Retiring Lyons brought containers to Mobile port

Retiring Lyons brought containers to Mobile port

The head of the Alabama State Port Authority, who led the agency for 20 years and brought containerization to the port, will step down at the end of 2020. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

James K. Lyons plans to retire as director and CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority at the close of 2020, ending a 23-year tenure in which he led the transformation of the port of Mobile into a container gateway. 

Lyons, a 50-year industry veteran, announced his decision in a message to authority staff obtained by JOC.com. Lyons’ message said the authority’s board planned to have his replacement hired by June so that there would be a six-month overlap between the incoming and outgoing authority heads.

“Of all the things that I have done during my career, the work that I have done here at the Port has given me the most satisfaction, and it has been a true labor of love,” Lyons wrote in the message. “A lot has been accomplished here in the last two decades, which gives me a great sense of pride.”

Port spokeswoman Judith Adams, a 25-year veteran of Mobile, said Lyons had helped transform the port and kept it relevant for shippers.

“Not only has Jimmy spearheaded $2.25 billion in infrastructure investment that expanded our capabilities to serve steel, frozen and refrigerated products, coal, aviation, retail / distribution and automotive shippers, but he was directly involved in reorganizing the port system to ensures continuity in management, customer service and strategic planning,” she said in an email to JOC.com.  

The Mobile native and the first and only CEO of the independent agency saw the potential to attract container traffic to the bulk and breakbulk port — even if many in the industry considered it a long shot. Lyons proved them wrong, with a container terminal operated by APM Terminals opening in October 2008.

James K. Lyons

Lyons told JOC.com in May that the most important changes he had brought to the port could be summed up in one word: diversification.

“When I got here, we were totally dependent on coal and forest products,” Lyons said, noting his insistence that the port get into the container business made colleagues think that he had lost his mind. 

Five container services now call at the APM Terminals, including two Asian services through the Panama Canal and one through the Suez Canal. The port handled 245,884 loaded TEU in the first nine months of 2019, a 32.7 percent increase over the same period in 2018, according to PIERS, a sister product of JOC.com within IHS Markit.

Lyons and his team worked vigorously to attract retail giant Walmart, which in August 2018 opened a new 2.6 million-square-foot international distribution center in Irvington, Alabama, 15 miles from Mobile. Lyons said in May he expected the center to eventually handle 50,000 containers annually and serve seven other distribution outlets in the Southeast by the end of this year.

As the port has grown, Lyons hasn’t shied away from voicing his opposition to growing trade protectionism. In March 2018, he delivered a blunt message on the then-burgeoning trade conflict between China and the United States. 

“My greatest fear all along has been that an action like this could lead to retaliation that could affect our exports. I’m afraid that’s where it could lead us,” he told JOC.com. “In a trade war, there are no winners.”

Prior to leading the Alabama State Port Authority, Lyons, a graduate of the University of Alabama, spent 19 years with stevedoring company Ryan-Walsh, according to a profile in The Waterways Journal. When Ryan-Walsh was purchased in 1995, Lyons decided to stay in the Mobile area and start a consulting practice, according to the profile. He grew his consulting business for the next four years and on July 1, 1999 was named director of the Port of Mobile, which at the time was a cabinet-level official appointed by the governor.

Lyons came to the authority in 1997 as assistant director for trade and development, and he held the position of acting director before he took the top slot.

Contact Hugh R. Morley at hugh.morley@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @HughRMorley1.