2015 NITL Executive of the Year: “Man of Steel” more than a metaphor

Having rebuilt his port and community after Hurricane Katrina, Gary LaGrange is reshaping New Orleans as a major cargo gateway.

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Even if he had not been severely tested by one of the greatest natural catastrophes of this century, the recipient of the 2015 National Industrial Transportation League’s (NITL) Executive of the Year Award would have been recognized for his remarkable vision and initiative.

That explains, in part perhaps, why this is the first time that the NITL and award partner Logistics Management(LM) have ever bestowed this honor on a port president. It is important to remember, his colleagues and admirers remind us, that just before Hurricane Katrina struck, Gary LaGrange was named the “Man of Steel” by the American Institute for International Steel (AIIS)—a designation that proved to be prophetic.

“My introduction to Gary was with the coming of Katrina, surely the darkest days for the city and Port of New Orleans, but a moment of brilliant leadership,” recalls Bruce Carlton, the NITL’s president and CEO. “It was up to Gary to restore operations and bring essential services back on line rapidly.”

Which is just what he did, says Carlton. The city witnessed LaGrange take charge of the “Ready Reserve Force” vessel provided by the Maritime Administration (MARAD) to join first responders and other essential personnel trying to restart the city. Since then, says Carlton, LaGrange has been single-minded in moving the Port of New Orleans forward, steadily growing capacity and utilization toward the goal of continuous improvement.

“Gary is enormously well regarded in the maritime industry, and I know I speak for our Board of Directors in saluting his leadership and accomplishments,” adds Carlton.

Don Pisano, NITL ocean cargo committee chairman and president of the American Coffee Corporation, was equally lavish in his praise for LaGrange, observing that the phrase “grace under pressure” exemplified the LaGrange management style during Katrina.

“With chaos all around, Gary was gracious and welcoming to me and Dick Foster, who was vice president of the New York Board of Trade commodities exchange at that time,” Pisano remembers. “Gary made sure that we were set up with what was the best accommodations they could offer, two bunks onboard a MARAD training vessel. He then expressed the port’s unyielding commitment to preserving New Orleans as one of the few “exchange delivery ports” for green coffee beans.

Pisano notes that all of the local warehouses and coffee roasters were able to retain New Orleans’ exchange deliverable status and over the next few months, order was restored. “And all this was done by working through the greatest calamity our industry had ever experienced,” he says.

For his “hard-as-steel” resolve and resourcefulness, the NITL and LM are proud to present Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans, with the 2015 NITL Executive of the Year Award, also known as the McCullough Award. The award is named after John T. McCullough, a former chief editor of Distribution magazine, a predecessor of LM.

The award will be given to LaGrange on Tuesday, November 17, at the NITL’s 108th Annual Conference and Freight Exhibition being held in New Orleans, La. (Nov. 16-18). Prior to accepting this year’s award, LaGrange sat down with LM to share some of his insights.

Logistics Management
(LM): How would you describe your management style?
Gary LaGrange: I like to delegate to appropriate people who have the capacity to get the job done. The bottom line from a management standpoint is a team approach, and I’m much like a coach.

LM: Who were your early mentors? What important lessons did you learn?
Certainly my father (Durward LaGrange) was an early mentor. He was an elected official for 20 years and owned furniture and appliance stores. He taught me quite a bit about looking out for the good of the public and doing the right thing for everyone concerned. He was very fair, and always on the side of the little guy.

LM: What about outside the family in terms of mentors?
I also had a high school football coach who was a big influence, Richard “Dick” McCloskey. He basically instilled upon us the “never quit” attitude. He taught us that although you may not succeed the first time, failure is not an option, and if you keep trying, you will succeed. Coach McCloskey became the winningest high school football coach in Louisiana, by the way, so that philosophy served him well.

