Oct. 21--Nearly five months ago, the Port of Long Beach lost executive director Chris Lytle to a smaller rival port, the Port of Oakland.
To date, there has been very little movement to hire a replacement for Lytle, who took a pay hike of $57,000 for his new position in Northern California.
Last week at the American Association of Port Authorities in Orlando, Fla., tongues were wagging among the 600 attendees about why it was taking so long to hire a replacement, according to executives who attended.
"There are concerns about attracting appropriate talent to the job, given the political climate," said Susan Shey Dvonch, a partner with Shey-Harding Associates Inc., a Seal Beach-based executive search firm who has helped placed senior port executives throughout the United States.
"I don't know what the port is willing to pay for an executive director, given that it is the second largest port in the country. That could be a challenge to attract the appropriate person," said Dvonch, speaking from the Orlando conference by phone last week.
Long Beach's director is typically paid significantly less -- Lytle made $275,000 -- than the heads of several much smaller West Coast ports, including Seattle, Oakland and Portland. Those jobs, however, each also include oversight responsibility for a local airport.
Dvonch indicated that top port executives from around the world, including shipping lines and terminal operators, were abuzz with talk at cocktail hours, dinners and on the sidelines of meetings regarding the hottest topic of the day: When is the Port of Long Beach going to hire an executive director?
"It's very competitive for port CEOs right now," said Tim McNamara, a managing director of Boyden Group Executive Search in Baltimore, who also was taken aback by the heated talks over Long Beach's port.
"They require someone with significant business skills. Five months seems like a long time but they have an interim CEO," McNamara continued, referring to Al Moro, the port's interim appointee. "I think if it's going to be a world-class port you have to get a port CEO in the right compensation range."
He said some ports are offering incentives as a stick and carrot to pay executives more money. But much depends on how the boards that run the ports are structured, and if a strong leader is in place to keep the board personalities in check.
"This is a key economic development role and it should not be vacant very long. There is the potential to lose customers and to not sustain key relationships," he said. "I'm definitely hearing a lot of discussion on Long Beach and why it is taking so long to embark on a search for the top two or three executives in the organization," said McNamara, also interviewed by phone in Orlando last week.
Today, there are seven jobs at the senior level in the Port of Long Beach that either are filled temporarily or are vacant. Temporary spots are held by Moro; Noel Hacegaba, deputy executive director; Rick Cameron, managing director of the environmental affairs and planning bureau; Sean Garnette, chief harbor engineer; and Heather Tomley, director of the environmental planning division.
Two positions are currently vacant, the head of the Trade Development and Port Operations Bureau, while the other is an assistant to the board.
"Our members have two concerns about the search for a new executive director," said John McLaurin, president of Pacific Maritime Shipping Association, a San Francisco-based trade group that represents container terminals at the Port of Long Beach, steamship agents and ocean carriers that either call directly or move cargo through the port.
"First is the amount of time it is taking to fill the position with no successful conclusion in sight," he said. "Second, our members are concerned about statements made by Commissioner (Rich) Dines that the port '"shouldn't put the tenants as their first priority."'
Dines' remark was made at a recent board meeting and got the industry up in a tizzy.
"As container terminal tenants provide over 76 percent of the operating revenue for the Port of Long Beach, insulting port tenants and customers is not a sustainable business model. The shipping industry is going through major changes. The new executive director needs to be able to work closely with the tenants to attract cargo to Long Beach," McLaurin said. "The port is the economic engine of the city. A search for a new executive director should be carried out thoughtfully and without any political drama."
For sure, not much has happened on the hiring front since Lytle bolted from the $275,000 a year job as executive director with the Port of Long Beach back in May. He took the same post with the added responsibilities of running the Oakland International Airport and several miles of coastal real estate. In Oakland, Lytle oversees a budget about a third the size of the Port of Long Beach's, but is paid $325,000, according to Marilyn Standifur, a spokeswoman with the Port of Oakland.
"I don't think $275,000 is particularly competitive," McNamara said.
The Long Beach Board of the Harbor Commissions today may hear the results of a survey on what port tenants want in an executive director. The survey was conducted by Encinitas, Calif.-based True North Research Inc., a survey research firm looking for a clear understanding of stakeholders.
Earlier this month, Long Beach Harbor Board President Thomas Fields and another port commissioner said they wanted to bypass what they believe is a cumbersome executive search firm process that likely would only produce "recycled names" from a shrinking pool of qualified executives.
Instead, Fields and Harbor Commissioner Susan E. Anderson Wise said they wanted to find a new executive director by hiring well-known consultants to make recommendations, a strategy they felt confident would result in the hiring of a new leader. The proposal received less-than-enthusiastic response from some board members.
Fields and Anderson Wise proposed hiring former harbor commissioner and city manager Jim Hankla and Ron Brinson, former head of the American Association of Port Authorities and Port of New Orleans, to help recruit a new executive director. According to Fields and Anderson Wise, Hankla and Brinson have volunteered their time to recruit a permanent replacement for Lytle. The port consultants, wrote Fields and Anderson Wise, bring "unique backgrounds in transportation and an understanding of Long Beach that makes them very qualified" to assist in the search.
Dines and Commissioner Doug Drummond shot the idea down.
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Original headline: Port-director search stirs national buzz
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