Executive Q&A: Ted Fick, CEO, Port of Seattle


Port of Seattle commissioners said they found the “right combination of skills, expertise and entrepreneurial spirit” in Ted Fick when they hired the former Paccar executive as the port’s new CEO. Fick, 55, will be steering the port at a time of transition that commissioners says calls for a “fresh perspective” and a “steady hand.” Perhaps the biggest transition is the recently announced “alliance” of the Port of Seattle’s maritime operations with those at the Port of Tacoma (see page 26).

EARLY YEARS: I grew up in Tacoma. My father was the CEO of the family business, Fick Foundry Company. We used to talk a lot at the dinner table, where Dad shaped how I think, what I value. He believed in staying focused on what matters and he believed that what gets measured gets done. My biggest takeaway from growing up in the business was that teams are powerful and can accomplish more than individuals.

FIRST JOB: When I was about 12 years old, I wanted to make some money mowing lawns during the summer. My dad had me “cost out” the project. I figured with seven customers, the cost of gas and paying him back for a loan of $187.60 to buy a lawnmower, I’d still make money. I had enough at the end of the summer to buy a Schwinn bicycle. It was gratifying for me that I planned, executed and got rewarded for that summer of work. 

CAREER: My college education [at the University of Washington] was funded by working at the foundry — pouring steel, grinding, arcing and welding. I also worked on the cost estimating side of the business. At Paccar, I learned that teams can be powerful with the right focus on accountability and on customers. A team can rally around an objective and be very successful.

LEADERSHIP: I see teambuilding and developing people as a cornerstone of going forward. My style is all about making sure we articulate expectations, then coaching and developing them. Why hold people accountable unless they know what’s expected? I normally start with short-interval follow-up, then give people more real estate.

FIRST YEAR AT THE PORT: I will spend time with the [port’s] leadership team — aviation, the seaport and real estate. I want to really understand the [business] plan in place and how realistic it is. I want to bring that plan to life. This is a lot about building trust, about having some wins as a team and getting to know all the port stakeholders. I expect to meet as many people as I can, understand who the players are. To have any foregone conclusions [about people] would be disrespectful. It would be counter to the whole idea of coaching and developing people. First, we set objectives for high performance and make sure we are following a matrix that will lead to success. If we’re off the mark, we understand what happened and why, and we can take countermeasures to get back on track. We discuss bumps in the road and don’t hide it. Bad news doesn’t get better. All this requires that we build consensus and communicate, that we’re transparent. I don’t think of the Port of Seattle as a broken organization. There are challenges at the seaport and at the airport, but I see the port going from good to great.

MARITIME CHALLENGES: Ships are larger today. We need more capacity. We need to be able to handle multiple big ships at the same time at the same terminal. With new capacity coming to the Panama Canal, some Asian customers could be tempted to bypass the West Coast ports altogether. That has changed the game. We have also lost market share. We’ve got to have the ability to be nimble. We’ve got to make sure we have a stronger value proposition than others. Does it take too long to develop projects and proposals? In addition, we have an aging workforce here. We need to address that and develop the next generation of leaders. I don’t know if they will all come from inside the port.

NEW ALLIANCE WITH THE PORT OF TACOMA: I believe that two plus two can equal five. Both Tacoma and Seattle ports have significant assets. We want to work collaboratively. We’re better off working together than competing over things like pricing. This [merger] idea is not an acquisition but an alliance. It has to work for both parties. I know the commissioners are leading this one. I was really pleased to hear that this was already a leading idea when it looked like it would work out for me here. I would have suggested it. 

SEA-TAC AIRPORT: I have a lot of questions to ask about the proposed new [$344 million] international air terminal. It’s something that’s going to make the experience for our customers much better because we have this challenge of peak arrival periods. But building a Taj Mahal is not going to generate any more revenue or create added capacity for flight arrivals. We need to balance the costs with a good customer experience. Sea-Tac is an attractive gateway to Asia. We want to facilitate that, but the cost projections have moved around on the new terminal. I want to be careful that we’ve got a balanced cost-benefit relationship. 

PUBLIC RELATIONSHIPS: Everything we talk about here at the Port of Seattle, we should be comfortable with on the front page of The Seattle Times. We also understand that we can’t please all the people all the time and that it is difficult for everyone to win on every issue. Part of the objective is to widen the chalk lines. I want to lead by example, to be flexible and responsive. There are many stakeholders here — neighbors, the environment, traffic, minority-owned businesses. In private industry, we don’t have to pay attention to as many different stakeholders. I want to give people here the confidence that we’re not living in the past. I want them to know that I’ve got their back. Going forward, I want to make sure we have an empowering culture.

THE VALUE OF PREPARATION: I ran track in high school but took a hiatus from running until 2006, when I wanted to accomplish some personal objectives. So I started training on my own for marathons and Ironman events. My goal was to run a marathon in under four hours. I came in at 3:46. I learned that training is everything. You’re either prepared or you’re not. You can draw parallels from that. I learned that, at the starting line, it’s already over. 

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