Taking the Helm

Less than one month on the job, Brandy Christian, the new CEO of the Port of New Orleans, discusses her vision for the future.
Cheryl Gerber

On January 1, Brandy Christian was promoted to president and chief executive of the Port of New Orleans, a public agency that manages $61 million in revenues, 292 employees and $200 million annually in capital projects. She is the first woman to lead the organization in its 120-year history and one of the few female port directors in the country.

Christian is a certified port executive and commercial investment manager candidate who came to the port in 2015, after a nationwide search, to serve as its chief operating officer.

Before coming to the Crescent City, she held leadership positions with the Port of San Diego for 14 years, culminating in her role as vice president for strategy and business development. There she oversaw business development initiatives related to cruise development, maritime import and export opportunities, along with industrial leases. Prior to joining the Port of San Diego, Christian worked for KPMG Consulting as a quality management consultant, as well as the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and Fleishman-Hilliard Inc.

She succeeds Gary LaGrange, who served as president and chief executive officer for the past 15 years.

Christian recently sat for a Q&A with Biz New Orleans to discuss her vision for the Port of New Orleans. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Biz New Orleans: What would you say are the Port of New Orleans’ strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (S.W.O.T.)?

Brandy Christian: We’ve been focused on this as part of our master planning process. About six months ago we embarked on renewing our master plan, really looking at business opportunities in the next 20 years.

First and foremost, one of our greatest strengths is our geography, being located on the Mississippi River, having access to so many large markets via the waterways. That’s a natural strength that we’ll always have, and really is what we have to capitalize on the most. Next is our inland assets — the river system, six Class 1 railways and the interstate highway system. We can offer multiple ways for a shipper to get in and out of New Orleans, whether it’s by road, rail, barge or ship. That really sets us apart. Another thing is our real estate holdings. We have a large jurisdiction — 25 miles of waterfront. We have a lot of available space, and that’s not something every port has.

LEFT- “The state brought in chemical production plants and that’s led to some of our greatest growth in our container shipping side,” she says. RIGHT- Christian says the expansion of the Panama Canal is expected to result in some growth in the port’s cargo business and possibly open up new opportunities

Weaknesses — and this affects all ports and businesses — are global market conditions. There is shipping and commodity fluctuation due to market conditions and trade regulations. It’s a shifting industry, so we have to navigate through, be very agile, and respond to and have a good understanding of our partners, our customers, shippers and carriers.

We have a lot of opportunities in front of us. What we need to do now is prioritize them, figure out where we put our time and resources so that we can get the best possible return not only for the port, but also for the state and surrounding communities. We have a state leadership who understands our challenges and is looking to help with economic development projects that bring in new business. The Port of New Orleans has benefited from the state’s investment in the chemical industry. The state brought in chemical production plants and that’s led to some of our greatest growth in our container shipping side. I think with the continuing growth of the petro-chemical industry, we’ll see a continued positive impact on the port.

As far as threats, shipping is a very competitive industry. Ports are very expensive infrastructure. There’s always need for maintenance and capital for improvements. The Port of New Orleans doesn’t have a tax base. We’re all self-generated. Our competitors on the Gulf Coast have pretty significant investments either coming in the form of collected taxes or through state incentives. Getting resources to stay ahead of the curve is essential. We’re fortunate; we have plenty of room for expansion. We’re well suited for the next few decades. But what will things look like 40 to 50 years from now? We have to keep a long view.

“We’re fortunate; we have plenty of room for expansion. We’re well suited for the next few decades. But what will things look like 40 to 50 years from now? We have to keep a long view.”

Biz: Will the expanded Panama Canal and the opening of Cuba impact New Orleans?

BC: The predictions for the Panama Canal and growth on the East and Gulf coasts have been all over the place. We know that there will be some natural market growth on the East and Gulf coasts from the West Coast. Our market forecasts are predicting 2 to 5 percent growth a year in our cargo business. There are also some opportunities for new cargos that we traditionally haven’t gone after that could give us a jump.

New Orleans was one of the largest traders with Cuba. We have historical and cultural ties to Cuba. There, the cruise industry is a natural opportunity. It would be great to add them as one of our destinations, as it’s an attractive itinerary option to tourists. They could also become a trans-shipment hub as well, which could present opportunities for container trade too. It will take a while for the investments in Cuba, but in that time, it’s going to require the shipping of construction and household goods to build the infrastructure.

We’ll need to continue trade missions and economic development to foster those relationships.

Biz: What plans do you have for port properties near the Industrial Canal?

BC: That’s another major focus of our master plan. At the end of the day, a port is really about real estate, property management and what you want to do with that land. When the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) was closed and the container terminal moved Uptown, our focus was getting those businesses transferred and up and running. We’ve had some tenants move in — The Kearney Companies and TCI — but we’re really thinking about the canal and how we build it out with the opportunities present. As a shallow draft waterfront, maybe that becomes more of an industrial park with value-added features for shippers, like warehousing, packaging and distribution.

Biz: Will accessing the port’s terminals be part of the discussion?

BC: Yes. As volumes grow, we will have to ensure easy access in and out. We can invest in our terminals, but some of the investments that need to happen on the multi-modal side are not in our direct control. I think there is a real opportunity, synergy and desire between our regional and state transportation planners to come up with improved access routes to and from our terminals as an economic development investment. In the past year, we’ve been coming together for initial discussions, and there will be more. We’re looking at which potential projects would give the greatest access with the least impact to our neighbors.

Christian with her executive team.

Biz: How will the Army Corps of Engineers’ discussion about dredging and maintaining the lower Mississippi River’s depth at 50 feet impact the port?

BC: We’ve had some challenges with siltation and depth fluctuations in the river. Last spring the Corps struggled to maintain the river’s depth at 47 feet, and even restricted ship’s draft to 43 feet, then to 41, before getting it back to 43. Any depth that we can gain gives us that much more flexibility — not just here, but up and down the river. It’s a necessary and smart move as part of a long-term strategy. The industry continues to invest in larger ships. The need for deeper water is going to continue to be there.

Biz: The Port of New Orleans and the World Trade Center have traditionally been male-dominated organizations in New Orleans, but are now headed by women. Can you talk about that change and its potential impact on the region?

BC: The Port and World Trade Center have a long history of partnership. We have a very aligned mission and cause in facilitating trade. Those partnerships are important. Caitlin (Cain) was one of the first people I met when I came to New Orleans. She’s incredibly dynamic, very visionary. I think she’ll bring great energy. There are lots of new ideas. The World Trade Center will be a partner in helping to continue to improve maritime offerings in New Orleans and the state.

Biz: Are there some New Orleans idiosyncrasies you’ve come to appreciate?

BC: The first time I came here was for a weeklong maritime training, and I just fell in love with the city. There was just a buzz, an energy you could feel. And the people were so incredibly friendly. There’s a sense of community — coming from such a transient place as Southern California — that was just infectious. Everybody seems to know each other. From a business perspective, it makes things so much easier to get things done. It’s easier to meet people and network, compared to Los Angeles where I could go to a mixer every night and know just 1 percent of the business community. This is definitely different. It’s an international city with a small city feel.

Port of New Orleans CEO Brandy Christian at a glance

Education – master’s degree in public administration from the University of Southern California; bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Arizona

Honors – Alumna of the Year (2015) by the University of Arizona; Top Female Achiever (2016) by New Orleans Magazine; recipient of the Examiner of the Year by the California Award for Performance Excellence; Biz New Orleans Business Couple of the Year 2016, with her husband, Frank Christian, NOLA Motorsports Park in Avondale

Interests – Certified Six Sigma Green Belt