Liz Brabham proves port leadership is a woman’s place, too

In this March 20, 2014, file photo, a container ship makes its way into the Port of Charleston in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Bruce Smith, File)

She’s a down-to-earth, tough-as-nails maritime industry sweetheart. And the Port of Charleston wouldn’t be same without her.

Last Wednesday evening, in a room filled with her industry colleagues, Liz Brabham heard that message repeated in so many nice ways. The Charleston chapter of Women in International Trade (CWIT) named her its 2015 Woman of the Year.

The program was a sweet walk down Ms. Brabham’s remarkable memory lane — and a celebration of the organization’s 13-year record of advocating for women entering and advancing in what too often is mistakenly considered to be a “man’s world.”

Liz Brabham’s 46-year career has been a ride aboard the port’s remarkable and often challenging trajectory through containerization, automation and high tech scalability. She remembers the port in 1969 — the ponderous heave-and-grunt, labor–intensive nature of the pre-containerization cargo handling, when human resources alone determined a port’s competitive efficiencies — the days of teletype communications and paper, paper everywhere.

The channels of Charleston Harbor were 35 feet deep. Interstate 26 was brand new, and the port was a year away from installing its first shipside container crane. The Wando Welch terminal was not much more than a dot on a dreamy planner’s matrix. From having to learn and relearn what she calls the “lingo” of maritime logistics, to her roles in the port’s almost total conversion to containerized cargo, Ms. Brabham has a keen sense of progress — and the port’s future.

“I’ve seen so much since 1969,” she says. “Now we’re talking about fully automating the transfer of containers to trucks. Like so many other changes we’ve had, it will happen before we know it!”

Liz Brabham is a proud 1965 Charleston High School graduate. Her first “port” job 46 years ago quickly evolved to a career in a dynamic and demanding industry. She not only kept up, she became an industry leader. And these days, there’s a trend in Greater Charleston’s maritime logistics industry of more and more women recruited to career employment with growth and advancement opportunities. Even the longshoremen who work alongside the giant ships have 36 women in their ranks. And women hold key positions throughout S.C. State Ports Authority operations, including Senior Vice President Barbara Melvin and Chief Information Officer Pam Everitt. Pam Zaresk, retired as Charleston’s director of Customs, now heads the Maritime Association of South Carolina. Joanne Fogg currently is assistant director of Customs

Liz Brabham’s career has always been ascendant. Today, she is general manager of Wando Trucking, Inc., a firm she has served for 28 years. She runs major high employment port-related operations in Charleston and Savannah and her customer lists include many big named international manufacturers.

One simple reality guides her style: The Charleston maritime industry, she declares, “is a big puzzle that we put together every single day.”

Her emphasis is on “we” — her understanding that port operations are a functional continuum requiring inter-dependent and inter-company teamwork. And education and training, she believes, are the keys to assuring more opportunities for women — and men. “Forty years ago, we took lessons from experienced managers; there were very few degree or certification programs. Today we have many more college and technical training opportunities including a degree program at our College of Charleston.”

But there’s more to the Liz Brabham story than a very nice woman and her inspiring career. Over many decades, a long list of the Port of Charleston’s venerable “networking” organizations have been strengthened by her quiet leadership and nurturing volunteerism — including the Charleston Traffic & Transportation Club, Motor Carriers Association, the International Seafarers Ministry and CWIT. She is a governing board member of the highly successful S.C. International Trade Conference and Port of Charleston’s National Transportation Week.

As a much-younger female colleague observed, “Liz is tireless — and always ‘there,’ keeping groups together and making things happen!”

Ms. Brabham has a birthday next week. She’ll be 69 with no plans to retire. And as the years tick on, this nice lady will surely enjoy a genuine flow of respect and esteem and admiration. Her career is the ageless message to younger generations that good training, hard work and collegial relationships can add up to a great career.

But there’s a public take on the Liz Brabham story, too. Big cranes, automation, ever-larger ships and the constant quest for scalability define the Port of Charleston’s competitive challenges. But just as it was in 1969 when Liz began her remarkable career, the port remains distinctly a human enterprise.

The port is important — and so are the people who work every day to solve what Liz Brabham aptly calls a “big puzzle.”

Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, was president/CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities from 1979-86 and president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans from 1986-2002. A North Charleston city councilman, he can be reached at rbrin1013@gmail.com.