Executive Q+A: The Navigator

John Wolfe steers the Northwest Seaport Alliance through a challenging time for marine cargo handling.

March 29, 2017By Leslie Helm

Since taking over in 2015 as CEO of the Northwest Seaport Alliance, which administers the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, CEO John Wolfe has navigated stormy seas while simultaneously improving the operations of the fourth-largest container gateway in North America.
EARLY YEARS: I was raised in Tacoma and Puyallup. Dad was in the Air Force, then worked for Boeing. He went on to have executive responsibilities at other companies and was respected as a man of high integrity. He listened, taking all input to make decisions.
CAREER: I went to Pacific Lutheran University, then worked at Boeing for 18 months. I moved to SeaLand shipping line, where I worked until Maersk acquired it. They wanted to send me overseas, but my wife and I wanted to raise our kids here, so in 2000, I joined the Port of Olympia as terminal director. The terminal was struggling and there was public pressure to shut it down. By partnering with labor to focus on what needed to happen, we turned it around. It worked because everyone had some skin in the game. In 2005, I became the Port of Tacomas executive director, and then helped launch the Seaport Alliance in 2015.
SYNERGY: Soon after the alliance was formed, we realized that a couple of shipping lines were struggling with service delivery in Tacoma. We moved the customers to an underutilized terminal in Seattle, where they would get better service. If [the two ports] had been competitors, we wouldnt have facilitated that move. We also developed a shared investment strategy to avoid wasting capital. A $150 million investment in a needed Tacoma terminal to handle large carriers [new-generation ships that carry more than 12,000 containers] was funded equally by both ports. We will do the same when it comes time to invest in Seattles Terminal 5 to handle the large vessels.
ENVIRONMENT: In my 30 years in this crazy industry, I dont ever recall the speed of change we are experiencing today. At the beginning of 2016, there were 19 shipping lines in international trade. Today, there are 13. Thats putting a strain on all ports, but as an alliance, we are better positioned to respond to that change. We dont have to worry about defending ourselves from our neighbor.
COMPETITION: To sharpen our competitive edge [against Canadian, Californian and East Coast ports], we created an executive advisory council made up of about 50 people, including customers, retailers, importers and exporters, shipping lines, labor, terminal operators, trucking companies, distribution companies and railroads everybody who is part of the logistics chain. The process forces everyone to come together to collaborate and communicate on ways to improve performance.

METRICS: Before, if a truck driver waited in line for an hour before getting to the gate, that wasnt measured in turnaround time. Now we have technology that allows us to know as soon as the truck driver pulls up to the back of the line. With better data, we can see the choke points, what times of day we are having congestion problems and at which terminals. Then we can see patterns and take action to reduce waiting time by adding more gate hours. Truck dispatchers can avoid terminals with long wait times. We are shooting for the trucks transactions to be consistently under 60 minutes.
LOADING: We are also improving cycle time for discharging and loading containers from ships. Its gone from 25.5 [containers] an hour to 27.5. Our goal is to move to 30 and beyond. When we increase our productivity, we add value to the shipping line. We are also measuring the rail performance so we can reduce the total transit time it takes to go from, say, Tacoma to Chicago, or at least create consistency.
THE UNEXPECTED: Thats what makes a day in the life of a port interesting. You have a game plan when you trot out into the arena, but when the whistle blows, things change. Your ability to adjust is a huge factor in your success. Every day, there are unforeseen circumstances, so we have to be on our toes and be ready for quick decisions. That happens every day; its just different every day.
BASKETBALL ARENA: Today, Terminal 46 [in SoDo] is a viable terminal serving one of the largest shipping lines in the world. Will it be viable terminal five to 10 years from now? I dont know. But even if it isnt best served for the international terminal business, we want to maintain the industrial waterfront for other uses, such as break bulk [non-container] cargo. Our industrial lands, especially adjacent to deep water, are invaluable to our region. They provide living-wage jobs. If too many jobs in our area are high tech, we are vulnerable. If we have a diversity of jobs, we can mitigate that risk. A basketball arena will add to congestion in SoDo, but I think we can work with the city to maintain the industrial waterfront and still find the way to bring to the city such activities as basketball.
THE STATE: Our ports also have statewide significance. Agricultural producers are dependent on our ports to get their goods to market. If these ports arent functioning at a high level, they cant compete. We lost market share during the labor struggle. I dont know if we will ever take it back. If the employers and labor would extend the current contract before it expires, that would reinstill confidence in those who use our gateway.

TAKE 5: Get to Know John Wolfe

FAVORITE MENTOR: I played football for Coach Forrest Frosty Westering at PLU. He had a doctorate in philosophy and modeled servant leadership. The upperclassmen served the younger classmen by sharing their experiences and the importance of earning your playing time.
PROUDEST MOMENT: The formation of the Seaport Alliance was a collective effort. I worked closely with my counterparts at the Port of Seattle to create the idea, and it was a very proud moment when we hit the start button.
WHEELS: I drive a GMC Yukon. Its large enough to carry family and friends.
RECENT BOOK: Leading Change by John P. Kotter
I ADMIRE: Pope Francis and Alan Mulally