Administrator left port in good shape

But experts fear slippage if strong replacement for White can't be found

February 26, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

The port of Baltimore is better than when administrator James J. White found it and is poised to capture more business, shipping experts said yesterday, the day after his resignation.

White, among the Maryland Port Administration's longest-serving executive directors, spent the past six years cementing relationships with the ocean carriers and shippers who decide how it all gets here, executives said.

"Jim White secured long-term contracts with steamship lines and brought a lot of business to Baltimore, and that success remains," said David Stambough, manager of the Baltimore Maritime Exchange, a port information provider. "I don't know what the effects down the road will be, but the port community is going to rally together to keep things running smoothly."

White, who was appointed director in 1999 by Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening, announced his resignation Thursday, saying he had failed to win the respect of Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. He said Ehrlich administration officials were interfering with his management of the port.

Flanagan became his boss in January 2003, when Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich was inaugurated.

Port experts fear the progress during White's six years at the helm and 12 years in other port positions could slip without a strong replacement.

"Jim White could call any shipping company in the world - Italy, Asia, anywhere - and have immediate contact," said state Del. John S. Arnick, a Democrat whose district includes two waterfront areas, Dundalk and Essex. "It will take years to build that up again."

White said he thinks the port will continue on a steady pace. He pointed to the staff of nearly 300, many of them with long maritime experience and vital relationships with customers. He also pointed to long-term contracts secured during his tenure.

At least 10 of the contracts cover periods of 10 to 35 years, generating about $1 billion in revenue for the state, according to material provided by Helen Delich Bentley, a former congresswoman and port consultant who will head up the search for a new director.

The agreements are with some of the biggest shippers, manufacturers and ocean carriers including Mediterranean Shipping Co., Wallenius Wilhelmsen, Evergreen and Amports. Before White's tenure, the majority of contracts lasted no more than two to three years, port officials and others said.

On the export side, the port handles the East Coast shipments of Deere & Co., an Illinois maker of farm implements and construction equipment.

Deere complained that the Port Administration had closed its Midwest office, and Mediterranean Shipping Co. executives said Ehrlich administration officials were interfering with White's management of the port.

Containers remain a large part of the port's business, but White also succeeded in building on his predecessor's plan to target non-containerized cargo more heavily. Baltimore is the westernmost East Coast port, White liked to say.

The port has revived as a competitor along the Mid-Atlantic coast, although with less impact than it had decades ago. About 2,000 ships called on the port last year, half the traffic of the mid-1970s, said Stambaugh of the Maritime Exchange.

Since the 1980s, Baltimore has lost market share in containerized cargo to competitors such as Hampton Roads, Va., and New York, which have improved infrastructure to accommodate more of that lucrative business.

But bigger ships and a focus on different cargo such as automobiles, paper and farm equipment have given Baltimore a new role on the East Coast. Baltimore has stepped up its marketing, trained its longshoremen and made room for the bulky cargo.

The strategy has worked, industry observers say. Baltimore is now the leading East Coast port for roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) cargo such as farm and construction equipment, and the No. 2 port for automobiles behind New York. Cargo in general is up, from 6.1 million tons in 1999, when White took over, to a record 7.4 million tons last year.

Peter M. Tirschwell, editorial director of The Journal of Commerce, said Thursday that Baltimore has made a name for itself with niche cargo such as ro-ro and automobiles. The challenge, he said, will be finding someone who understands the port's geographic position and the industry's intricacies, and continue the trend.

"It's a multifaceted community," he said. "You'll want someone at the helm of the port who understands the business, a professional port manager."

In an industry where tenure is often counted in decades, not years, consistency breeds credibility, Tirschwell said. The port of Baltimore had seven directors in eight years before White's appointment, and the ads of competitors trying to lure trade from Baltimore years ago pointed that out.

White said Thursday after his resignation that his two goals had been accomplished: forging the long-term contracts and bringing stability to the executive level of the MPA.

"In this business, relationships are everything. Trust and relationships," White said. "My advice to the [Ehrlich administration] is keep the team that's there together. It's a very experienced and dedicated staff. Earn their respect and get out of their way, and let them bring in the business."

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