At important junctures — whether it’s a startup reaching a size beyond the management capabilities of its founder, a company charting a new course or a lumbering giant needing an overhaul — it becomes important for institutions to attract leaders who can bring about the changes required to respond to the new challenges at hand.
The city of Seattle, which seems to be having trouble keeping pace with its own rapid growth, may be one such example. Mayor Ed Murray has been politically adept, but it’s unclear if the bureaucracy he operates is up to the task of running what is quickly being transformed into a major metropolitan area.
Until recently, the Port of Seattle was another such example. It had been adrift for decades. Under Port CEO Mic Dinsmore, an astonishing lack of accountability led to charges of corruption. Under Tay Yoshitani, the accountability issues were addressed, but at the cost of building a risk-averse culture in which employees were discouraged from taking initiative. And in all those years, the Port failed to address adequately the key challenges at hand, including its broader mission to create middle-class jobs.
Now, as the Port merges its container facilities with Tacoma’s to create the Northwest Seaport Alliance, it has the opportunity to focus on the more lucrative and promising portions of its operations, including cruise ships, the airport, real estate and economic development. At this critical time, we are lucky to have in Ted Fick a CEO who, in the 18 months since taking the job, has already begun to make sweeping changes [page 34] to build a unified Port structure that can operate more efficiently and tap opportunities presented by the region’s rapid growth.
Fick has put a new management team in place and is beginning to address key challenges such as a bottleneck at the airport that will require investments in new gates, a new baggage handling system and other facilities that some insiders think could cost upward of $20 billion. Lucky for us, Fick plans to avoid the kind of gold plating typical of large public projects. Not long after becoming CEO, he told Seattle Business magazine that the airport’s planned international terminal “doesn’t need to be a palace.”
Fick has also moved more aggressively to introduce lean management systems that will allow the organization to operate better with fewer resources.
Equally important, Fick is finding ways to leverage the Port’s extensive assets to encourage economic development throughout the state. He introduced incentives to encourage airlines to add flights to cities around Washington that have lost such service in recent years. We hope that, as a relatively new CEO less concerned about turf battles, he will work more closely with Boeing Field, Paine Field and McChord Field to explore a broader, regional solution to addressing soaring passenger traffic at Sea-Tac Airport.
The Port has hundreds of acres of underutilized property and Fick is working on commercial developments that will use some of that land to create new job opportunities in neighboring cities such as Des Moines and Burien. Fick also has his people exploring partnerships with companies, including shipbuilders and seafood processors, to bring more family-wage jobs to the Seattle waterfront.
Seattle is lucky to have in Ted Fick an executive who’s not afraid to shake things up and think creatively. As Seattle grows, other institutions, including the city of Seattle, need to take a similar hard look at how they might organize themselves to be more effective. They could do worse than follow Fick’s example.