LM: What were the chief challenges you faced when taking over the port?
One of the major challenges was that, early on in 2002, a steel embargo was placed on import steel in the U.S. At that time we looked at our profit and loss sheets and realized that steel constituted 37 percent of the port’s revenue, and that we lacked diversity. So we began a full-court press on diversifying the port.

LM: Where did you begin in that search for diversification?
First, we looked at the cruise industry, marketing the port in earnest as a premier cruise gateway. Secondly, we looked at building a new container terminal and expanding container operations. Then we began expanding our reefer operations and our cold storage capabilities. We did all this while maintaining the cornerstone of the port—which is being a breakbulk and heavy-lift hub for the nation.

LM: Here we area, a decade after Katrina—what do shippers see now?
Port cargo figures and passenger numbers have reached historic highs, with a four-peat of record years in our cargo volumes and cruise business. The port marked a 14-year high in regards to cargo tonnage at public docks in 2014, including an all-time high in containerized cargo moving through the port’s Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal last year—and a projection of well over 500,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) for 2015.

LM: And with this success, we can only assume you’re continuing to invest?
Absolutely. We want to stay well ahead of the curve. With that in mind, there’s nearly $40 million in new investments to increase efficiencies and expand container-handling capabilities. Many of these are under construction and nearing completion at the Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal.

LM: What do you regard as the biggest challenges that remain for you and the port in the post-Katrina era?
One of the challenges is reinventing the industrial base of the port along the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal after the decommissioning of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet by Congress following Katrina. We re-imagined the use of over 1,000 acres of land because there was no longer a deep-draft access to that land. We had nine companies located back there indirectly employing 9,000 people, and they counted on that deep-draft channel. Once the channel was decommissioned, it became almost zero, so reinventing the use for that land is something we really worked hard to do.

LM: How would you describe your niche?
We think we found our niche today in having developed, along with some of our good private partners, an international transportation logistics hub and a mega-plastics district fueled by the low price of natural gas and the growth of the petrochemical industry in and around New Orleans.

LM: Any thoughts on what is being called “The Third Coast”?
The Third Coast, or the Gulf Coast, is very competitive rate-wise, labor-wise, and otherwise. And the Port of New Orleans is right in the epicenter. If you look at tariff rates and schedules, the Gulf Coast has the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts beat, head and shoulders.

We think the efficiency of labor is excellent here as opposed to the other coasts. And now shippers are telling us that the efficiency and level of customer service here in New Orleans is tremendous, maybe the best that they have in the container world. The fact that we have a 50-50 mix of labor union and non-union lends to that. So, I feel good about the Third Coast and our prime position in its most intermodal hub.

LM: What cultural aspects make your port especially unique?
The people, without a doubt. Louisiana is a right-to-work state, and we certainly work really hard. However, we also know how to mix in and enjoy a good life. Without a doubt, it’s the employees that make the port special and make it possible for us to exceed our customers’ needs.

LM: Any advice for younger professionals seeking opportunities at the port?
The maritime industry is a very graying industry, and I would tell younger people that there are a lot of opportunities for them, and hopefully they’ll look to this industry as a way of life for them in the future. In fact we’re conducting our second annual Maritime Workforce Summit and Career Expo, which is designed to expand awareness of the economic impact of commerce on the Lower Mississippi River and to highlight career opportunities and pathways for our young people.

LM: How would you best like to be remembered?
I like to look at our success as a team effort; so, if I’m remembered in any form or fashion, I would like it to be as a coach or a teacher, as a good friend and a protégé of all our employees and of the industry as a whole. If you’re around long enough that will happen eventually. You make the mistakes early on and are able to pass on that wisdom.

About the Author

Patrick Burnson, Executive Editor
Patrick Burnson is executive editor for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review magazines and web sites. Patrick is a widely-published writer and editor who has spent most of his career covering international trade, global logistics, and supply chain management. He lives and works in San Francisco, providing readers with a Pacific Rim perspective on industry trends and forecasts. You can reach him directly at [email protected]

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