Up to 51,000 European Jaguars will roll off cargo ships at the port of Baltimore during the next three years en route to Midwest markets, according to a deal announced yesterday that will add a little more fuel to one of the state's biggest maritime businesses.
The luxury automobiles will amount to a fraction of the cars and trucks handled by the port each year. But officials said they are a sign of local strength in a highly competitive port environment where Baltimore is making gains on the New York-New Jersey ports in the auto import-export business.
The Jaguar contract, they said, also shows support for the port's decision years ago to focus more heavily on such niche cargo as automobiles and farm equipment.
The port and its largest auto processor, Amports, announced the new deal during a ceremony where officials praised the white-glove treatment for fine automobiles.
"We put a new strategic plan in place in 1996 that included growing the auto imports and exports, and the statistics are impressive," said Kathleen Broadwater, deputy executive director for the port administration. "The entire port auto business, including the public and private terminals, has grown at an average annual rate of 11 percent."
Although cargo packed in big metal containers, such as food and apparel, is still substantial business for the port, officials expect the most growth in other areas, such as cars, paper products and farm and construction equipment. That cargo requires special training and a lot of storage space.
The port has location on its side for such business because it's the East Coast port closest to the Midwest.
That's appealing to shippers of cars and other unwieldy and sometimes fragile items that are not protected by a metal box because they prefer their cargo travel on the water as long as possible.
Shippers of containers want to get their cargo onto trains and trucks fast, and many have turned to ports directly on the ocean, rather than Baltimore, which is an eight to 10-hour trip up the Chesapeake Bay.
"We like to handle the cars as little as possible," said Lee Maas, national distribution and logistics manager for Jaguar. "Baltimore has the physical proximity because it's so far inland."
Maas said the Jaguars, and some Land Rovers, imported through Baltimore are headed to states including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Dealerships in Maryland get their stock from a terminal in Newark, N.J.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey reported that its terminals handled 625,798 auto imports and exports last year, 5.9 percent more than in the year before. Maryland handled almost 543,600 cars last year, almost 24 percent more than in the year before.
The port has stepped up training for its longshoremen and other workers who handle the cars, trucks and other wheeled equipment, known as ro-ro, for its ability to roll on and off ships. Officials hold a Ro-Ro Rodeo every year so that newcomers and some old hands can meet with manufacturers and take lessons on how to operate the cars and trucks, and farm and construction equipment.
The training might have helped win Jaguar back to the port after a three-year absence. Longshoreman lore has it that workers crashed three Jaguars in one day, prompting the luxury brand to take its business elsewhere.
Ford Motor Co., which bought the Jaguar brand in 1989, has had a decades-long relationship with the port of Baltimore, importing and exporting other cars over the years. Its latest three-year contract for the luxury cars was signed with Amports, the auto processor. The vehicles will sail on the Wallenius Wilhelmsen steamship line from the United Kingdom.
Ford has reported that the division that manufactures luxury brands of Astin Martin, Jaguar and Land Rover has been a drag on company earnings for years. The company said on Sept. 17 that it would close one of its European plants, cut 1,150 jobs and reduce production of Jaguars by 15,000 this year.
Jaguar sold 3,848 cars in the United States last month, 38 percent fewer than in the corresponding month last year.
Officials said yesterday that the drop in production might slightly affect Baltimore and a few other U.S. ports it uses. The contract calls for 15,000 to 17,000 cars a year through 2007, perhaps on the lower end by next year.
Amports processes the cars from three lots around Baltimore, making sure the stereo and other parts work. Then workers put them on trains and trucks toward U.S. dealerships.
The port has signed or extended contracts with other auto companies, including Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Honda, Hyundai, Porsche and Volvo.
Richard Kilbride, Amport's vice president of business development, said he hopes winning Jaguar back sends a good message to others considering where to ship automobiles.
"They made the selection of the port based on the location and they picked their processor based on our ability to do quality work," he said. "They were persuaded to come back."