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.