Labor of love

Julius Sams, shuttle driver for Palmetto Ford, smiles as he leaves the parking lot with customers headed downtown, North Charleston and West Ashley. Sams has worked at the dealership for 62 years.

A button sitting at the base of a lamp on his desk might summarize best State Ports Authority Chief Executive Officer Jim Newsome's first year in Charleston.

"That's the way we've always done it," the button says, the entire phrase circled in red with a slash through it.

Newsome, who turned 55 Monday, took the reins of a beleaguered agency one year ago today.

Before he sat down for the first time in his executive office on Concord Street, he already had traveled to Memphis to help land a commitment from a major tire importer now building a massive distribution center near Summerville and had participated in discussions about his future employer's strategic plan for recovery and growth.

In his first year, Newsome announced deal after deal.

Just seven weeks into the job he shared with the maritime community at the annual State of the Port gala that his agency and Maersk Line, the world's largest container carrier, had reached an agreement to keep the shipping giant's business calling. He donned swim trunks in a race down the Carnival Fantasy's water slide to welcome the cruise's first home port call in May. And last month he joined with Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, to announce a settlement of the league's three-year-old federal lawsuit, clearing the way for progress on a new container terminal under construction on the former Navy base in North Charleston.

Newsome likens the past year to a road trip, and looks in the rear view mirror modestly: "We're starting to drive to California in a car," he says. "I think now we have a good car that's full of fuel. We've got a GPS. We're ready to go, and we're about 100 miles into it."

A former executive with German shipping line Hapag-Lloyd, Newsome grew up along the Savannah waterfront, where his father worked for 24 years as director of operations at the port. The younger Newsome conducts his business from his father's old wooden desk, a gift from a World War II general.

He identified keeping Maersk's business as his first priority as CEO, followed closely by turning around cargo volume, which had fallen 40 percent from 2005 levels.

Volume surged 19 percent during the first half of this year, and Newsome calls that growth pattern his primary goal as he starts his second year on the job.

He also wants to see funding in place for a deeper Charleston Harbor, one that will attract business from shipping lines using increasingly large vessels to move cargo.

Gov. Mark Sanford said he was "encouraged by the business model and pro-growth mindset Jim has brought to the office."

Sen. Larry Grooms, a Bonneau Republican, chairs a legislative oversight committee for the port and credited Newsome with uniting the waterfront to the extent that it ultimately salvaged Maersk's business.

"Jim Newsome has been nothing short of excellent in his new role," Grooms said. "There was a lot of distrust within the maritime community. There's a willingness now to work closely together, such that I've never seen in 13 years in the General Assembly."

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Even Beach with the Coastal Conservation League said the recent legal settlement mirrored almost exactly a proposal his organization presented four years ago. Beach credits Newsome with getting the agreement inked.

"He's very outgoing, personable, engaging, and that is a good thing, because for many years -- even decades --our experience was almost completely closed-door on everything," Beach said. But he cautioned that with port growth comes a corresponding risk to public health and that the agency faces a larger community role in the future.

Looking back at the past year, Newsome calls a 75-person staff reduction "a failure for the organization," and praises the efficiency and productivity of his employees at every opportunity.

When he stopped by a recent birthday lunch one worker said, "That's the guy we've never met."

"That sort of pierced my heart a little bit," Newsome recalled. For all the time he poured into relationships with stakeholders in the community, he adds, "That should never be at sacrifice of our staff."

Ron Brinson, a port consultant and former president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Port Authorities, said Newsome's time building rapport with the industry, the public and his detractors, surpasses any achievement with a dollar sign in front of it.

Explaining how Newsome launched a dialogue between the port and the community, Brinson said, "His father would be pretty darn proud of him."