Tay Yoshitani plans to retire in June from his role as chief executive officer of the Port of Seattle, which encompasses the sixth-largest U.S. containerport plus Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but, at 67, he’s not yet ready to leave the industry in which he’s been a driving force for social, environmental and economic responsibility.
A graduate of West Point, Harvard and the School of Hard Knocks, Yoshitani, who plans to stay on as chairman of the American Association of Port Authorities, has indeed seen his career come “full circle,” as the wharf on which he first set foot from Japan is just a couple hundred yards from his present Port of Seattle office.
In an exclusive interview with the American Journal of Transportation, Yoshitani reflects upon his passion for ports and progress. One of your priorities from the time you came to the Port of Seattle as CEO in March 2007 has been aggressively pursuing environmental initiatives, something that was also a focus in prior positions, including when you were a senior adviser to the National Association of Waterfront Employees from 2004 to 2007, executive director of the Port of Oakland from 2001 to 2004 and at the ports of Baltimore and Los Angeles before that. Why is the environment so important to you and to ports?
It’s a well-known fact that ports have a pretty large carbon footprint. That’s just the nature of the beast. It is who we are. I think we have a responsibility.
The reality of where ports are located, historically, is that the port started first and then the city sort of grew up around it; so a lot of the ports are in urban areas. I think we really are a system and a family.
I think that each port has a responsibility, not only to its own community, but to the entire industry. If one port gets a black eye over environmental issues, it’s going to reflect on the entire network, the entire system. So I think we have a broader responsibility and that it’s something every port focuses on, as we do as well.
In fact, we’re very proud of our accomplishments. Just a couple of days ago, we were recognized by EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] with its Clean Air Excellence Award for several of our signature projects.
Your other achievements at the Port of Seattle include advancement of a real estate division and of an office of social responsibility? What has proven to be the respective value of each of these?
I got here in 2007, just before the real estate market crashed, but I did recognize that we had a bunch of real estate portfolio under the seaport division. Just by the nature of the relative value and profitability and cash flow [compared with the airport], the seaport stuff was much, much bigger.
As a result, I felt that real estate was not getting the amount of attention that it needed, so I created a real estate division and brought in somebody who I consider a real estate pro [Joe McWilliams] and made him the managing director of the division.
It has been running quite well, although I don’t think the real estate market has fully recovered yet, but we remain optimistic and we have a fairly large portfolio of real estate holdings.
With respect to social responsibility, I refer to the three E’s of sustainability – economic, environment and social equity. I feel like ports, as public agencies, have a special responsibility to be beacons of social responsibility within their communities.
So we created this department to focus on a handful of things. One is to promote and to increase the number of small businesses doing business with the Port of Seattle. We’re also involved in some elements of workforce development through partners as well as some of the policies that we’ve incorporated.
And, thirdly, we’re involved in the hiring of veterans. We’ve got a very special program called Veterans Fellowship that is under the social responsibility department as well. That’s where we go out and recruit veterans to come to the Port of Seattle and spend up to six months with us in a line job, learning what we do at the port and, at the same time, searching for longer-term opportunities both at the port and outside. It’s been very successful.
How essential do you see regional cooperation and consolidation being for ports in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere?
I would make it a broader statement for the port industry. The ocean carrier business is changing, as you well know, with the evolution to larger ships actually happening a lot faster than anybody anticipated.
As a result, I think that ports, not only in the Pacific Northwest, but in a number of port regions in the world, where, historically, 100 years ago, that distance between ports was fairly significant and there was rationale for having two or three ports.
But, as ships have gotten bigger and as transportation has gotten faster and more efficient, I think regionalization is something that a lot of port regions are going to have to be considering, and we’re just one of them.
Whereas you plan to retire from your position as the Port of Seattle’s CEO when your contract expires in June, you look to stay on with the port in a consulting role and to completing your term through November as chairman of the American Association of Port Authorities. Why is your role in AAPA so significant to you, and what do you view as the greatest accomplishments of your chairmanship?
Well, I’m only halfway through, so… But it’s a good question, a fair question.
AAPA, much like most trade associations, is membership-driven, and, if the members are not participating and supporting the association actively, then the value of the association to all its members goes down.
AAPA has been around about 100 years, and I think they have a very good staff right now, and I think it’s really important that the association continues to be a force not only in the industry but in D.C. as well.
I’ve been in the industry for 25-some-odd years, and I think I have an obligation and responsibility to take my turn as the chair of AAPA.
What do you see as the legacy you leave at the ports at which you’ve served and to the industry as a whole?
Every port has different strengths, different weaknesses, different factors. There’s an old saying that if you’ve seen one port, you’ve seen one port. One size does not fit all.
You’ve been kicking around the industry long enough to have a good appreciation for that.
So I feel like my legacy for each one of the ports is a little bit different, because the needs of each one of those ports at the time were different.
As an example, I helped nurture and put together a strategic plan that defined a different course for the future of the Port of Baltimore. We had invested quite a bit of money in the container terminal at Seagirt, so we had to make sure we stayed in the container business and did so as aggressively as possible, which they continue to do, by the way. But we recognized that where the real growth opportunity for the Port of Baltimore was actually in ro/ro [roll-on/roll-off] cargo and in breakbulk cargo. Accordingly, I think today they’re the largest port in the country for ro/ro cargo, and they’re doing really well in paper products and other breakbulk cargo.
How has your educational background, including a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, helped prepare you for the challenges you face as a port industry leader, including dealing with controversies and with Seattle’s political culture?
I view the military academy as well as the Harvard business school as schools for people who want to be generalists – general managers, CEOs, etc. – people who are interested in general-management-type roles where you have the whole spectrum of functional challenges.
So I think that’s a great background for being the CEO or the executive director of a port, because you’re hit with a variety of challenges. Not only is it typically international, but you’re talking about transportation, you’re talking about dealing with communities, environment, organized labor.
You name it, there are so many issues surrounding ports that I think you really have to be a generalist, and I feel like I got that from both West Point and Harvard.
As far as political culture is concerned, I think most people learn that through yet another school – the School of Hard Knocks.
I believe that the ship on which you, as a youngster, originally came with your family to the United States from Japan was docked just a couple hundred yards from your office at the Port of Seattle. Do you see any coolness in this?
It’s kind of the full circle story, isn’t it? That was quite a bit more than 50 years ago, now that I think about it.
Our country is just full of incredible stories and incredible journeys of people coming from other parts of the world to settle here, and I think my story is just one of many among an incredible collection of immigrants who we have here in this country.
I’ll bet each one of them is a fascinating story, and mine happens to be fascinating because it’s coming full circle.
I can still remember that day when the ship that I was on – the Hikawa Maru – came here. It started out as an NYK vessel, then, during the Second World War, it got converted to a hospital ship, and, after the war, it got reconverted back into a passenger vessel, and now it is anchored in the Port of Yokohama [from which our family set sail] as floating restaurant-hotel-office space.
You’re a relatively young guy – at what, 67? – so what do you intend to do with all your free time after you retire?
I’m going to stay active. I’m on a couple of boards, I’m on three boards actually, and I think that’ll keep me busy.
Like many of my colleagues who have worked in our maritime industry for many years, it’s hard to get away from it. They always get drawn back in some form, in some way, and I suspect that that will happen to me as well.
I don’t suppose you can be more specific?
I can say this. The industry has been good to me. I’ve got a lot of friends in it, both still active and retired. It’s a great industry to be a part of.