TAMPA — Two massive crates rolled off a ship docked at the Port of Tampa on Tuesday. One contained the fuselage assembly of an executive plane from Brazilian aerospace company Embraer S.A. The other contained the aircraft's wing assembly.
Both were loaded onto semitrailers and sent to Embraer's assembly plant in Melbourne, where the company will fit the sections together to build one of its executive jets.
To the Tampa Port Authority, the aircraft parts are pieces of a much larger puzzle.
When port leaders talk about the future, this is the kind of deal they envision: high-end cargo (aircraft) using the port's versatility (handling ships that roll heavy cargo right down a ramp) imported from a key exporter (South America) bound for an untapped import market (Central Florida) in an important industry (manufacturing).
It's the kind of high-profile work that Wade Elliott, senior marketing director for the Tampa Port Authority, hopes will attract more business to the port. That's because the Embraer deal touches so many of the cargo markets, business sectors and international regions that Tampa has targeted.
"We see a growth opportunity," Elliott said. "We want to attract more carriers and more frequency of shipments."
Direct delivery to Central Florida
The Port of Tampa was chosen by NYK Line RoRo shipping to receive components of the Phenom 300 executive jet, which the company recently began assembling in Florida. The Melbourne plant already assembles the Phenom 100, but those sections are shipped through Miami.
NYK officials could not be reached for comment as to why they picked Tampa for the Phenom 300 shipments. But Elliott said there were numerous factors in Tampa's favor: the port's ability and history of handling heavy cargo, such as construction equipment; and plenty of "lay down" space along the dock to unload and move the huge crates, each of which is nearly 50 feet long and weighs 8,500 to 10,000 pounds.
But the most important factor was location: Melbourne is only about two hours and 20 minutes away.
"Our big advantage was our proximity to the Central Florida market," Elliott said. "You're trucking big pieces from Tampa to Melbourne, as opposed to (transporting) from some ports on the east coast, where it would take quite a bit longer."
This is key because the Port of Tampa is trying to position itself as the gateway to the vast Central Florida cargo market, which is underserved by Florida ports. Most of Florida's cargo is delivered to docks in California and Georgia and then sent by rail or truck across the state line. But Tampa port officials want shippers to deliver straight to their docks, selling it as a way to reach Central Florida faster and cheaper.
"We are clearly eager to expand our service to the Central Florida market as the primary exporter and importer for the region," Elliott said.
Last week's shipment was actually the third time in five months Embraer sent aircraft components from the Port of Santos in Brazil to Tampa. But from now on the fuselage and wing assembly of one Phenom 300 executive jet will arrive monthly in Tampa.
"In order for us to meet our customer deliveries, everything has to flow," said Phil Krull, managing director of the Melbourne plant. "Starting with our receiving the subassemblies all the way through to the production line."
Ro-ro drives expansion
The Port of Tampa is trying to grow the number of cargo containers it receives. All kinds of things made overseas is shipped here in them, and they're a lucrative cargo for ports.
Right now, Tampa handles very few. Port officials hope that will change after last month's announcement that Mediterranean Shipping Co., the world's second-largest shipper, was bringing its global service to Tampa.
NYK's "roll-on/roll-off" line of cargo ships could do for Tampa's nearly nonexistent vehicle market what MSC could do for the container market.
Those ships have built-in hull doors and ramps that allow cargo — especially wheeled cargo — to roll right onto the docks.
But it's not just airplanes that are transported on "RoRo" or "ro-ro" ships. There's construction vehicles, commercial trucks and boats.
That's also how cars and trucks reach the United States — and it's a valuable cargo sector that NYK is in a position to deliver to Tampa.
Last year NYK expanded the number of ports it serves along the route that connects Tampa to Brazil. Now its "ro-ro" ships travel to ports across Central and South America, as well as Mexico. And NYK ships cars from Mexico.
That means there's a "ro-ro" vehicle shipping line connecting Mexico to Tampa.
"We would have never been able to accommodate the Embraer business without NYK sailing regularly to Tampa," Elliott said.
As Mexico's auto manufacturing sector booms in the coming years, new Port of Tampa CEO Paul Anderson wants the port to capture some of that cargo market, calling Tampa the perfect place to unload those vehicles and get them moving by train throughout the southeastern United States.
"We think the ro-ro business holds a lot of growth opportunities for the Port of Tampa," Elliott said. "If you look at what's happening with Mexico, with the investment going on there in new auto manufacturing, there's going to be a lot of new business between Mexico and the U.S.
"We think loading the cars in (the Port of ) Veracruz and bringing them to Tampa can be an attractive way to serve that U.S. market."
The Embraer deal also links the Port of Tampa to Florida's leading trade partner, Brazil.
In 2011, the Florida-Brazil trade market was valued at $18.5 billion. The biggest share of that, $5.3 billion, came from Brazil's aerospace sector.
"Brazil is one of our priority markets," Elliott said. "We see a lot of opportunity there."
Brazil is a sought-after market not just by the port. Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano has made establishing a nonstop route to São Paulo a priority.
But if using the Port of Tampa works out for Embraer, then more Brazilian and other South American exporters could see the port as a gateway for their goods.
Embraer has been in Florida for three decades but never assembled its planes outside of Brazil until it completed the Melbourne plant two years ago.
The Brazilian company is just getting started there. It has a showroom to sell new jets, is building a new technology center there and ultimately hopes to double its capacity from building four aircraft a month to eight.
But in this case what's good for Central Florida is also good for the Port of Tampa. More planes means more cargo coming through Tampa.
"The largest percentage of our customers are located here in the United States," said Krull, the Embraer executive." Being in Florida is not bad for our customers."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com.