By Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT

Jerry A. Bridges has a quarter-century of diverse transportation industry experience, a customer-focused businessman’s approach and the demeanor of an affable pastor ’ all of which should serve him well as he looks to build upon his predecessor’s four decades of achievement at the Virginia Port Authority.

Bridges, 54, is entering his sixth month as executive director of the VPA, having assumed that position from living legend J. Robert ‘Bobby’ Bray. Bray, 69, who retires this week from the role of executive director emeritus, joined the VPA in 1967 as general counsel and was executive director from 1978 until Bridges took over the helm on Feb. 5.

‘I think that’s a very strong suit to build upon,’ Bridges said in an interview with the American Journal of Transportation. ‘I look at it as if Bobby has set the table, basically, and now it’s time to serve the food and eat.

‘You get down to it, and we have a good team here,’ said Bridges, whose outgoing style contrasts with Bray’s quiet confidence. ‘We basically have all the ingredients in place.

‘A good friend of mine once told me that when you enter an operation where things are going well, you don’t want to come in and make a lot of noise and change a bunch of stuff,’ he continued. ‘You want to look at five percent of the total picture ’ the five percent that you can make a significant difference to ’ and focus on that and try to improve on that.

‘Unfortunately, finding five percent worth of stuff wrong here has been very difficult,’ said Bridges, who, dissimilarly, made significant changes a few years ago in leading the Port of Oakland to improved results. ‘Bobby has done a very excellent job in nurturing the organization and bringing it forward.

‘I think that one of the things that I can do here, under the same formula that we attempted in Oakland, is to become more externally focused, and get out and visit with the customers, listen to what they have to say, and then come back and try to execute on what they’ve said are their needs and deliver a good service to them,’ he added. ‘I think that that is a very surefire path to success in this business, or any other business.

‘Our industry is a relationship business,’ Bridges said. ‘I think that my relationships with ocean carriers need to transcend Oakland and I need to get in and be the face of the Port of Virginia and be the person to have those relationships for the Port of Virginia.’

One specific aspect of Bridges’ approach of ‘grow it as fast as we can grow it’ is to encourage carriers to make the Port of Virginia a first port of call. He was successful with a similar initiative when director of maritime, and later executive director, at the Port of Oakland.

Bridges noted that the Port of Virginia traditionally has been viewed as a ‘middle port.’

‘We are always second or third call on vessel itineraries,’ he said. ‘I believe that we can change that impression in the marketplace.’

To do so, Bridges is promoting natural attributes, such as deep water (with channel depths of 50 feet to 56 feet) and unobstructed access to berths, as well as the modern terminals operated by Virginia International Terminals Inc. (VIT) and a solid labor force. APM Terminals is due to complete its East Coast hub at Portsmouth by 2009, while the VPA’s long-term plans call for development of a fourth deepwater marine terminal.

‘So we’re going to need to leverage those advantages to start to change the perception of the ocean carrier about using Virginia as a middle or a last-out call,’ Bridges said. ‘It’s going to be very important as the ships continue to get bigger and they require deeper water and they require efficient time in port, as they don’t want to be in port a very long time.’

Bridges also noted that the port is working with the Norfolk Southern Railway to implement the Heartland Corridor project to reduce rail transit times to the Midwest by two days, utilizing double-stack trains.

‘A very positive message’

He said th