BREAKBULK QUARTERLY - San Francisco making comeback with breakbulk

By: | at 07:00 PM | Channel(s): Maritime  

Newsprint, steel are now port staplesBy Peter A. Buxbaum, AJOTSan Francisco’s image is not as a great port city, but it has a glorious maritime past. It was once the busiest port on the West Coast. That was before containerization, when cities like Oakland, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Long Beach, which were able to develop more extensive container infrastructures, overshadowed the City by the Bay.
San Francisco is making a comeback, however, and it is doing so by concentrating on breakbulk commodities. The logic of the strategy to attract breakbulk business is the flip side to the domination of containers in Oakland. As the larger Bay Area port became crowded with containers, it had less incentive to handle breakbulk cargo. This, in turn, provided San Francisco the opening to develop a niche, and the facilities, for breakbulk.
In 2002, the Port of San Francisco was still handling containers, reported Jill Rodby, the port’s maritime marketing manager, servicing a small consortium of South American carriers and a South Seas service from Polynesia and Hamburg Süd. “But the volumes were at such a point that they were just below the break-even point,” she said. “Smaller lines are subject to acquisitions, making the business unstable. As of January 1, 2005, we decided to exit the container market completely and focus on breakbulk. The container lines were able to find homes in Oakland and they are doing quite well there.”
There were two considerations that entered into that decision. One, there was no point in competing with Oakland for containers. “Oakland as a major container port has the economies of scale and the infrastructure we don’t have,” said Rodby. “We had the infrastructure sufficient only for smaller container lines. We don’t have water depth, the third generation cranes, or the warehousing services necessary to compete as a major container port.”
Second, holding San Francisco out as a breakbulk hub created a nice balance among Northern California ports. Oakland, which doesn’t handle breakbulk, would continue to concentrate on containers; Redwood would concentrate on bulk commodities; Richmond would handle autos and some bulk, leaving breakbulk to San Francisco. “We do have the resources to be a competitive breakbulk port,” Rodby said.
Pier 80 sets the standardThe centerpiece of San Francisco‚s breakbulk offering is Pier 80, a general cargo terminal. Pier 80 has increased the cargo volumes it has handled from 71,000 tons in 2002, to 225,000 tons, today, 75% of which is breakbulk newsprint and steel.
“We offer a 69-acre terminal with on-dock sheds and 200,000 square feet of covered storage,” said Rodby. “The water depth is 38 feet which can accommodate most of the breakbulk traffic out there.”
Pier 80 is operated by Marine Terminals Corporation, the largest stevedoring company on the West Coast, which started out in 1931 in San Francisco. Now headquartered is Oakland, the company operates in twenty-two ports from San Diego to Seattle and is still a family-owned company.
“Pier 80 represents the most diverse terminal on the West Coast,” said Jim Dillman, the Pier 80 terminal manager. “We can work breakbulk cargoes such as steel, paper and lumber as well as containers. And we have access to on-dock warehouse space, staging area for project cargo, as well as four deep-water berths and four gantry cranes. The newsprint unloaded at Pier 80 is discharged to a covered storage area.” The shipping lines which call on the terminal include Star Shipping and Saga Forest Carriers as well as one-time charters.
Shipments of newsprint to San Francisco began in the Spring of 2002, during which time the first shipment to the West Coast of Korean newsprint also arrived. The newsprint was discharged at Pier 80 and was delivered to Cal Cargo, a warehousing and distribution company in Hayward, CA, handling primarily newsprint and forest products. Cal Cargo, which still handles newsprint deliveries to San Francisco, inventories the product and distributes it to l

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Peter Buxbaum has been writing about international trade and transportation, as well as security, defense, technology, and foreign policy, for over 20 years. Besides contributing to the AJOT, Buxbaum's work has appeared in such leading publications as [em]Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Computerworld, and Jane's Defence Weekly[/em]. He was educated at Columbia University.