Richard Steinke is a humble man. As the executive director of the Port of Long Beach, he has shepherded the nation’s second-largest container port for 14 years, through two recessions, massive expansion projects and its transition to environmental stewardship — political battles and all.
Yet ask Steinke, and his role was a modest one, secondary to the port’s location, its large local consumer market, unmatched land infrastructure and an excellent port staff.
Steinke, who will retire on Sept. 30 after more than 20 years at the port, is convinced his main contribution was building relationships. He has worked tirelessly with the port’s tenants, city administration, railroads and, especially, the communities and environmental organizations concerned about the impact port operations have on their neighborhoods.
“My forte is building relationships,” Steinke said. It’s a strategy he plans to employ through his final days at the port, working with an undetermined successor — and port stakeholders — to ensure a seamless transition.
Under his leadership, Long Beach became the nation’s largest container port and then traded that distinction back and forth with Los Angeles. During his tenure, the port’s container volume has jumped more than 60 percent, from 2.9 million TEUs in 1997 to 4.7 million last year. That, however, was some 600,000 TEUs shy of its 5.3 million annual record in 2007, the year before the economic and trade recession struck.
The 54-year-old Steinke began his career as airport properties officer at Stapleton International Airport in Denver. The transition to properties director at the Port of Long Beach in some ways was a natural jump because both jobs involved negotiating property leases and signing concession agreements with vendors.
But Long Beach is an international port, and most of his customers in Denver were domestic. With Asia representing the overwhelming bulk of Long Beach trade, Steinke quickly learned that establishing trust and building long-term relationships is how business is conducted in Asia.
As properties director, then deputy executive director and, beginning in 1997, executive director, Steinke said his primary task was to provide port tenants with the facilities and infrastructure they needed to increase their business in the booming trans-Pacific trade.
Hanjin Shipping, the port’s largest customer, is a case in point. The Korean carrier’s growth in 1990s exceeded all expectations as it rapidly went from the site of a former Procter & Gamble plant to a larger abandoned oil field to the site of a former Navy base, increasing its terminal space from 150 acres to 375 acres.
He took the toughest defeats hard, like a relationship torn. “It was disappointing,” he said, thinking back to last year, when Hyundai Merchant Marine and its terminal operator, California United Terminals, moved to Pier 400 in Los Angeles. “They were here for 20 years. Something could have been worked out.” CUT said simply the decision had been made in Seoul.
And therein lies a lesson: Today’s terminal industry is a bottom-line business. With pension funds and other outside investors acquiring many port terminals, the days of the proprietary terminal operator that grows together with the port authority are numbered.
But, Steinke noted, giving up the security of a long-term lease and renting space at another terminal can be risky. If the plans of the host terminal change, the guest tenant could find itself without a home.
Hyundai’s move to Los Angeles gives Long Beach options. The vacant terminal will be combined with the adjacent facility used by Orient Overseas Container Line. With some landfill, a 345-acre rectangular terminal with on-dock rail will emerge in the Middle Harbor.
Plans aren’t finalized, but the facility could develop as an “alliance” terminal used by OOCL and its Grand Alliance partners NYK Line and Hapag-Lloyd.
Developing terminals for alliance partners is complex, but ports may find it’s the way of the future, Steinke believes. “It creates a lot of efficiencies for the lines,” he said.
Middle Harbor will be one of the nation’s most automated container terminals. With ships capable of carrying 8,000 20-foot container units and more calling regularly at the Southern California ports, terminals must automate their operations from the gate, to the yard and on to the vessel to efficiently work the massive ships, Steinke said.
Long Beach’s 10-year, $4 billion capital expansion program for its container terminals, on-dock rail facilities, bridge and roadway projects can only be accomplished with the support of the local community and environmental groups. That will require strengthening the relationships Steinke has built.
The joint Long Beach-Los Angeles Clean Air Action Plan, which provides a template for infrastructure development friendly to the surrounding neighborhoods, is a result of those relationships.
On-dock rail is a critical element in this program. About 35 percent of the port’s volume will eventually move via on-dock rail. Just as crucial, Steinke said, is expansion of Union Pacific’s near-dock Intermodal Container Transfer Facility and construction of BNSF Railway’s planned Southern California International Gateway.
Those projects have generated community resistance, but Steinke believes they will move forward if the railroads guarantee that the latest pollution-reduction measures available for locomotives, trucks and container-handling equipment are implemented.
“We support those near-dock projects, but they must be as modern and green as what we’re doing with our marine terminals,” he said.
Although Steinke has a close working relationship with the city of Long Beach, relations this past year were frayed when the mayor and his staff implemented a plan to increase the port’s financial contributions to the cash-strapped city. The port has a history of helping the city, with its assistance involving the Queen Mary tourist attraction and the Long Beach Convention Center, Steinke noted, but the port cannot be viewed as an endless source of revenue for the city.
Steinke said he isn’t leaving the port because of the city’s money grab. “It’s a little bit of everything,” he said. As he heads into the final decade of his professional career, Steinke said it’s time for a change. He hopes to stay in the maritime business, preferably in Southern California, and to use his skills to build relationships within the transportation community.
Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at email@example.com.