Watch out, America - here comes P&O Ports. In fact, ports and ship lines throughout the world should keep an eye on this Australia-based stevedore and terminal operator, which through acquisitions and internal growth has emerged as a global leader in a fast-changing business.P&O Ports operates 28 container terminals in 16 countries, including the U.S., a market the company entered only last year with its purchase of International Terminal Operating Co. The company's rapid growth is reflected in its container throughput, which will jump from 5.8 million TEUs in 1999 to close to 8 million this year - a volume P&O Ports says represents 4 percent of world volume.

And company officials say there's plenty of room for growth. Despite the recent consolidation of terminal operating companies, P&O Ports estimates that the top five international operators account for just one-fourth of global container throughput. In his mid-year financial report, Lord Sterling, chairman of the P&O Group, said that ''the decreasing role of the public sector - provides terminal operators with significant opportunities to participate in privatization and new terminal development.''

Already this year, P&O Ports purchased Seaport Terminal N.V. and was named as part of a consortium to operate Antwerp's new 1.2 million-TEU-a-year terminal. The company opened India's first private terminal and began developing a terminal with a 1 million-TEU capacity at Qingdao, China's second-largest container port. In September, P&O announced an agreement with Shell UK Ltd. to redevelop the former Shell Haven refinery in southeast England into a large container port. The operation is planned for 2002 and, once completed, is projected to provide berths for 10 vessels and handle 3.5 million TEUs a year.

P&O Ports hasn't ignored the U.S., where its top officers are executive vice presidents Nick West, who is chief financial officer, and Tom Simmers, chief operating officer. Tom joined ITO 26 years ago and Nick has been with P&O since 1991. Until the purchase of ITO, North America was the only continent where the company wasn't present. ''We were keen to get into this market to use our expertise to rationalize operations and broaden the logistics package being offered to carriers,'' Nick said.

A year after acquiring ITO for a reported $80 million, Gulf Services and Fairway Terminal Corp. were bought and merged to form P&O Ports North America. The company's terminal operations and stevedoring now span 55 locations in 22 ports on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.''We are viewed as a container handler, but in fact our other main businesses are about equal in size,'' Tom Simmers said. ''We are a leader in discharging autos in Boston, New York, Baltimore and Virginia. We handle the cruise ship trade in Boston, New York and Virginia as well. Breakbulk, including frozen cargoes and ro-ro moves, are also a specialty of ours in all the ports we serve.''

While it handles a wide variety of cargoes, it's clear that more containers are in the future for P&O Ports' North American unit. The company recently was awarded a 30-year lease for the 160-acre Port Newark Container Terminal and a split contract with Ceres Terminals to operate the new Napoleon Avenue container terminal in New Orleans. The New Orleans facility is expected to open in 2002 and the Newark terminal is already running at about half its capacity. ''Productivity is good at about 25 boxes per hour per crane, and truck turn time is under an hour, which is helping relieve the congestion problem at the port,'' Tom said.Nick added, ''We'll get even better as we use our competitive edge in technology and employ our best practices experiences.''

For example, the company is importing an operating technique, random stacking with straddle carriers, that has worked successfully at its Southampton terminal, which is about the same size and shape as Port Newark. It plans to invest $100 million in Port Newark and will likely intensify discussions with the port to get on-dock rail access.

The New Orleans expansion is not the ideal setup for P&O, which preferred to operate the entire terminal. The port has reported that the shared terminal will not have any fences or physical barriers separating P&O and Ceres. Talk of a shared gate is premature, according to P&O. Nick added, ''We are looking at the Napoleon Avenue terminal almost as an extension of our adjacent Nashville Avenue complex.''

When will we see P&O Ports on the West Coast? ''Up until now we have been bedding down on the Gulf and East coasts,'' Nick said. ''We're astute and know that you just can't show up with three expats and launch a business.'' Tom Simmers agreed. ''We are not looking to buy another ITO, but we are actively looking for terminal opportunities on the West Coast.''My bet is that we'll see them on the West Coast sooner rather than later.