No "maritime expert,' port director "good, good administrator'
By Wayne Tompkins
Bill Johnson had learned the previous evening that the proposed Port of Miami tunnel had suffered a threatening setback: After the project secured state and county money, the City of Miami unexpectedly voted to withhold its $55 million share of the $1 billion tab.
Undaunted, the port's director strode to the podium during a Florida Foreign Trade Association meeting Thursday (8/2) and swung into campaign mode.
"The tunnel is a benefit not just to the port," Mr. Johnson told a sympathetic audience of foreign-trade representatives and international-business people. "It should be called the Community Tunnel or the City of Miami tunnel."
In just more than a year at the helm of the world's busiest cruise port that sends cargo to more than 100 countries, Mr. Johnson is faced with reversing last year's 8.6% drop in cargo tonnage while beefing up security standards. He's presiding over the opening of two $40 million cruise terminals and seeking to strike a balance between cost controls and customer service.
"I'm not a maritime expert. I'm not a maritime genius," Mr. Johnson said. "I took the job for the challenge. What I am is a good, good administrator."
County Manager George Burgess tapped Mr. Johnson, a 28-year veteran of county government, to head the port last year after the latter directed the completion of the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts project.
In appointing Mr. Johnson last year, Mr. Burgess said he "has worked on some of the most challenging county projects during his long tenure with Miami-Dade (including) the performing-arts center and AmericanAirlines Arena."
He described Mr. Johnson as "an energetic problem solver who is not afraid to tackle tough projects and issues."
A tunnel connecting the port and its perpetual convoy of trucks directly to Interstate 395, bypassing busy downtown streets, is a key piece of Mr. Johnson's modernization program and hangs on a delicate balancing act of state, county and city approvals.
At the Florida Foreign Trade Association meeting, he told of the benefits of getting trucks off city streets and the ripple effects for its residents and businesses. He held forth on how once he grows the port according to his vision, the truck problems will get even worse.
"It would be an incredible loss of an opportunity," he said.
While the tunnel issue plays out in the political arena, Mr. Johnson occupies himself with improving the experience of his 3.9 million cruise passengers.
Along with the new terminals, which includes everything from more than $64 million in security-related capital projects to a renewed emphasis on cleanliness, he says he has increased the number of sworn and civilian officers at lower costs because he no longer has to pay overtime to meet Homeland Security requirements.
"You look at the numbers today, we will be at 3.9 million cruise passengers next year," Mr. Johnson said. "That's multiday cruises. We've had our busiest cruise season ever this past season — about 3.75 million. We home-port 22 different vessels and seven different brands."
An interesting opportunity came up with the news that Disney Cruise Lines, now based at Port Canaveral, might be looking to move or expand elsewhere.
"I'm not looking to cherry-pick (Port Canaveral director) Stan Payne's business," Mr. Johnson said. "I think that would be unprofessional, but I'm not about to obviously turn away a discussion or meeting with executives from Disney. That's just good common sense."
Disney does not call on the Port of Miami today, but Mr. Johnson said the company's cruise ships would be welcome should they decide to.
One area he is aggressively pursuing is the growing port-of-call business, in which vessels make mid-cruise stops.
"Thousands of cruise passengers would get off and use our taxis, go to our cafes, our restaurants, to the beach, go to the Everglades, play golf for the day, Vizcaya," Mr. Johnson said. "It's a way to generate millions of dollars for our economy from this port-of-call business."
Although the port is part of the county government, Mr. Johnson said it is run like a private business and receives no revenue from property taxes.
The port is supported by its annual revenues of just more than $88 million, up from $76 million five years ago.
His biggest challenge, he said, is keeping the port competitive with others on the East Coast.
"Unfortunately, we've had some declines on the cargo side," he said. He blamed the loss of cargo business last year — the port's first annual decline since 1999 — on economic forces including shipping-line consolidation. The declines come as other East Coast ports are enjoying robust growth in freight volume propelled largely by increases in Asian trade.
"We're not seeing the kinds of numbers that I would like to see. I'm very focused on that," Mr. Johnson said. "I've met with all the major shipping lines in the world numerous times. We're emphasizing customer service and lower operating costs. We've put in place some of the best tariff rates probably anywhere on the East Coast, all with an eye toward attracting new business."
Seeking to keep the port's prices competitive and its operating costs in line, Mr. Johnson said he is often in the field, encouraging his employees.
"We only have so much money to pay, and I need to get a good eight or nine hours of productivity out of them each day," he said. "On a Saturday and Sunday, I'll be walking through the cruise facilities or driving through the cargo areas."
While not an expert on maritime issues, he said, he is learning every day.
"I read continually," Mr. Johnson said. "You have to learn, and you have to grow."