Ports authority eyes Asia trade with new carrier sales leadership
The State Ports Authority wants to grow its market share in the South Atlantic by aggressively selling its capabilities to burgeoning parts of the globe.
At a glance
John M. Wheeler
Title: S.C. State Ports Authority’s vice president of carrier sales.
Job: Lead ocean carrier sales efforts for SPA, especially Asia trade.
Previous experience: Senior director of trade development at the Georgia Ports Authority 1989-2012; sales manager for Hanjin Shipping, responsible for the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.
The initiative follows a 2009 strategic plan outlining steps to be more competitive along the East Coast, including growing trade in Asia, a region that historically has paled in comparison to the SPA’s efforts with trans-Atlantic trade.
Economic woes in some European countries in recent years have stalled growth in some parts of that region, shifting many East Coast ports to focus on growing trade with Asia.
Maritime experts say the Asian market will become an increasingly vital source of business for East Coast ports once the Panama Canal is expanded to handle the larger “post-Panamax” ships as early as 2015.
To grow the SPA’s reach, the agency has hired John M. Wheeler as vice president of carrier sales.
“Carriers are more rapidly deploying larger assets in world trade, and these big ships have to find their way to ports, like Charleston, capable of handling them,” said Jim Newsome, the ports authority’s CEO. “John is just the right person to carry our message forward to our global carrier customers.”
Wheeler, 60, takes charge of growing the SPA’s carrier sales after years in a similar role at the competing Georgia Ports Authority.
The post was created with the 2009 hire of Sarah Gaillard, N.C. State Ports Authority’s former container logistics director. Art Pruett, who took the job when Gaillard exited in late 2010, shifted to vice president of cargo sales when Wheeler was hired in October.
The carrier sales division eyes gaining business with the shipping companies whose vessels call at the docks, and the cargo sales arm is tasked with increasing cargo movements from manufacturers, retailers and others who move their wares through the state’s ports.
“We are aggressively selling our port globally, and this is a two-pronged sales approach,” Newsome said. “Developing our cargo base and increasing Charleston calls and services by the carriers are both essential to fulfilling our mission.”
After years of declining volume, the SPA has been showing gains in recent years, touting itself as one of the fastest-growing ports in the Southeast.
In its 2012 year-end report released earlier this month, the SPA reported that exports and new routes to areas such as Australia and New Zealand helped container volume grow 9.6 percent from 2011, with the equivalent of 1.5 million 20-foot-long containers handled at the terminals in Mount Pleasant and North Charleston.
Newsome said Wheeler’s experience is a major asset to continue building on the momentum.
“I knew John well from my carrier days at Hapag Lloyd,” said Newsome, who was president of that shipping line’s American division before taking the helm of the SPA in 2009. “He is widely regarded as among the most effective people in the world in port sales, and he brings that expertise and professionalism to our organization.”
Wheeler’s work experience includes 23 years at the Georgia Ports Authority, most recently as senior director of trade development. Wheeler also has years of experience working in sales positions, sometimes based in Asia, for container carriers including South Korea’s Hanjin Shipping.
“My expertise is with ocean carriers,” Wheeler said. “I have an ocean carrier background, and I know why they choose a port.”
Wheeler said it wasn’t a major change when he crossed the Savannah River to join the SPA last year.
“It’s a natural fit. It’s an easier transition ... living-wise and professionally, too,” he said. “You know exactly what we are selling as an East Coast port.”
Wheeler’s background in Asian trade plays an important role in marketing South Carolina’s ports, one maritime expert said.
“The operation of the port is one of the most complex processes in the world, and there is no substitute for experience or accomplishments,” said Jim Drogan, a maritime professor at State University of New York Maritime College. “Periodically, you see people moving around through companies and ports, and their knowledge and skills, as much as their attitudes and behaviors, are recognized as providing value.”
Selling South Carolina’s ports has meant months of studying its infrastructure, poring through trade publications, researching competing ports along the East Coast and keeping in discussions with clients.
“When you’re talking dollars to steamship owners nowadays, that’s everything,” Wheeler said.
The task of building relationships to nudge steamship liners is a marathon, Wheeler said. A long-term contract, which usually spans 10 years and involves millions of dollars, can take years of relationship-building followed by months of negotiations, he said.
That means Wheeler makes frequent overseas flights to destinations in Asia, Europe and Central America throughout the year.
“You’ve got to be in front of these (clients),” he said. “This is still a business of doing business with people face-to-face.”
The business culture in Asia “especially covets personal relationships, and they have to know you and trust what you say and have some time-proven abilities,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler travels with a lot of information about the Palmetto State, some illustrated in a PowerPoint presentation highlighting details such as the Wando Welch Terminal, the SPA’s largest container facility, and high-profile global clients including Michelin and Adidas. It also delves into the SPA’s high productivity rate, the depth of the local shipping lanes and growth capabilities, including a rail-served inland port the agency plans to open in the Upstate later this year.
Wheeler, who makes an annual salary of $150,000, also oversees a staff of several contract workers based in several corners of the globe.
“If we have an agent or contract employee representing us in, say, Shanghai, we have someone who speaks the local language and should be able to build personal contacts and relationships with the top decisionmakers in those companies,” Wheeler said.
He is in the middle of a two-week sales trip in Asia, meeting with various carriers in places including Seoul, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.
“I’ll see these carriers and suggest a call to Charleston or add another,” he said earlier this month. “I’ll have to go in there with some evidence to explain this is why.”
The trip starts discussions with shippers who will be making decisions on new routes in coming months.
The main growth is Asian trade, and Wheeler predicted the port will announce a new Suez Canal service later this year. The SPA also has been actively courting Midwest-based exporters of agriculture goods to places such as Asia.
Wheeler cautioned that the SPA’s focus is not entirely on Asia, saying it’s a balancing act.
“We certainly don’t ignore those like the European market because that’s our largest trade percentage-wise,” he said. “We’re still there, I’ll be there, Jim (Newsome) will be there. ... We touch on all the carriers there as well.”
Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.