In Chris Lytle, Long Beach's Loss Is Oakland's Gain

In Chris Lytle, Long Beach's Loss Is Oakland's Gain

J. Christopher LytleLONG BEACH, Calif. — The shocking announcement late Thursday that J. Christopher Lytle, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, will resign to become executive director at the Port of Oakland is a major loss for the nation’s second largest container port and a huge victory for the Northern California port, industry interests said.

“Hiring Chris Lytle was a brilliant move by the Port of Oakland,” said John McLaurin, president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which represents shipping lines and terminal operators at West Coast ports.

Lytle will take over the nation’s sixth-largest container port at an exciting time in the history of the gateway. Oakland does not have the large local population that makes Long Beach and neighboring Los Angeles by far the nation’s largest gateway and a magnet for first-call inbound services by trans-Pacific carriers.

But Oakland is developing a former Army base, with the 400-acre site destined to become a logistics center for imports as well as exports. The long-range project, now in its first phase of development, eventually will make Oakland one of the few U.S. to have warehousing, distribution and transloading facilities on its premises.

Long Beach gave no reason for Lytle’s sudden decision to exit what is considered to be one of the top port director jobs in the nation. “The board, port staff and our customers will miss Chris, and we wish him well in his next endeavor,” said Susan Anderson Wise, president of the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners.

In past decades, the industry viewed Long Beach as a port authority fortunate to avoid the line of fire that some ports face from local or state political bodies. That luck ran out during the 2008-09 recession, when Long Beach was called upon to bolster the city’s flagging revenues.

With the political attention came an increasingly activist harbor commission that industry sources said became more of a manager of day-to-day port affairs than a governing board.

“Complicating the situation is a port commission beset with individual agendas and conflicting personalities, bordering on dysfunctional,” McLaurin said. “Long Beach needs to find someone as respected by the trade community as Chris Lytle if the port is to maintain its competitive edge and leadership position.”

Lytle spent much of his career as an operations executive with container lines. He joined the Port of Long Beach in 2006 as managing director and was promoted to deputy executive director and chief operating officer in 2008.

Lytle took over as executive director in November 2011 upon the retirement of Dick Steinke, whose resignation also surprised the industry. Under Steinke, Long Beach navigated almost a decade of environmental challenges and was launching a $4.5 billion capital expansion program when he announced his retirement.

Lytle’s steamship line background in operations served him well as he immediately took charge of large development projects such as the $1.5 billion Middle Harbor container terminal and $1 billion replacement of the Gerald Desmond Bridge. Lytle over the past 18 months spoke frequently about his goal of building a port infrastructure second to none.

While the projects awaiting him in Oakland will not be of the same magnitude as those in Long Beach, the Northern California port is in a time of transition. Oakland has several leases coming up for renewal, and its intention is to combine adjacent terminals that are small by contemporary standards into larger container terminals capable of accommodating today’s mega-ships, said Jean Banker, the port’s deputy executive director and acting maritime director.

Oakland, for example, is negotiating with APL and SSA Marine to combine the terminal where APL has been calling with an adjacent facility operated by SSA Marine. Banker said several port leases are up for renewal in the harbor. Unlike in Southern California, where 13 container terminals are split between two ports, all of the trans-Pacific carriers that serve Northern California call in Oakland.

Oakland has not been without its controversies, though. The port authority late last year implemented an action plan to tighten controls on executive spending practices. The action came after an audit found unacceptable practices by port executives, including a business trip to Houston in 2008 in which port executives entertained clients at a strip club.

The audit triggered the resignation or retirement of two top executives, including Executive Director Omar Benjamin. Lytle will fill the position vacated by Benjamin.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at bmongelluzzo@joc.com and follow him at twitter.com/billmongelluzzo.