Bill Virgin: Fick as Seattle port’s leadership pick comes with little elaboration

By Bill Virgin, September 21, 2014, The News Tribune

You don’t normally introduce a new hire with, “he’ll do,” or “she’s the best we could find,” so it was not surprising that it was all smiles and good cheer and lots of verbiage about the right person and great teams and leadership at the Port of Seattle’s Sept. 11 meeting at which it approved Ted Fick as its CEO, starting at the end of this month through the end of September 2017.

 

And it’s not that the port needed to do much apologizing for its selection of Fick who, according to the official bio, is a Tacoma native who worked at the family-owned foundry company here and later moved on to stints with Paccar and, more recently, truck-trailer manufacturer Polar Corp.

 

Still, a little elaboration on the reasoning behind the appointment and discussion of the reality with which Mr. Fick will be dealing might have been illuminating, not the least to the taxpayers helping subsidize the port and who are wondering if that’s ever going to decrease or stop.

 

But there was little of that, beyond some references to “challenges” as well as interesting if unelaborated-upon remark by Commissioner Bill Bryant that “in 10 years, this port is not going to look at all as it does today.” He added that Fick represents a great choice to “drive and shape the change that’s coming at us.”

 

In a news conference following the commission’s official action, Fick deferred discussing what specifics he has in mind for the port, including its relations and competition with the Port of Tacoma, saying he needs time to delve into and study the issues.

 

We’ll put that down to coyness and diplomacy. With local roots as deep as Fick’s and with so much experience in transportation and logistics related businesses, it’s unlikely no thought has crossed his mind as to the future of regional seaport operations in the face of already tough competitive conditions that are only going to get more so.

 

It’s also unlikely that in his rounds of interviews with port commissioners no one brought up the question of, “So, what are we going to do with this thing?” Here again, diplomacy might have played a role, Fick not wanting to alienate his employers before he draws his first paycheck by spouting off on policy matters the commissioners themselves haven’t resolved.

 

But it’s no great speculative leap to suggest that Fick has been hired for more involved duties than day-to-day operations. If that were the case, the port would have turned to someone extensively versed in port operations. Fick’s predecessor Tay Yoshitani had been executive director of the Port of Oakland and the Maryland Port Administration and was deputy executive director at the Port of Los Angeles.

 

But instead they turned to someone who, in the words of Commissioner Courtney Gregoire, has had “proven success in guiding large organizations through changing competitive landscapes, expertise in manufacturing and logistics, understanding the pressures on those companies, how to support them, how to grow them, how to help them export around the globe and how that supports family-wage jobs right here at home.”

 

That economic-development aspect got a lot of play at the commission’s meeting. Commissioner Tom Albro in particular has been vocal about building the port’s ties to the state’s manufacturing sector, a move designed to boost outbound shipments from the port and in the process generate or preserve jobs.

 

That’s hardly a unique perspective. Ports up and down the coast have concluded that moving metal boxes through their terminals is a low-margin, low-growth business being divvied up by more players; finding something to supplement that is crucial.

 

Some ports are trying to cut into the energy import/export business, with coal, LNG and oil. The Port of Tacoma, meanwhile, has a proposal for a liquid methanol export facility, as well as developable land on the Tideflats and at Frederickson.

 

The Port of Seattle doesn’t have the same advantage in land resources, but it does have the airport, which holds potential for growth in both passenger and freight volumes. In August the port broke ground on the first phase of development of an 87-acre business park in Des Moines, near the airport.

 

But here too Fisk inherits a planeload of issues and challenges. While port officials are much more sanguine about the airport’s prospects, it’s not a competition-free business. For one thing, there are a lot more airports than there are seaports, and they’re all after the same growth as the Port of Seattle. Plus, there’s the perpetual headache of what the airlines are financially doing to themselves and their business.

 

So welcome aboard, Mr. Fick. Take some time to figure out how the port is going to survive, much less accomplish the lofty goals set out in its Century Agenda. But don’t take too long. And when you do figure it out, let the people paying for a place for boats and planes to park know.

 

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