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Newsome's decade as SC ports CEO has revived Charleston's maritime industry

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Jim Newsome

Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority for the past decade, helped to revive the Port of Charleston as it was about to lose its biggest customer. Brad Nettles/Staff

Jim Newsome was spending his weeks commuting from Georgia to New Jersey as head of global shipping line Hapag-Lloyd's U.S. division when a friend gave him a tip about a potential job opportunity.

The S.C. State Ports Authority, the agency that runs the Port of Charleston, had parted with its executive director on terms that were less than amicable just weeks into 2009 and in the depths of a national recession.

In the former director's final year, the authority had seen its cargo levels drop 19 percent, revenues had plunged 17.5 percent and the agency was about to lose its biggest customer — container shipping giant Maersk Line — which accounted for roughly 20 percent of the port's annual cargo volumes.

The SPA and Charleston's port were on the ropes. It was a challenge Newsome couldn't resist.

"I've always done weird stuff in my career," Newsome said this month as he reflected on his past decade at the authority's helm. "I have always wittingly or unwittingly gone into turnaround situations. I've never wanted easy things to do. That's not my nature."

Today, the authority is setting annual cargo records while doubling revenue and more than doubling assets from those dark days at last decade's end.

A new terminal is under construction in North Charleston, containerships bigger than anyone could have imagined in 2009 are visiting the port regularly and Charleston Harbor will soon be deepened to 52 feet to better handle the immense vessels that are helping to drive the port's $53 billion annual impact on South Carolina's economy.

"It's always good when a plan works," said David Wilkins, a former state legislator, ambassador to Canada and one of the 13 search committee members who met at the Nexsen Pruet law firm's Columbia office to interview candidates for the authority's top job opening in 2009.

"I feel good about the choice we made," Wilkins said last week. "And history has proven us correct."

An easy decision

All of the candidates who sat at the law firm's marble conference table were well-qualified and capable. But Newsome stood out far from the rest, according to Joe Taylor, a member of the authority's search committee and a former head of the S.C. Commerce Department.

"What we needed was a fresh look — someone with a private-sector background who understood balance sheets and how to sell and grow the business," Taylor said. "Jim was the perfect choice at the right time."

The committee, which included some of the state's top business leaders, also liked Newsome's "can-do" outlook.

"Times were awful, and the port needed a positive attitude," Taylor said.

Bob Royall, another former commerce secretary, ambassador to Tanzania and authority board chairman, called the search "the easiest I've ever done."

"He's a competitor," Royall said of Newsome. "He loves a challenge, and he was very quick to attack the problems we had in Charleston."

Newsome moved into the authority's corner office on Sept. 1, 2009, and soon learned the port's problems stemmed beyond Maersk.

German automaker BMW — which had opened its Spartanburg County manufacturing campus more than a decade earlier — was looking to boost production, but the authority was exporting cars from its cramped Union Pier Terminal and was running out of space.

Without a place to put its vehicles, the automaker might have to look elsewhere.

"So we had a really big decision, and one of the tougher decisions we made here — take Columbus Street Terminal down as a container terminal and make it a (car export) terminal," Newsome said.

Jim Newsome

Jim Newsome is president and CEO of the State Ports Authority. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Time was also running out on saving Maersk.

The shipping line had announced its departure plans due to continuing cargo shortfalls and a workforce disagreement with local union officials. Maersk had already budgeted the penalties that would have to be paid for breaking its contract in Charleston.

Less than two months into the job, Newsome surprised the local maritime community during his first "State of the Port" address by announcing a five-year deal to keep Maersk in Charleston.

"Jim's understanding of the broad range of issues and his personal engagement and determination to find reasonable solutions enabled negotiations to move forward in a positive direction," said Michael White, the Maersk executive who was negotiating with Newsome at the time.

The positive resolution, White said, is "just one of the many ways Jim has been able to build constructive relationships which benefit the Port of Charleston and its many customers."

Bill Stern, who has served on the authority’s board, often as chairman, since 2001, said he was impressed with Newsome’s ability to salvage the Maersk relationship.

It wasn’t the first time Newsome had made his mark on Stern. He and fellow board member Dave Posek briefly met Newsome during his shipping line days when he had a layover at Charleston International Airport.

"We came away so impressed with his knowledge of the port industry, the people he knew, his leadership," Stern said. "Dave and I both commented that if we ever make a change at the port, this is the type of leader we would love to have."

Turning it around

Newsome spent his first year in Charleston without his wife, who stayed back in Atlanta so their son could graduate high school, and his daughter, who had just started graduate school.

"There were a few nights I talked to myself," Newsome admits, wondering what he might have gotten himself into.

But he pushed ahead with his game plan even as then Gov. Mark Sanford had been creating uncertainties about the SPA's future with talk of privatizing the port.

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Newsome signed a deal with Carnival Cruise Line to bring the first full-time, year-round cruise ship to Charleston's Union Pier.

