The story of Arthur R. Savage's family encompasses the entire history of maritime Tampa. Now Savage is about to play an unprecedented role in charting its future. • For the first time, and during a six-year decline in tonnage, key port tenants will have a say in selecting candidates to be port director. The hope is that Savage can help bridge the us-versus-them mentality between port leaders and tenants.
The selection of Savage for the search committee is "huge," said port commissioner Patrick Allman.
"He would be the No. 1 person in the port community I would like to see on it. If you look at how far his family goes back with the port, he probably has more insight into what the port needs than anybody else."
But Savage has been more than a voice for Tampa's maritime interests. He's also one of the outgoing director's toughest critics.
He has repeatedly sounded warnings over the loss of 29 percent of the port's total shipping tonnage — 14 million tons —in the past six years.
That has put him at odds with outgoing port director Richard Wainio, who has complained that the recession, housing bust and changing cargo market are to blame.
Wainio thinks a better measure is the port's improving cargo container business. It's a more lucrative market that saw a 12 percent increase in 2011, but stands at just 1 million tons.
Arthur Renfro Savage, 50, is the president of A.R. Savage & Son LLC, one of the port's oldest shipping agents. He's also scion of a family whose maritime roots stretch back more than 150 years.
His great-great-grandfather was Capt. James McKay Sr., the Civil War blockade runner and former mayor who brought commercial shipping to Tampa in 1846. His great-grandfather James McKay Jr. captained the steamer Mascotte, which appears on the city's seal.
His grandfather Arthur Russell Savage ran Port Tampa after serving in World War II and then in 1945 started A.R. Savage, helping shippers with their cargo, crew and vessels.
The firm's current president was born to William Oliver "Bill" Savage — the son in what became A.R. Savage & Son — and Shirley McKay, a descendant of the pioneering McKays.
Arthur Savage graduated in 1980 from Plant High School, named for rail and shipping magnate Henry B. Plant, who owned the Mascotte.
But by the time he graduated, Savage was already an experienced seaman, working the engine room and deck of the tugboat owned by his dad.
"That's what I did after school and on weekends," Arthur Savage said. "I just loved it and I loved working with my father."
The tugboat's name: the Tampa, of course.
Savage was 19 and a student at Hillsborough Community College when his father died of cancer in 1982. Shirley McKay Savage took the helm of the family business. Her son, who had just gotten his captain's license, decided he had to leave.
"My mother went into the business to keep the company going forward," he said, "while I felt I wanted to get some time at sea to really understand what my customers did."
He worked on supply and crew boats servicing Louisiana's oil rigs and traveled to Central America on refrigerated cargo ships for the Del Monte Corp. In 1984 he came home to work for the family business.
A ship agency handles everything a shipping company needs to take care of at the docks: loading and unloading cargo, working with customs, taking care of the crew and the required paperwork — the shipping manifest, stowage plan, bill of lading and so on.
Savage became president in 1997 and his mother soon retired. Savage and his wife, Tracy, have been married for 22 years and have four children.
"It's my heritage," he said of the family firm. "It was an opportunity and it was a commitment, too, to help the family and carry on that business."
Since then, Savage has been active in the port community. He has served as past president of the Port of Tampa's Propeller Club and Maritime Industries Association.
Over the years he has also voiced his opinion on a number of port issues: In 2002, he objected to a pay raise for ship pilots; in 2004, he complained that the Port of Tampa was foolish not to pursue legal trade with Cuba; in 2006, he argued that the port authority should not sell its waterside properties to developers.
But Savage's biggest issue is the drop in what actually comes into and goes from the port.
"He's been concerned about the decline in tonnage," said Dennis Manelli, vice president of Gulf Marine shipyard. "He's been an outspoken person who knows the port well, and he's been concerned about getting those tonnages back up to where they should be."
Savage has also been a critic of the departing director, Wainio, who recently resigned his $251,118 job and whose last day is Sept. 7. Last year Savage was part of a coalition that opposed renewing Wainio's contract.
When asked to comment on the selection of Savage on the search committee, the departing director merely said:
"I'm confident that the selection process will result in the appointment of a capable new port director/CEO to lead the Tampa Port Authority."
The selection committee was an idea the port board floated in July. Then at an Aug. 1 workshop, Mayor Bob Buckhorn told his fellow board members that they should form the panel so it could include "fresh eyes."
In 2005, when Wainio was chosen, an executive search firm had picked three finalists. Tenants complained that their only input then was meeting the three just before the board voted.
That's about to change. After Boyden Global Executive Search identifies candidates, the search committee will recommend finalists to the port commission, which will select the new director.
"I thought it was a way to incorporate the concerns of the various segments of the business community, including port tenants," Buckhorn said this week. "I wanted people who had a larger perspective of the economic development aspect of the port and some folks who I thought were representative of the port tenants. That seemed to be the way to get the best mix."
The port board did not directly choose Savage for the search committee. The board gave one of the seats to Tampa's Propeller Club, a civic group that promotes maritime commerce. It unanimously picked Savage.
Savage will serve on the search committee with William "Hoe" Brown, the chairman of the port's board. Brown declined to comment about the search committee because its roster hasn't been finalized. Savage also declined to discuss his opinions and history with Wainio.
Brown and Savage will serve with three other members of the business community. Though the lineup isn't set yet, the Tampa Bay Partnership and the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. have been invited to participate, along with a businessperson to be named later by Brown.
"The process is not about me," Savage said. "The process is about reversing this trend at the port and improving and increasing traffic through the port."
The same port interests that opposed keeping Wainio were also unhappy with the process of selecting a new director, starting with the hiring of a search firm to look for candidates.
In a span of just 28 days, ads for an executive search firm went out and bids were accepted and ranked. The winner was Boyden Global Executive Search.
So does refinement of the search process satisfy critics of the port's leadership?
"I think it is a positive step," said Tim Shusta, a maritime lawyer and president of the Port of Tampa Maritime Industries Association.
"I think that's a much better process than leaving it in the hands of the executive search firm to provide the final three or four candidates.
"I guess the second signal it sends is that having seen the dissatisfaction from the maritime community with the road they were going down, at least they have taken the right steps in including maritime stakeholders in the search process."
Patrick Allman, the port commissioner, hopes that Arthur Savage's inclusion means port tenants are ready to put their often testy relationship with Wainio behind them. While the board has credited Wainio for guiding the port through the recession, it has criticized his rough dealings with port stakeholders.
"Our current director has done a lot of good things, but he's become a divisive figure," Allman said. "Hopefully, Arthur's selection is indicative of the fact that we're moving on."
Tampa's mayor thinks the port community is ready to turn a new page.
"I think what you're seeing is a whole new environment," Buckhorn said. "There is a whole new attitude about cooperating."
And, the mayor added, maybe being part of the process will temper the port's critics:
"You can't throw stones when you're inside the glass house."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404.