Exclusive interview: Northwest Seaport Alliance update

3PL Logistics News Ports Transportation

2017 was a good year for John Wolfe, CEO of The Northwest Seaport Alliance. Not only did the Alliance earn the highest West Coast ranking in Logistics Management’s “Quest for Quality” survey, but the man himself was saluted shortly thereafter by the Containerization & Intermodal Institute with the prestigious “Connie Award” for his achievements and the achievements of the whole organization.

As 2018 gets underway, Logistics Management sought to gain and share insights on how the Alliance is evolving. What follows, is an exclusive interview with its chief decision-maker.


Logistics Management: Can you describe the greatest obstacles The Alliance first faced as it got underway?

John Wolfe: I appreciate the foresight and innovative approach of our two commissions to form The Northwest Seaport Alliance. The structure of the joint venture was unique, so we had no road map to follow. We had to create it from scratch, which was a bit like building a bicycle while you’re riding it. We also had to bring together two different cultures that served two very different counties to create one new organization with a more regional view. And we did this in the midst of a tumultuous time in the shipping industry. We encountered bumps in the road, yet by staying focused on the business and creating opportunities for our customers, we’ve come a long way in two short years.

 LM: Do any of those impediments still exist? Have new ones surfaced?

Wolfe: Change can be difficult, yet we must continue to evolve and improve the model. We’re still aligning systems and adjusting the functional organizational structure to increase efficiency and improve on the services we provide to our customers. Given the rapid changes in the shipping industry, though, we’re already benefiting from having a wider portfolio of facilities to offer customers and the opportunity to leverage our investments more strategically together instead of competing against each other. The investments we’re making in Husky Terminal and Terminal 5 to make them big-ship ready are good examples of where we have been able to direct our investments. And our Operations Service Center, with input from stakeholders throughout the supply chain, will continue to give us a more holistic view for efficiencies throughout the supply chain.

LM: There’s ongoing speculation about restructuring the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Is the Alliance concerned about the consequences of a renegotiated deal?

Wolfe: We are situated in one of the most trade-dependent states in the U.S., with an estimated 40 percent of jobs in Washington related to trade. I can’t speculate on what terms might change in NAFTA. We will continue to advocate for trade policies that open new markets and level playing fields for Washington businesses that use the NWSA as their international gateways.

LM: As the hemisphere’s fourth largest ocean cargo gateway, does The Alliance compete on different footing when it comes to ports in Canada?

Wolfe: The intention of the ports of Seattle and Tacoma in forming The Northwest Seaport Alliance was to compete more effectively with Canada and other gateways rather than competing against each other. We speak with a strong, unified voice in advocating for reforms to the Harbor Maintenance Tax, which continues to put our gateway at a disadvantage with Canadian ports serving the same U.S. Midwest market. The U.S. tax policy provides little benefit to our naturally deep harbors for the money our customers pay.

LM: We hear a great deal of talk about the “digitization” of ports and terminals. Is this just buzz, or is the Alliance embracing new technological advances?

Wolfe: Our customers want to have greater visibility to the real-time movement of their cargo through the supply chain, and we intend to be part of the solution. We are exploring technologies and other ways we can improve the efficiency of our gateway, including intelligent transportation systems (ITS), radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and mobile applications. The challenge is to balance the cost with the benefits. In the meantime, we have created an Operations Service Center with metrics set through feedback from our customers and stakeholders. Gaining visibility throughout the supply chain is the first key to improving its efficiency.

LM: So far, dockside labor and management relationships have been fine. Do you see that trend continuing, or are there issues that remain unresolved?

Wolfe: We have a strong working relationship with our labor partners, and we are committed to maintaining relationship so that the entire gateway benefits. We work closely together to advance commercial strategies and we often visit customers together, reinforcing the collaborative nature of our work.

LM: Finally, do you see other “alliances” being forged on the Seattle/Tacoma model? Where would these regional partnerships make the most sense?

Wolfe: There have been a lot of ports that have inquired about the details of the NWSA joint venture, its governance structure, and operational and financial models. Ports throughout the nation have different governance structures, which means there’s no one-size-fits-all model. That said, as we continue to experience rapid change in the shipping industry, other ports might benefit from forming their own unique partnerships where it makes sense.

About the Author

Patrick Burnson, Executive Editor

Patrick Burnson is executive editor for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review magazines and web sites. Patrick is a widely-published writer and editor who has spent most of his career covering international trade, global logistics, and supply chain management. He lives and works in San Francisco, providing readers with a Pacific Rim perspective on industry trends and forecasts. You can reach him directly at [email protected]

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