CALIFORNIA'S BENICIA PORT, FLUSH WITH CASH, EXPANDS TO E. COAST

CALIFORNIA'S BENICIA PORT, FLUSH WITH CASH, EXPANDS TO E. COAST

Three months after it raised $25 million through a stock offering, the privately owned Port of Benicia, Calif., is expanding its automobile processing business to the East Coast.

The port is planning to take control of a former BMW facility in Brunswick, Ga.The move represents the Port of Benicia's first expansion apart from its home facilities 16 miles northeast of San Francisco, where it handles 200,000 automobiles a year, mostly exports.

But it will unlikely be the last such venture, Joseph Gaidsick, the port's vice president, predicted this week.

''We're domiciled here on the West Coast, and it was time for us to expand our horizons and get out of our little cocoon here," he said.

The Port of Benicia, owned by Benicia Industries, is looking into buying other auto handling facilities on the East Coast and on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, he said.

Benicia, the nation's only privately owned port, is leasing with an option to buy a 100,000-square-foot modern processing center in Brunswick that BMW left last year when it consolidated its North American operations in Spartanburg, S.C.

Benicia also will take over 37 adjoining acres under a 15-year lease it signed recently with the Georgia Ports Authority.

LANDMARK STOCK OFFERING

Behind Benicia's expansion plans is the $25 million it yielded from a public stock offering in July on the London Stock Exchange, the first such offering by a U.S. port operation.

"We're using that (money) as a springboard. Part was used to buy out one of the investors, and the rest is being used for acquisition," he said. The port is planning another offering on the Nasdaq stock market in the United States.

Mr. Gaidsick said the Brunswick facility, which Benicia will take over in November, was appraised at $5.4 million and attracted bids from several ocean carriers and East Coast auto handlers. He declined to disclose the

purchase price. Benicia's 1995 revenue is estimated to be $20 million or more.

Benicia will take over the BMW facility with one big customer, General Motors, already signed up.

GM next summer will use the facility as the U.S. point of entry for its German-built 1997 model Cadillac Cateras, Mr. Gaidsick said. The auto manufacturer plans to import between 35,000 and 40,000 of the Opel Motors- built units a year.

The cars will be unloaded from two ships a month and will then be cleaned, given safety checks and enhanced with options and accessories before being shipped by truck or train to Cadillac dealers around the country.

BIGGER PLANS FOR BRUNSWICK

But Mr. Gaidsick said Benicia's plans for the Brunswick facility don't end with GM.

"A 100,000-square-foot (facility) will process four times" what GM plans to import through Brunswick, he said. "GM is sufficient to get us started, but we are already talking to the port about expanding. We are talking to our present customers we have here about their needs in the Southeast market."

Exports of Toyota, Chrysler and General Motors vehicles represented about 60 percent of the 200,000 cars moved through the Port of Benicia last year. The remainder are imports from Toyota, Ford and Mercedes-Benz.

The Georgia Ports Authority, which handled the inquiries for the processing facility on behalf of BMW of North America, said five serious bids were submitted, including one from Internal Auto Processing Inc., which runs a terminal adjoining the BMW unit.

''Benicia brings a significant amount of cars that weren't there before, and those cars attract carriers," said Byron Hock, director of trade development at the Georgia Ports Authority.

Wallenius Lines was chosen by GM to carry the new Cadillacs to the United States. Along with the Cadillacs, the Swedish carrier won the right to deliver 30,000 Saabs a year to Brunswick and the Port of Davisville, R.I., and to export 53,000 GM mini-vans out of Brunswick or Jacksonville.

''We won it all, and it's all new business, so were pretty happy," said Raymond Ebeling, president of Wallenius Lines North America.