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Philly port boss shares vision on trade, trends

Jeff Theobald took over as Philadelphia Regional Port Authority CEO in August. - (Photo / Submitted)

The Port of Philadelphia truly is Pennsylvania’s gateway to the world.

Everything from cars and cocoa beans to Chilean fruit and Brazilian wood pulp reach local markets and manufacturers after entering the country through the sprawling complex along the Delaware River. Likewise, Pennsylvania manufacturers — including Dauphin County’s Hershey Co., JLG Industries in McConnellsburg and Mack Trucks in Macungie — export many products to global markets through Philadelphia.

As a special supplement to our Sept. 2 edition, CPBJ took a look at the state’s supply chain infrastructure — the port in particular — and how the newly enlarged Panama Canal will affect trade in the region.  

In conjunction with that publication, we asked new Philadelphia Regional Port Authority CEO Jeff Theobald, who took over in August, to talk about his vision for the port and its future. Questions and answers have been edited for space.

Q: Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has spoken about Philadelphia as a niche port. That seems fitting, given the way the port has positioned itself as an alternative with lower congestion, faster turnaround times and a good location. Is that an accurate description?

A: I believe when Mayor Kenney described Philadelphia as a niche port, he was probably pointing out that we have many long-established areas of expertise and certain natural advantages.

To provide examples, we’re an industry leader in the handling of perishables, especially from South America, Australia, and New Zealand. We have decades of experience in the handling of forest products. And the list goes on. But I don’t like the word niche when it suggests that we only have certain areas of expertise. The staff of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority continually works with its private terminal operators to expand existing business and identify new business. A few years ago the port attracted Hyundai and Kia, and their huge auto-carrying vessels now regularly call the port. PRPA also attracted Brazilian pulp, a new cargo for us, to our Tioga Marine Terminal when that facility was underutilized.

So if you say that our niche is touting our traditional areas of expertise while trying to be innovative and forward thinking, I’ll accept the mayor’s description.

Many distribution centers in Central Pennsylvania already do business with the Philadelphia port. What would you say to those not using the port?

Take a close look at us. Speak to our terminal operators and to our marketing team at PRPA. Ask about our excellent workforce. Due to our geographic location in the U.S. Northeast, and the excellent highway and rail infrastructure serving our marine terminals, we have the ability to distribute products within 48 to 72 hours to almost 70 percent of the U.S. population. The Pennsylvania hinterland by itself provides prime access to those marketplaces, and that’s why so many distribution centers have sprung up there. But now so many businesses are also learning that another major advantage of establishing a distribution center in Pennsylvania is the proximity of the Port of Philadelphia. We can get the goods from the port to the distribution centers fast.

How important is the dredging project?

The Delaware River Channel Deepening Project, which is increasing the depth of our channel from 40 to 45 feet, is the single most important project at the port. This project was needed to retain existing cargoes, which move in increasingly larger vessels, and, more importantly, enable us to welcome vessels to Philadelphia that simply couldn’t come here at all if we didn’t deepen. Our deeper channel will complement the newly expanded Panama Canal, which can also welcome larger, deeper-draft vessels, and will result in substantial new business to the port. It’s already started to happen, even though the completion of our deepening project is still about a year away. We’re seeing larger vessels than ever before visiting our busiest facility, the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal. The economic benefits of the project will ultimately dwarf its costs, and assure the future of the port for generations. Other East Coast ports are deepening their channels to handle larger vessels, and if we didn’t do so as well, we’d be in a very bad position, competitively.

What, if anything, does the port lack? What needs to change?

We continually need to upgrade and modernize, and thanks to the strong support of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and our excellent record of working with private-sector partners, we’re doing an effective job on that front. We work with our terminal operators to identify needed improvements at our facilities and utilize our capital budget process to get them done. We’re now evaluating private-sector responses for our Southport project, which will bring new business operations to our waterfront. As far as what needed to change? Well, I know that the board of the authority wanted to bring a fresh perspective to our operations, a perspective from someone who had long experience working in terminal management, labor relations, trade lane logistics, and other critical aspects of the port industry. They ended up selecting me, and I will do all I can to justify the board’s confidence in me.

Roger DuPuis
Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, health care, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at [email protected].

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