James J. White, who left the port of Baltimore because of political tension with his new bosses in the Ehrlich administration, began a new job yesterday in New Jersey with a company that does business with about a dozen U.S. ports, including Baltimore's.
White became senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Weehawken, N.J.-based stevedoring and terminal operating company Ceres Terminals Inc. The move eases the fears of some in Baltimore's maritime industry who thought White might take his reputation and contacts to a competing port.
In announcing White's hiring, Ceres officials noted his nearly three decades in the maritime industry and his work as the head of Maryland's public terminals, which processed a record amount of cargo last year.
"Over the past two years, we have expanded our scope of operations, and Jim is a welcome addition that will help ensure Ceres' continued progress," said Thomas J. Simmers, Ceres' president and chief executive.
The $800 million company is one of North America's largest cargo handlers and terminal operators. It has been a subsidiary of Nippon Yusen Kaisha Group of Tokyo since 2002.
Ceres began operating in Baltimore in the 1970s and had become the largest stevedoring company at the port. Stevedores, or longshoremen, load and unload ships. But Ceres became locked in a disagreement with port administrators over fees and did not renew its main lease at Dundalk Marine Terminal in the mid-1990s. The company still does work in Baltimore unloading car transport ships for auto handlers and rail cars at Seagirt Marine Terminal.
White said yesterday that he wants to expand Ceres' business in Baltimore.
"I've worked to hard to put business there," White said from his new office in Weehawken. "Ceres has a presence in Baltimore. I have a preference to help build the port up. I have a lot of friends there."
White left the Maryland Port Administration after two years of clashing with his boss, Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, on such issues as spending, marketing and hiring.
White was appointed in 1999 by Gov. Parris N. Glendening but Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. won the governorship in 2002, the first Republican to do so in 36 years, bringing a new Cabinet and new direction.
Although his clash with White became awkwardly public in recent weeks, Flanagan said he was glad for White.
"Jim is real maritime pro, and I wish him the best," Flanagan said.
White is credited with building niche cargo at the port, including automobiles, paper products and so-called ro-ro, such as farm and construction equipment that can roll on and off ships. He oversaw a new cruise ship terminal. And he brought a measure of stability to Baltimore, which had gone through seven port directors in eight years before he took over.
White signed at least 10 long-term contracts with shippers, cargo handlers and ocean carriers, which generally avoid long leases so that they can respond to changing patterns of commerce.
The deals will provide more than $1 billion in revenue to the state and guaranteed hours of work on the waterfront, according to information provided by Helen Delich Bentley, a former congresswoman and port consultant.
She is heading the state's search for White's replacement. The search committee, aided by about a dozen people from the maritime community, is expected to send a list of candidates to Flanagan by April 15.
White described the long-term contracts as his biggest achievement at the port, which had been securing agreements of two or three years. He signed a deal with Mercedes-Benz that could keep the auto manufacturer importing cars through Baltimore for 40 years. He also signed a deal with Wallenius Wilhelmsen, the port's largest ro-ro carrier, that could keep it coming for 35 years.
About 7.4 million tons of cargo passed through the port last year, up from 6.1 million tons in 1999 when White took over, a 21 percent increase. Auto, forest products and ro-ro have logged the largest increases in that time because Baltimore has made room for the bulky cargo, has trained workers to handle it and has marketed for the business.
Baltimore is one of the nation's top 20 ports by cargo value and by tonnage. Although it has a piece of the market for lucrative metal containers, it is not one of the nation's major ports in that area.
White said the biggest loss during his tenure was a container hub for the Maersk Sealand shipping line, which decided in 2000 to expand in New York instead. Officials aggressively pursued the business, which would have tripled the number of containers coming to Baltimore. The business stayed in New York, but as a runner-up, Baltimore got positive publicity.
The pursuit of Maersk also seemed to bring together lawmakers, port businesses and labor, whose differing priorities strained the port years ago. "Everyone was on the same page after that," White said.
The next director inherits major challenges.