In 2010, Mediterranean Shipping Co. started sending a container vessel — the MSC Rita — capable of carrying 8,000 cargo boxes to Charleston, bringing about 50,000 new containers a year. It was the Rita's only stop at a Southeastern port and the first "big ship" to make a regular stop at Charleston.

Jim Newsome

Cranes lift containers onto ships at the Port of Charleston's Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant. Brad Nettles/Staff

Newsome started to promote the port statewide, telling its economic-impact story to legislators, state agency leaders, civic groups and anyone else who would listen.

Taylor, the search committee member, said communication and customer service had been a shortcoming previously.

"There was a real sense of arrogance at the port before Jim on being willing to work with other state agencies," Taylor said, adding management's focus at that time was on boosting profits because that led to bigger bonuses.

"The shareholders of the port are the citizens of South Carolina, and profitability is probably second or third to job creation," Taylor said. "So with Jim, cargo volume — which is a direct reflection of jobs and capital investment — became a bigger priority than how much money you could make on a box."

Statewide impact

Newsome expanded the port's reach from the Lowcountry to the Upstate in 2013 with the opening of an inland port in Greer, where Norfolk Southern trains move more than 140,000 containers each year to and from Charleston.

"It sent a message to the state that we weren't just a port for Charleston," Newsome said.

Another inland port — this one in Dillon — opened in 2018 to move cargo along the Pee Dee's Interstate 95 corridor.

And since 2016, Newsome has overseen a $1.6 billion expansion that includes bigger cranes, new equipment, a refurbished wharf at Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant and the new Leatherman Terminal on the former Navy base in North Charleston, scheduled to open in March 2021.

Earlier this year, the authority's management moved from downtown Charleston — where it had been located since the 1970s — to a $44.5 million headquarters building at  Wando Welch as part of Newsome's effort to create a team-like working environment.

The collaborative work spaces and interactions with authority employees, including many who never previously saw each other, has been a culture change for the agency's staff.

Jim Newsome

The State Ports Authority moved from the peninsula into its $44.5 million headquarters off Wando Boulevard in Mount Pleasant this year. Brad Nettles/Staff

"You could see people understanding how all we do fits together — building infrastructure, spending money and saying yes to our customers," Newsome said. "It was a real light-bulb moment."

Newsome said he didn't realize at first how much the authority's work affects far greater numbers than the 720 people who work under him.

But shortly into his tenure, he was shopping at a drugstore in Mount Pleasant when a longshoreman who'd seen unsteady work hours during the port's downturn spotted Newsome and walked over to hug him.

"He said, 'We're so happy you're here because we're working again and we can put our kids through school, buy a car and do whatever we have to do,'" Newsome said. "That's when I realized there are probably 10,000 people in the maritime industry in South Carolina. We have a responsibility to all of those people."

In the years since, Newsome said he's seen a restored confidence in the state's maritime industry.

"They feel successful again," he said.

Jim Newsome

A ship-to-shore crane lifts a cargo container onto a ship at the Port of Charleston's Wando Welch Terminal. Brad Nettles/Staff

'Never satisfied'

Newsome, a Savannah native, grew up on the docks of that city's port, where his father was the Georgia Ports Authority's longtime director of operations.

"I went to work with my dad from about age six to 14, but I had no plans to work for a port — I always wanted to work in the liner shipping industry," said Newsome, who took a job with Strachan Shipping Co. after graduating with bachelor's and master's degrees in transportation and logistics from the University of Tennessee.

There are reminders of those Savannah days with his dad in Newsome's office, including his father's clock, a favored lamp fashioned from a parking meter and his dad's engraved humidor "minus the cigars, of course," he said. "My dad's favorite thing to do was smoke a cigar."

There's also an autographed photo of friend and Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke. 

And there are nods to the sports teams he follows: his alma mater's Volunteers and the Boston Red Sox, including framed displays of mementos from David "Big Papi" Ortiz and Babe Ruth, during his days as a lefty pitcher at Fenway Park — before the trade to New York that cursed Beantown for the next 86 years.

But while the past is on exhibit, Newsome's eyes are on the future, as evidenced by the large-screen television that's constantly tuned to the latest financial news on the CNBC cable channel. It's one of Newsome's favorite networks, and one he's appeared on regularly to tout the port's successes.

No longer performing triage at a port struggling to survive, Newsome now has "the time to put his knowledge and experience toward strategy," said Barbara Melvin, the authority's chief operating officer.

That includes finding ways to grow the amount of cargo moved by rail, expanding that rail network to the Midwest, diversifying the type of cargo moving through the port and possibly building a new terminal for cruise ship operations.

Newsome's employment contract extends through 2021, and he won't say what might happen when that time comes.

But he's happy with the way things have turned out.

"Very happy," he said. "But never satisfied. I wake up every day wanting to do something more, thinking that we can do more. The difference today from 10 years ago is that I know what we're capable of and I’m confident we can do it.

"I think we have some enormously big opportunities ahead of us."

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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