There’s no template, no consultant, no handy “Port Alliances for Dummies” book on Amazon to guide Port of Tacoma Chief Executive John Wolfe and Port of Seattle Deputy CEO Kurt Beckett through the task that the ports’ commissioners have given them.
That’s because the job of creating an operating alliance between two ports that have been aggressive rivals for decades has never been done before.
Wolfe and Beckett are the leaders of the newly planned Seaport Alliance. The alliance is being formed to market and operate the shipping terminals and maritime assets of the two rival ports.
The two port executives reflected on the historic job ahead Wednesday, just a day after the two port commissions officially approved a petition to the Federal Maritime Commission to win antitrust clearance to get the job rolling.
They have formed a task force of some 16 executives from both ports to first create a timeline for getting the alliance in place, to formulate the questions that must be answered before the new joint structure can be formed and to recommend solutions to what surely will be dozens, if not hundreds, of those questions.
“We haven’t fully identified all of the tasks,” Wolfe said in his office overlooking the Port of Tacoma’s APM container terminal.
“The list is long and growing,” Beckett said by conference call from his Seattle waterfront office.
The two executives said they want to be thoughtful in how they create the alliance.
“We don’t want to rush,” Beckett said. But the two port governing bodies have set a March 31 deadline for creating the framework of the alliance that will be submitted to the FMC for final approval. The two hope to gain federal approval by summertime next year.
Even as the two ports work to frame their alliance, they’re potentially losing business to new rivals in Canada and the East Coast that are aggressively pursueing the import and export business that Puget Sound has counted on for decades. Those ports are already making headway. Although the two ports together are still the nation’s third largest container import gateway, their market share has fallen by several percentage points in recent years.
The alliance’s biggest goal, Wolfe said, is not about cost-cutting, but rather improving the responsiveness and reliability of shipping through Puget Sound. The two port commissions have pledged that the alliance won’t be a vehicle for layoffs at both ports, the Port of Tacoma executive said, but rather for gaining new business that will fully and efficiently employ the existing maritime staff of both ports.
The alliance won’t be a merger of the two ports, but rather an agreement allowing the alliance to operate and market the terminals and other maritime assets of the two ports. Each port will continue to separately manage other assets such as Seattle’s cruise ship terminals and marinas and Tacoma’s industrial properties.
The two commissions have designated Wolfe as the chief executive of the alliance, but the Tacoma port governing body has yet to decide whether Wolfe will remain the Port of Tacoma chief or whether it will appoint another person to replace him.
Wolfe said his own fate is not a high priority now.
“I want to make sure that the alliance is successful,” he said. The question of his titles “will get sorted out in due time,” he said. “It’s not the most prominent issue.”
Other questions are sure to demand more attention in the months to come: