Going Out On Top
Port of New Orleans CEO Gary LaGrange looks back on 15 years of weathering both national disasters and unprecedented growth, and shares his excitement for the future.
Gary LaGrange, who has served as president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans since 2001, will retire at the end of his contract in April 2017.
During his tenure, the port invested more than $500 million in infrastructure, opening state-of-the-art facilities including new container, intermodal, cruise and refrigerated terminals. The port also endured changes brought on by the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
A public agency that manages $61 million in revenues, 292 employees and $200 million in capital projects, the port has diversified its business, increasing container shipping and the cruise tourism industry and becoming North America’s fifth-busiest cargo port and sixth-busiest cruise port. Chief Operating Officer Brandy D. Christian will succeed LaGrange, becoming the first female CEO in the organization’s 120-year history. LaGrange recently reflected on his years at the helm and what’s next for him and for the Port of New Orleans.
Biz: How are you feeling with your term coming to a close?
GL: I feel euphoric. I’ve reached the culmination of 41 years of being a president and CEO. It’s hard to believe, but I feel really happy about it. I’m very satisfied with the accomplishments this port has made.
If there is one legacy that I can leave behind, it’s the team. It’s all about the team, the people who work here and the people that make the port what it is. That’s probably my greatest feeling — knowing that there are a lot of good people who built a really great port that competes worldwide.
Biz: What are you most proud of in your tenure as leader of the Port of New Orleans?
GL: There are a lot of things. I think the spontaneity and reactions to a lot of unexpected instances throughout the years.
My first day on the job was Sept. 10, 2001. And we all know what happened the next day. All of our lives changed on Sept. 11. We had all the security changes and the launch of the Department of Homeland Security and new regulations.
Then, when Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005: Friday, Aug. 26, was a typical day at work. At 3 o’clock that afternoon, after a day of meetings, my executive assistant told me, ‘We’re in the cone.’ I wasn’t sure what the cone was. Well, I quickly learned that we were in the cone of uncertainty for potential landfall.
Biz: How did the port come through Katrina?
GL: We had a preparation plan for natural disasters and storms, but what we didn’t realize at the time was that we had no recovery plan. We had grown pretty complacent. We hadn’t had a major storm hit in 40 years. After the storm hit on Monday, we were flying by the seat of our pants for the next five or six days, working with limited or no communications with our counterparts in Washington, D.C., and trying to figure out where to go next.
The most impactful call that we had came from Washington asking what we needed. I just met with my staff at the St. Claude Avenue Bridge, where there was a triage area and some 3-, 4-, 5,000 people still missing in the Lower Ninth Ward. We were literally watching them fish people out of the water, which was up to the rooftops. I remember thinking at that moment on the bridge, ‘Wow, what are we going to do?” because there was no place to take these people, no first aid supplies, no food, no water, no blankets. These people had just lost everything in their lives. People were disoriented, just in shock in the aftermath.
A couple of hours later, the White House called and asked what we needed. Of course I’m still in reaction mode — we need food, water, first aid supplies. Then they asked what we needed to reopen a port of national significance so that we could supply goods throughout the country. That was impactful. They needed this port open. Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Tulsa and all points in between needed the cargo that runs through our port.
Post-Katrina, on Sept. 20, 2005, a Carnival Cruise Line ship contracted by FEMA berthed behind the U.S.S. Iwo Jima on the city’s waterfront to provide much-needed housing. LaGrange worked with the White House to reopen the port within 11 days of the disaster.
We later found out that for every day this river is closed, the detrimental economic impact to the country is $300 million a day, and it rises exponentially after the fourth day because of supply-and-demand issues.
To come back from what many say is the most catastrophic disaster ever to hit the United States, and reopen within 11 days, was nothing short of a miracle. A lot of credit goes to people who never got the credit they should have. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association provided surveys, links to navigation and identified where sunken vessels were that we didn’t know about so that we could avoid crashes once the channel opened. The Army Corps of Engineers worked to make sure the minimal water draft was there so ships could pass safely. And then the Maritime Administration and Transportation Secretary, Norman Mineta, came up with the idea to send floating dormitories because 80 percent of the housing stock in the city was destroyed. We needed workers to reopen. Mineta sent vessels from the Merchant Marine academies to New Orleans so that we were able to house 2,000 workers and provide three meals a day while they were in New Orleans. Then they could visit their families in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and points in between on the weekend.
The next important step was getting word out that the port was reopening as soon as possible. We averaged 60 interviews a day with national and international media. We asked companies not to divert their business to another port, because when that happens, you hardly ever get their business back. So keeping business here was paramount. The shippers knew the advantages of our port and our connectivity inland through the river, six Class 1 railroads and the Interstate Highway System.
The Lykes Flyer was the first ship to come in, and in typical New Orleans fashion, it was full of coffee and beer from Mexico. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. There’s a photo of that ship offloading cargo in my office.
Biz: How has the Port of New Orleans changed since you began here?
GL: It’s changed quite a bit, as has the entire port industry over the last 16 years. The biggest shift is that we do a lot more container cargo. When I first started here, New Orleans wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen as a container port. We had a small container terminal in New Orleans East on France Road. Now we have one of the top 20 container terminals in North America. The Journal of Commerce ranked us 16th last year for container imports and exports.
The other area is the proliferation of the cruise industry. We realized New Orleans is a destination city. It’s a jewel city, not only of the United States but also of the world. People want to come to New Orleans. So we thought, let’s take that opportunity to convert into the maritime world by bringing in more cruise ships.
All of this was the result of the World Bank imposing an embargo on imported steel. More than 37 percent of our revenue was generated by imported steel. That was too many eggs in one basket. We had to spread out our portfolio and diversify by reaching out to other areas. That’s when we built the Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal, which continues to grow and expand on an annual basis.
We built a new state-of-the-art cruise terminal and renovated an old terminal at Julia Street. We started with basically no regular industry, and now we’re the sixth-largest cruise port in the United States and the ninth-largest in the world.
We’ve multiplied from a one-dimensional port into a multidimensional port.
Biz: What have been your biggest challenges?
GL: Financing has probably been the biggest challenge. New Orleans is a self-supporting port, and we’re really proud of that. We don’t collect taxes, and all of our major competitors do. We’ve had to develop alternate forms of financing that don’t exist. Houston gets $90 million in ad valorem taxes annually. New Orleans gets nothing. Mississippi rebuilt the Port of Gulfport with Road Home money that was intended to go to rebuild housing. We’ve had to not only think outside of the box, but also create a new box to work in.
Biz: Do you have any regrets, or are there things you wish you had done differently?
GL: No, only leaving. But it’s time to move on. I’m very fortunate to have been placed here.
Biz: What’s next for you?
GL: I’ll still be working in the industry as leader of the Ports Association of Louisiana. I won’t be as hands-on, but I’ll be helping all 32 ports in Louisiana with legislation, funding and financing.
Biz: What will Brandy Christian bring as president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans?
GL: The port is getting a great leader. Brandy brings an element of knowledge to us that is not common on the Gulf Coast. She is from California and the West Coast. She came from the Port of San Diego, which is a totally different kind of port than New Orleans. She brings ideas on developing nontraditional sources of income. She’s got new ideas, concepts and thoughts that will be really, really, good for the Port of New Orleans. I’m excited that she’s stepping in. She’s bringing new ideas to what we have established and I think she’ll be great.
Schreiber Award Latest in List of LaGrange Accomplishments
At the Louisiana International Trade Gale on Nov. 18, Gary LaGrange received this year’s Eugene J. Schreiber Award, named for the late Eugene “Gene” Schreiber, who served the World Trade Center and Louisiana community for over 30 years. The Schreiber Award honors an individual who demonstrates exceptional knowledge and leadership in promoting international trade policy for the benefit of the state of Louisiana.
A highly active and celebrated professional, LaGrange was also inducted into the International Maritime Association Hall of Fame at the United Nations in New York in 2006 and the National Rivers Hall of Fame in Iowa in 2005.
LaGrange also serves the industry in the following capacities:
• Waterways Council, Inc. — board and executive committee
• National Waterways Conference — past president and board member
• Gulf Ports Association of the Americas — board member
• Transportation Research Board — executive committee
• Transportation Committee of the World Trade Center of New Orleans — board member
• American Association of Port Authorities — past chairman
• Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta — member of Advisory Council on Trade and Transportation
• U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Transportation System — member of National Advisory Committee
New Port Shuttle Service Receives $1.75 million Grant
Earlier this year, a container-on-barge shuttle service began between the Port of New Orleans and the Port of Baton Rouge. Operated by SEACOR AMH, the service moves five barges per week between the ports that would otherwise be transported by truck or rail.
Thanks to a $1.75 million grant from the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) announced on Nov. 1, the container-on-barge shuttle service will be acquiring new container loading equipment to increase efficiencies and save Louisiana money.
According to a U.S. Department of Transportation study, for every round trip of a 40-foot container moved by barge rather than over the road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge the state saves $118.