In covering this industry for nearly nine years, I've met literally hundreds of the unique characters the international trade field seems to attract in droves. This business is full of various and sundry curmudgeons, comedians, intellectuals, insufferables, traditionalists, innovators, gentlemen and rogues.Yet even amid that rich assortment, Lillian Borrone has always stood apart. For 12 years as port director of New York and New Jersey, she has brought her own unique blend of passion, elegance and New Jersey-bred grit to one of the most demanding jobs in the industry. Always smartly dressed, rarely absent from industry events large and small, Lillian had a star quality that 'put a human face on the port,' as Brian Maher of Maher Terminals said in presenting her with the Containerization and Intermodal Institute's Connie award last week. Lillian, in short, is a celebrity in an industry painfullyshort on glamour. The port and all those who do business there have been the beneficiaries as the harbor, under her guidance, emerged from its troubled past on a firm competitive footing.

As any port director knows, the job is not akin to that of chief executive. Group therapist would better describe it. A port is a unique collection of autonomous, cantankerous entities whose ability to cooperate for mutual benefit plays a large role in determining whether the port succeeds or stumbles.It's the port director's job to set a tone for such cooperation, a role Lillian instinctively understood. New York when she arrived did not have a reputation for being a harmonious port. It was known the world over as expensive, unpredictable and unable to fully escape from its pre-containerization past.

Yet as a natural negotiator and conciliator, Lillian found a way to get people talking to each other. When shespoke publicly, as she did often, whether at the port or as part of the American Association of Port Authorities, she was always prepared and precise, perhaps a sign of her engineers' training. She set the tone for dialogue by always showing respect for the positions of those she disagreed with.

She could communicate as easily with a port trucker as she could with the Secretary of Transportation. Partly as a result of her mediating presence, major advances in labor relations - often the thorniest issue a port deals with - occurred during her tenure. Nothing better illustrates that than the three-year master contract extension ratified in July by the International Longshoreman's Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, the employers group. Lillian rightfully considers improved labor relations to be her crowning achievement.Lillian also had a knack for negotiating the unique hazards of the New York/New Jersey port authority and the crossfire it must endure from its two masters in Albany and Trenton. Her 12-year tenure is among the longest ofany U.S. port director. And those years contained plenty of difficult moments. For example, Lillian remained cool and tried her best to keep others that way as the icy standoff between governors Christie Whitman of New Jersey and George Pataki of New York delayed plans to finalize leases with Maersk Sealand, Maher Terminals and later a joint venture of P&O Nedlloyd and P&O Ports.

Though the port was probably never seriously in danger of losing any of that business, the three leases guarantee New York/New Jersey will be an important player in the container business for the foreseeable future. She also had a knack for generating press. Just in the Journal of Commerce and then JoC Week, she was mentioned 321 times as Lillian Liburdi and another 153 times as Lillian Borrone, the name she took in 1995 when she married Ed Borrone, an attorney.

It's ironic that Lillian's determined non-partisanship, so essential at the port, will probably prevent her from achieving the high federal office many believe she is enormously qualified to hold. Lillian may have political leanings, but few are privy to them, certainly not the party bosses who back candidates and recommend political appointees.

The port will miss Lillian, who has said she's retiring, but it's confident her successor, former Coast Guard Admiral Rick Larrabee will follow in her rather large footsteps.

Peter Tirschwell is editor of JoC Week. He can be reached at (973) 848-7158, or via e-mail at ptirschwell