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Port of Tampa CEO ruminates on the his time at the helm — and takes on his critics one last time

TAMPA — Richard Wainio said goodbye to the Port of Tampa on Friday.

It was his last day after more than seven years as director and CEO of the Tampa Port Authority. He has been credited with diversifying the port, modernizing its infrastructure and guiding it through the economic downturn and a rapidly changing cargo market.

But Wainio also spent the past few years at odds with a vocal group of dissatisfied port tenants. They opposed renewing Wainio's contract in 2011. Then, after he got a two-year extension at $251,118 a year, Wainio abruptly resigned in June.

He didn't back off from his critics in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times held just before his private farewell party Thursday at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City.

Wainio represents the third generation of his family to have worked at the Panama Canal, and a married father of two who can't wait for high school basketball season. Wainio and his wife, Yovanina, have two kids: Natalie, 17, and Robert, 14. She's a senior and he's a freshman at Newsome High School. In the fall, the son will try out for the basketball team.

That's why Wainio, 62, doesn't plan on leaving Tampa any time soon: "My kids won't let me leave."

Can you talk about your family's long history with the Panama Canal?

I was born and raised in Panama, as was my father, because my grandfather came from Finland in 1912 before the canal opened. My grandfather (John Emil Wainio), people tell me he was the greatest MD they ever had down there. But MD down there didn't mean medical doctor. It meant mud digger. He was an engineer on a dredge. The Americans needed dredge engines to dig the canal and keep it open to shipping. So he worked on the dredges from 1912 until he retired in the late 1930s.

He had 11 kids. He lived with the family in Panama. When World War II started, he was 66 or 67, and he tried to enlist in the U.S. military to pay back Uncle Sam for giving him such a great opportunity in Panama. But none of the services would take him because he was way too old. The Navy didn't want him. The Marines didn't want him.

A Liberty ship, the John Drayton, showed up in Panama and their engineer had fallen sick. They said they needed an engineer so he said, "I can do it." It sailed off and, to make a long story short, my grandmother got a telex two years later saying your husband died in the service of the United States. He was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean.

The last anybody saw of him (on April 21, 1943), the ship was sinking, and he was manning a gun and smoking a pipe and waving at the rest of the crew in the longboat. He was badly wounded and knew he was dying, and they didn't have room for him on the boat. He made the ultimate sacrifice and went down smoking a pipe, according to all the stories.

How do you see your legacy at the Port of Tampa?

My legacy of the last 7½ years is a credit to all of us, my senior management team in particular and the employees that work here. We have collectively modernized this port tremendously. People that know this port well recognize that this is not the same port we had eight, nine years ago. When I arrived it was basically a bulk (cargo) port with old facilities, rather dilapidated facilities, warehouses that were falling apart, berths that were not in good shape, roads with potholes in them. Apart from the cruise terminals, most of the facilities were very old.

We're moving to replace them. The REK Pier (the Richard E. Knight petroleum terminal complex), which is 50 years old, is now undergoing $51 million in renovations. It should be completed in less than two years. … It will be the most modern and safest petroleum station in this country when it's completed.

During the last 7½ years we have modernized or replaced or built hundreds of millions of dollars in new facilities. For instance, the cargo container terminal wasn't even here. We have three gantry cranes and a brand-new mobile harbor crane and a 40-acre facility with the capacity to handle over 200,000 containers a year (it now handles 50,000). We have the whole area laid out in a 14-phase buildout plan that we can quickly move forward on and complete if the market demand starts to pick up. We can quadruple that facility to almost a million containers very quickly and very cost-effectively.

One of your biggest debates with your critics is how best to measure the port's health. In the past six years total cargo tonnage has fallen by 14 million tons, or 29 percent. But in 2011 the port made a record $42 million in operating revenue. You've also said that cargo containers are a better, more lucrative measuring stick.

Every port is different. If you were the Port of Miami, that would be very easy to answer. There are two basic measures: the number of containers and the other is the number of cruise passengers.

If you're a port as diverse as the Port of Tampa, you have to look at various measures. One of those measures is clearly tonnage, and I've never denied that. Cargo tonnage is what everyone talks about. But for the last 30 or 40 years, the nature of world trade has been shifting and changing and any trade expert would be able to tell you … that things are getting lighter and smaller. That's not a surprise. One of the key reasons is miniaturization. New alloys. New plastics. They don't use as much steel in an automobiles. …

The best example here in Tampa is the phosphate industry. In 1980 here at the port, the phosphate product was something like 32 million tons. In 2011 it was closer to 12 million. Every year it goes down and down, and that's because they no longer ship phosphate rock anymore. Now they take that rock and turn it into processed fertilizer, and they're shipping a lot less tonnage, but it's a much higher-value cargo for economic purposes. …

The goal is to ship less bulk and more value-added products … tonnage is not going to recover to the peak levels you had years and years ago because you're not shipping those types of cargos anymore. … If you're a major port your focus is on container cargo. That's the sector of the business that's been growing all over the world and will continue to grow at much higher levels.

What would you have done differently during your tenure?

With hindsight, if I could go back … let me say right away, it always takes two to tango. You can reach out to people … but look at international politics, you try to deal with North Korea? Come on. If the guy on the other side of the table doesn't want to negotiate with you, if the guy on the other side of the table's style is to drop bombs instead of using diplomacy?

What would I do? I would try to make a greater effort to reach out and talk to this small group — and it is a small group.

I'd be the first one to say you can't make everyone happy all the time. When I arrived here, and I've said it over and over again, you may not like my decisions, but my door is open. I am not shy about talking, as you can tell. I will explain something until I'm blue in the face. …

I guess when you say, "What would you do differently?" with this particular group I would try to communicate better with them, try to bring them closer with us.

You've said in the past that the Port of Tampa is a mystery to the Tampa Bay area and wished you had done more to change that. Why is that?

Its a mystery to even people in Tampa. More people outside of Tampa understand the port because most of the users are outside Tampa. The distribution centers, the warehouses, the production facilities, agriculture, the farms, that's not in the city of Tampa. The city of Tampa hardly uses this port at all. The region uses this port.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.

Port of Tampa CEO ruminates on the his time at the helm — and takes on his critics one last time 09/08/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 8, 2012 4:32am]
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