Newsome provides rosy outlook Charleston poised to gain on rival ports

State Ports Authority CEO Jim Newsome.

South Carolina’s ports continue to grow marketshare, and there’s even more potential due to delayed harbor deepening projects like Savannah’s.

That was the message Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the S.C. State Ports Authority, delivered to some 600 people who gathered Thursday for his annual state of the ports address.

Charleston is poised to win business from rival ports that aren’t deep enough for the larger vessels that will be able to squeeze through the enlarged Panama Canal starting around 2015, he said.

“Based on the current status and anticipated legal challenges, it is likely that no Southeastern harbor gets deepened before 2017,” he said. “This is five years from today. Lines cannot wait for this and will have to gravitate to a port like Charleston, which offers a significant draft advantage today.”

Charleston’s harbor is already 45 feet, and the authority is working on a $300 million project to deepen it to 50 feet to handle larger, heavier container ships.

Shipping lines are moving to larger “post-Panamax” ships that will be able to move through an expanded Panama Canal. The bigger canal is to open in 2015, but Newsome said the larger ships already are in service. They can be handled at Southeast ports but, because of channel depths, can’t get in and out of the harbors at all tides.

By the time the expanded canal is open, there will be about 2,300 of the mega-ships in service, he said.

“These lines are going to employ post-Panamax ships now. They are all looking for next year,” he said later. “They don’t want to wait. Fuel is too expensive, and they want to get into a port where they can get in and get out in 15 hours.”

Newsome, who last month marked his third anniversary as CEO, touted recent achievements, such as July through September marking one of the strongest quarters for container volume in four years.

The added volume is thanks in part to new routes to areas such as Australia and New Zealand.

Last month, Hamburg Sud, one of the world’s top-20 container shipping lines, pulled its only Georgia call from the Port of Savannah in favor of the Port of Charleston to serve those countries.

“The port business is not a spectator sport, and we are very active in the market, wherever it is in the world,” Newsome said.

Newsome has been charged with going head-to-head with regional ports to gain new customers.

The efforts come as announced plans Thursday to raise prices of services since they “are too low and will need to be adjusted over time to be more in line with U.S. port market rates and the cost of capital assets.”

The authority has been investing heavily in sales efforts with staffing changes and shoe-leather marketing. “We are aggressively selling our port globally,” he said.

Newsome noted that his chief sales executive, Paul McClintock, is back from a two-week business trip to Asia,

“I just returned from visiting our carrier customers in Europe,” Newsome said.

Newsome’s sales mission to Europe postponed Thursday afternoon’s address by an hour, giving him just enough time to step off the plane and be chauffeured to the Charleston Area Convention Center.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.