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Deal Maker returns to port

The Baltimore Sun

James J. White returns today after a two-year absence to head one of the state's largest economic engines, the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore.

He served as executive director of the Maryland Port Administration for six years but left for the private sector in 2005 after feuding with his bosses in the Republican Ehrlich administration. The Democratic O'Malley Administration asked him to come back. And the port commission gave its stamp of approval to him and his salary of $252,000 a year.

Officials said many people in the local maritime community called for the return of White, who was known as a tough negotiator and deal maker. He replaces F. Brooks Royster III, who headed a terminal operation at the Port of Miami-Dade in Florida when a Baltimore search committee came calling.

As the leader of the Baltimore port, White will manage nearly 300 people as well as oversee efforts to bring in more commerce through the port. General cargo, mostly handled by the public terminals that will be overseen by White, totaled 9.3 million tons last year. That was up from 8.8 million tons in 2005. Overall among U.S. ports, Baltimore ranks 12th for total dollar value of cargo and 14th for total foreign cargo handled.

In an interview just before his start date, White answered some questions about running the agency. Here are his condensed answers.

What are the first things you plan to do when you return to the port?

A lot of stuff I packed up when I left is still in the basement of my home in Bel Air. I plan on taking that same box back with me.

As far as the business, it's just going to take me a while to get my feet on the ground and assess the operation, see what issues need immediate attention, get back with labor folks and see how they think the port has been doing for the last two years. I'll take look at niche cargoes and container cargoes.

Those in the community who wanted you back cited your ability to bring in new business and sign long-term contracts, which are uncommon in the industry. Do you think expectations of you are reasonable?

I want the expectations to be high. I think the port of Baltimore has got a lot to offer. There are a lot of talented people there. We'll have to dust off our strategic plan and be precise in who we go after. If I can use a model, we identified Wallenius Wilhelmsen as the most critical ocean carrier and went after them and [in 2001] got a 20-year contract with an option for 20 more.

Those deals don't come often. There's a lot of hard work and sweat involved on the part of the whole team. There haven't been a lot of personnel changes since I left. Most people I promoted or brought into the agency. We'll have to get reacquainted and get to work.

How do you think your two years of private sector experience at New Jersey-based stevedoring and terminal operating company Ceres Terminals Inc. will help you at the port?

It did me a world of good. The port of Baltimore is all about business. Politics will always have a role at the port, but really the business is important to the state. It produces jobs, taxes and economic benefit to the entire state. There are a lot of businesses connected to the port. Mack Trucks in Hagerstown is a great example.

Speaking of politics, looking back at the flap you had with the former administration over budget and personnel issues, how do you think it affected the port?

I don't think the squabbling at the time did the port well. I think I tried to walk away as quietly as possible. It's always better if you don't have that type of publicity. The port has certainly had its share of executive directors over the past couple of decades, but I think my term there of six years, actually 12 years with six as executive director, says something loud and clear. And the fact that I wanted to come back says something. I plan to beat that six years.

A strategic plan put in place in the 1990s called on Baltimore to pursue more niche cargo such as paper, cars and farm and construction equipment. You followed the plan before. Will you continue?

I think we need to keep our finger on the pulse. The industry changes from day to day. We want to hold on to what we have and build on it. When I was last there, we identified forest products as a great opportunity. I think today we are the No. 1 port for imported forest products. I believe we were handling 1.2 or 1.4 tons when I left. A lot of shed space was built. Funding may be an issue now but there was seed money then to rehabilitate warehouses. They could handle 60 pounds per square inch, and we increased that to 2,000 to accommodate the paper. We had to rip up the floors. The weight put more stress on the bulkheads at the pier, so we rebuilt the bulkheads. It was expensive but it worked out.

So much sold in America today comes from China in those big metal containers. Can Baltimore tap more of that business when the Pacific ports are so much closer? And Baltimore also is a day's trip up the Chesapeake Bay, compared with Norfolk, Va., and New York, which are right on the ocean.

For the most part, that cargo will continue to go to the Pacific ports. It's seven to 10 days quicker to the West Coast versus the East Coast. A lot of shippers routed some of their cargo to the East Coast ports for relief from congestion. We may see some more come through the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal to the U.S. East Coast. But it's really going to depend on the ocean carriers and how they deploy their ships. Most containers that come to Baltimore now are for local consumption. The biggest gain will come if we get a rail partner and go after discretionary cargo. It's a hard sell but not an impossible sell.

Ignoring the budget problems that the governor faces in Annapolis, what's on your wish list, and what would it cost? A 50-foot berth at the Seagirt Marine Terminal to accommodate bigger ships?

All major ports are going to have a 50-foot berth. Virginia has one today. New York will have one in '08. We have 50-foot channel, but not a berth. It's important. [State Transportation Secretary John D.] Porcari mentioned it to me as one thing we need to look at and get aggressive with and deliver. It would be nice to have double-stack [containers on rail lines]. We still need to deal with the Howard Street tunnel, making it big enough. But it has a huge price tag - $1 billion last I heard.

Do you think port security in Baltimore and elsewhere has improved since Sept. 11? Do you think it's even possible to thwart potential terrorist acts at U.S. ports without hampering commerce?

This is probably not a good question to ask me now. I don't even know who the person in charge of security at the port is today. Someone new was hired for the job, and I haven't met him or seen his resume. Security is something the governor wants, so it's going to happen. Secretary Porcari said he'd give us support, although I don't know what budget is at this time.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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