By Craig Brown, July 14, 2014, The Columbian
Sunday’s cooler weather made it a nice day to look at new Subarus, and at the Port of Vancouver, a crowd of about 100 invited guests gathered to check out a red 2015 Forester station wagon.
This Forester, recently arrived off the NYK auto carrier Dionysos Leader from Yokosuka, Japan, was declared to be the 1 millionth Subaru to cross the floating dock at the Port of Vancouver. For 22 years, Subarus have been a major part of the port’s business — last year alone, 69,378 of them were imported here.
Each of those vehicles represents about $300 for the local economy by the time the vehicle is processed and reloaded for shipment to one of Subaru’s 620 North American dealers.
Hitting 1 million is “a phenomenal milestone for Subaru,” said Gerald Lee, the Japanese automaker’s vice president of vehicle planning and logistics. A popular brand in Washington, Oregon and other mountainous states with major cities, Subaru is enjoying the post-recession upswing in U.S. vehicle sales. June sales totaled 41,367, a 5 percent increase over June 2013 and the company’s best-ever June, according to the company.
Not all Subarus come through Vancouver. The company, a division of Fuiji Heavy Industries, builds some models at a soon-to-be-expanded plant in Indiana, and imports others at six U.S. ports.
Year-to-date sales for Subaru totaled 238,008 through June — a 16.3 percent increase over the same period in 2013. The company has now seen 31 consecutive months of year-over-year growth and is on its way to its sixth successive annual sales record, according to a news release.
Here’s what happens in Vancouver, according to Mike Schiller, the port’s business development manager: Three or sometimes four days a month, an odd squarish ship filled with new cars arrives at the port’s terminal 4, berth 10, where a small dock floats in the river. The ship drops a stern ramp, and members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union drive the cars — in Sunday’s case, 2,077 of them — off the ship in an operation that takes about eight hours. The cars are parked in a large fenced parking lot, and drivers take a van back to the ship to get their next car.
After the cars are unloaded, members of another union drive over a span of days or weeks to a large building where they are processed. That work includes removing or capping shipping tie-downs and adding accessories to the car. From there, the Subarus are loaded onto trucks bound for Northwest dealers, or onto BNSF Railway cars if they are being shipped farther away.
As with the rest of Subaru’s business, the Vancouver operation is growing. Todd Coleman, the port’s executive director, said the port and Subaru have reached a memorandum of understanding to extend the company’s presence through 2030. The port will undertake an expansion of the auto processing building. At peak times, Coleman said, the processing operation already employs about 200 people.
On Sunday, it was representatives of all those business and labor groups, plus stevedoring services, the Dionysos Leader’s captain and crew, and invited guests, who gathered for a photo opp around the red Forester — Subaru 1 million — which was driven off the ship by an ILWU worker.
Among the invited guests was former port executive director Byron Hanke, who had the honor of driving Subaru No. 1 off the ship back in 1992, along with a union member as his passenger. Subaru was a much smaller brand in those days. That first car was a green station wagon, he recalled.
“They only had green and red and one other color,” Hanke said. But later, he bought one.