Longtime Port of Longview chief sets sail for retirement

By Erik Olson, December 19, 2012, Longview Daily News

Since Ken O’Hollaren took the helm in 1988, the Port of Longview has doubled its annual revenue, quadrupled its acreage and created hundreds of new jobs.

During his quarter-century tenure, O’Hollaren has presided over a $20 million rail expansion, construction of a $6 million new Berth 9, the death and resurrection of log exports, and the West Coast’s tensest labor standoff in decades.

“I look at (all of) this as an accomplishment,” O’Hollaren, 57, said in an interview last week.

O’Hollaren, the longest-serving port director in Washington, is retiring at the end of the month. Last week, he attended his last port meeting and is finishing up his tenure with remaining vacation time.

In 1980, the University of Oregon graduate joined the port after starting his career with a shipping company. He was named executive director eight years later.

O’Hollaren was a big supporter of deepening the Columbia River shipping channel by three feet. The $200 million project, which took two decades to complete, has spurred expansions in grain terminals regionwide and helped keep Lower Columbia River ports vibrant, O’Hollaren said.

“It’s a matter of keeping the river as competitive,” he said.

O’Hollaren said he’s most proud of expanding the port’s property base during his career, starting with the purchase of three parcels of International Paper Co. property in the 1990s. Over the next decade, that land eventually became home to the EGT grain terminal, Skyline Steel and Braun Steel. These firms have invested hundreds of million of dollars, created jobs, property taxes for the community and revenue for the port, according to O’Hollaren.

In the early 2000s, the port suffered a “perfect storm” when log exports collapsed and the port lost import business when the Reynolds Metals aluminum plant shut down, and O’Hollaren said he lost sleep over the port’s precarious financial health.

“That really drove home the importance of securing a more stable source of revenue,” O’Hollaren said.

Which, it turned out, was EGT, which would not have occurred without the channel-deepening project. The $200 million grain terminal turned to be one of O’Hollaren’s greatest victories and biggest challenges. EGT is expected to provide the port millions of dollars annually in shipping and rental fees, but it was also the center of a nasty, six-month labor battle with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

The longshore union claimed the port had failed to protect its labor interests. It lashed out at O’Hollaren and port commissioners, but O’Hollaren said he has no regrets.

“The port did all it could to help preserve longshore jurisdiction,” he said, adding, “It’s pretty hard to look at the operations (at EGT) and see anything but a huge economic boost for the area.”

O’Hollaren’s tenure hasn’t been without other setbacks. In the early 2000s, port officials tried unsuccessfully to get attract Toyota and Hyundai to build car import docks here. Then in 2009, it took a $1 million loss on a 25-acre land deal when Simpson Timber backed off a plan to build a new sawmill.

Out of that failure, though, the port acquired an additional 35-acre parcel from Simpson, land that now is home to pipe manufacturer Skyline Steel and 65 family-wage jobs, O’Hollaren said. Skyline made the deal worth it “despite the bumps in the road to get there,” O’Hollaren said.

In retirement, O’Hollaren said he plans to hit the links and do some steelhead fishing. He said he’d consider going back into the maritime industry in a consulting role. He said he’d consider going back into the maritime industry in a consulting role.

His replacement at the port is Geir-Eilif Kalhagen.

O’Hollaren has played a major role in supporting ports both in the region and nationwide, said Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association.

In 2008, O’Hollaren was chairman of the American Association of Port Authorities, a post normally reserved for executives from much bigger ports, Johnson said. And in the 1990s, he led the state port association’s legislative committee, lobbying for ports on issues such as growth management and industrial clean-up policies, Johnson said.

“It was a dynamic time for us, and he had a real staying influence,” Johnson said.

Port directors burn out because of heavy competition and high stakes, but O’Hollaren endured because of his sense of humor and upbeat nature, Johnson said.

“He handles conflict with a grace and a humor that is really admirable. He’s got a good disposition. Once you get to know Ken, you want to help him succeed. People just have a real genuine affection for him.”

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