong highway and rail connections and its historic advantage of being closer to Midwest manufacturing centers, although that was eroded by the deregulation of railroad rates. "He brings to the port a sense of 'we're in the hunt, we're in the fight and we've got to do everything we can' to beat the competition by marketing our assets and advantages," said Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for Mr. Glendening.
"He really seems energized by the challenge," said Linda Jordan, director of communications for the MPA.
His appointment followed a five-month nationwide hunt, in which a search committee finally hired a head-hunter who approached Mr. Yoshitani and convinced him to look at Baltimore.
"This guy was nobody's second or third choice," said Mr. Feldmann. "The state did a full-court press to get him."
The search committee, consisting of maritime industry and labor officials, was attracted by Mr. Yoshitani's reputation in Los Angeles, where he was known to be astute in his dealings with industry and labor as well as with the port's own layers of bureaucracy.
"A simple matter like a lease could take a year," said Jim McJunkin, former director of the Port of Long Beach, Los Angeles' chief competitor. "But Tay proved to be a non-bureaucrat."
In Los Angeles, he was instrumental in putting together a consortium to oversee the construction and operation of a $123 million export terminal that will be the largest of its kind on the West Coast when completed in 1997. He also spearheaded the negotiations leading to construction in 1991 of a 230-acre terminal for American President Lines.
"Tay is extremely pleasant but an excellent negotiator," said Ezunial Burts, executive director for the Port of Los Angeles. "The kinds of things he handled here are not negotiated by someone who isn't tough."
At the MPA, Mr. Yoshitani succeeded Michael P. Angelos, who resigned in March after federal regulators launched an investigation into whether he and his deputy director, G. Gregory Russell, engaged in insider trading in connection with the sale of Bank of Baltimore. Mr. Russell, who had been a bank director, also resigned.
One of his first tasks is to raise morale and rebuild the top echelons of an agency wracked by upheaval and resignations. As head of an agency that has seen six directors come and go in the past nine years, he also has to convince the steamship industry of the MPA's stability.
After his introduction by Mr. Glendening in August, Mr. Yoshitani quipped that he had promised the first-term governor he would stay at least eight years.
Thus far at the MPA, Mr. Yoshitani has moved at a deliberate pace, making one major hire, a marketing director from private industry.
Fellow workers describe him as low-keyed yet very secure, a good extemporaneous speaker who rarely relies on prepared texts.
"He doesn't seek the limelight," said Rebecca Barber, who works in the agency's information department. "He wanders around the World Trade Center, asking people what they do and what they're up to. He's obviously very interested and wants to learn everything. He doesn't act like he's always in a hurry to get away from you by looking over your shoulder."
Mr. Yoshitani says he strives to strike a balance in his management approach.
"You have to know when to be autocratic and when to be democratic. I like to lean toward being democratic," he said. "People want a lot more out of their careers than just a pay check. They want to be involved. They want to participate."
He instituted casual days on Fridays, issuing a memo that said while he endorsed the program, his own schedule would dictate a suit and tie more often than not. The first Friday he showed up in khakis and a polo shirt.
"He's very California, not a button-down kind of guy," says Jim Gring, a port spokesman.
NB Born in Japan to American citizens, Mr. Yoshitani is the young
est of four boys. His father, an oil company engineer, was working in Japan when World War II broke out. Considered Japanese citizens by the Japanese government, the family was blocked from returning to the United States.
West Point graduate
In the early 1950s, they moved back to the United States, living first in Los Angeles and later in Connecticut. In 1964, following his older brother's footsteps, he won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
After graduating in 1968, he spent five years in the Army -- two in Vietnam and three in Japan -- before returning to Harvard University where he received his master's degree in business administration.
Over the next 14 years, he worked in private industry, holding executive positions in manufacturing, restaurant and real estate companies. His experience in the maritime industry did not begin until 1989, when he was named deputy executive director in Los Angeles.
He met his wife, Becky, while working at the former Avery International, now Avery-Dennison, a worldwide manufacturer of adhesive and other office products, in Los Angeles. The couple, who recently moved to Columbia, have three children, Jennifer, 6, Taylor, 3, and Ryan, 2.
Mr. Yoshitani also has a 24-year-old daughter, Kristen, by a previous marriage.
"He seems to have a life away from here," says Mr. Gring of the MPA. "This isn't the only thing in the world. His family seems really important."
Indeed, the decision to accept the $124,000-a-year post in Baltimore hinged in no small measure, the couple say, on the educational opportunities available in Maryland for their daughter, Taylor, who was born with Down syndrome.
Problems in L.A.
Still, Mr. Yoshitani's decision to leave the nation's most successful port perplexed more than a few people. Yet Los Angeles has problems of its own.
In the past year, Republican Mayor Richard Riordan has tried to divert money from the highly profitable port, which makes $80 million a year, to fund city programs. Furthermore, a consultant report commissioned by the mayor's office earlier this year recommended downsizing the port operation by more than 250 people, including several top-level jobs. The turmoil has left many port workers exasperated and frustrated.
Mr. Yoshitani said the top job in Baltimore was particularly attractive since his good friend and boss, Mr. Burts, executive director at Los Angeles since 1984, is 48 and unlikely to retire.
He also pointed to other factors influencing his decision. Despite the port's diminished role, Baltimore is far more focused on its port than the city of Los Angeles, he said.
"There's overwhelming support and consensus for the success of the port and the port community. Everybody here cares. That's a real contrast to L.A., where half the people don't even know where the port is."
Mr. Yoshitani is hoping to focus the world on Baltimore as well by developing a strategy that will sell shippers and steamship executives on the port and help carve out a viable place in the maritime industry.
"There's a wealth of knowledge and talent within the organization," he said. "What hasn't been done is to bring that together to a well-defined strategy and plan to compete with the other ports."
"Unless an organization has a very clearly defined goal and knows what it's after, it has a tendency to flounder," he said. "There's nothing more compelling for an organization than knowing what it wants to do."
While Baltimore may have lacked a strategy, it has also been derailed in the past by various crises, whether management upheavals within the MPA or crippling labor disputes.
Ultimately, Mr. Yoshitani, like other top managers, may be judged by how he handles the unexpected.
"The first crisis," says Mr. Feldmann, "will be his litmus test."
Born: Aug. 16, 1946, in Tokyo
Education: U.S. Military Academy, 1968; MBA, Harvard University, 1975
Experience: Deputy executive director of maritime affairs for the port of Los Angeles, 1989-1995. President, Grand American Inc., a real estate acquisition, development and management company based in Santa Monica, Calif., 1987-1989. Director of finance, director of planning and development, and general manager, Avery International, Los Angeles, 1982-1987. Vice president, Gamlon Corp., a Honolulu real estate corporation, 1978-1981. Superintendent for production control, Hawaii-based Castle & Cook Inc., 1975-1978.
Family: Wife, Becky. Four children: Kristen, 24, Jennifer, 6, Taylor, 3, and Ryan, 2.