At the Port of Vancouver, two mobile harbor heavy lift cranes lift slabs of raw steel from ships on to the dock.
Working in tandem, the Liebherr LHM500s can heave the gigantic yet fragile blades of a wind turbine arriving from China on to a train heading to the Midwest. Forklifts drive around with coils of steel, like chrome toilet rolls, on specially adapted forks.
The Port of Vancouver is a bulk and break bulk port. It deals in messy things that don't fit in boxes: grain, urea fertilizer, copper concentrate and steel wire. It loads and unloads aviation fuels. A ship with 2,000 Subarus will dock and busloads of longhoremen drive on, then dive the cars off at surprisingly high speed, where they await their accessories and are taken away by train.
Julianna Marler is the first female CEO in the Port of Vancouver's 105-year history and one of just a handful of female port CEOs in the U.S. She heads a team of 130 Port employees, and is surrounded by another 3,000 people who come to work there. Most of the companies — such as United Grain Corporation and Great Western Malt — lease their space from the port. These two work out of towering grain elevators. Other shred steel from cars and appliances to be recycled in Asia, leaving it in heaps that must be hosed down in hot weather to prevent spontaneous combustion.
Marler was the interim CEO before she won the top job in a national search this spring. Her background is in finance at the Port, and in contracts and purchasing at the City of Vancouver. But before that, Clark County-raised Marler was a receptionist at a plastics recycler next door to the Port's admin building at
3103 N.W. Lower River Road, Vancouver. She credits some of her success to both that humble beginning and to her exceptional team. The board room table is in her office, so she doesn't have to pivot much to command a room full of executives and stakeholders.
What is the biggest issue facing the Port of Vancouver?
Right now there's uncertainty in trade policy, with the new administration coming in it's evolving. Monitoring it very closely and providing input to the administration through our legislators and some other organizations to understand impact of tariff, for example, on steel. Which countries would it impact, and the effect on the end user. We have a lot of manufacturers in the US who import steel. And there is potential retaliation on other products, such as agriculture. A trade war would impact anything, it depends on that country's response. The administration needs to understand the impacts. There's a reason for tariffs, but having a blanket solution isn't necessarily the most appropriate approach. Be informed about the tariffs you're proposing. Just understand the ripple effect. It impacts the ports but it also impacts the manufacturers.
Are there other big issues the Port of Vancouver faces?
Another issue we're monitoring is freight mobility. We rely heavily on road, river, rail. We need to make sure trucks move freely, and our commissioners passed a resolution to support our local legislators efforts to have discussions on the I-5 solution, a replacement bridge. We're not involved in what the replacement is, but we're back to the beginning discussions, which stopped in 2013. We see the traffic out there, it impacts people going to work and good moving to places, and we need to come up with a solution. When the economy is stronger, which is good, we see more people on the road. The bridge seems to be backing up more.
We're just completing the West Vancouver Freight Access project, which we've been working on for a decade. It's 21 projects and we're now working on the last two. It's a $250 million project, and it's brought efficiency to the Port customers and to freight in the region. The bottleneck was trains coming into the port which blocked the north-south rail line. Having the ability to come off the line has improved mobility by 40 percent. The Port lead branches off into the Trench (a place where the freight rail line was lowered so it could go under the main north-south line, which also carries passengers, instead of blocking it).
What is the identity of the Port of Vancouver, and does it compete with other Ports?
All ports have their own niche: Portland, Tacoma and Seattle are mainly container ports. They move things that fit in a box. The Port of Vancouver's niche is bulk and break bulk, things that fit in the hold of a ship or in a bag. Break bulk is things like a wind turbine, autos, steel slab and wire. We have the equipment and the skilled labor to move those things.
Does the Port of Portland's plan to convert Terminal 6 from container terminal to one dealing with more raw steel and cars threaten the Port of Vancouver's livelihood by going after the same business?
Typically we work well together, we try not to compete. It's beneficial for us both to be successful, because our goal is to make the region successful. There are sometimes they have advantages in different ways, and the same thing with Vancouver: what are your local suppliers? What are your transportation corridors? Where are you located? Things people take into consideration when they are evaluating which port they're going to. What else are they bringing on the ship, does it make sense to stop and go to a second port?
Do you have to compete when a company is looking at both Vancouver and, say, Portland?
Usually we communicate with each other if there are opportunities like that. But we try to respect each other, we want to be good partners.
Does the Port feel like a government entity or a private corporation?
I think we're a quasi. Most public agencies operate off taxes and fees. Ports operate like a business, that's how they support themselves. Ten percent of our income is taxes but those funds are only for capital projects and environmental remediation. Major ports are all very similar in how they support their operating revenue.
What are union-management relations like?
The longshore are a key part of our team, they're our primary labor force, providing labor to our terminal operations. We have a very good relationship with them and work together to make sure we have skilled and efficient labor. One of our niches is we have a very skilled workforce to support certain projects. One example is our wind energy, it's a challenge to do a dual pick with those cranes, and you have to have highly skilled labor to do that. Our stevedoring is Jones Stevedoring, is a family business. We have had a very good working relationship with our longshoremen (and she knocks on the wooden boardroom table).
Do you follow any management gurus?
I don't. What I have is an amazing team, they're all motivated, passionate people interested in making a difference in our community, and I value and respect that.
I started at the Port of Vancouver in 2008, and before that I was procurement services manager at the City of Vancouver. When I came to the Port they were just getting into a the Vancouver West Freight Access project, and my background was procurement and public works so that was one of the things I was able to do, to develop a program to contract and project management and dealing with federal funding, and I was able to being that to the Port. One-hundred-thirty people work directly for the Port.
What are you going to do when that project ends?
Really a lot of the focus I had was business development, maintaining the strong, healthy, culture here. That means communicating effectively with your team and making sure everybody feels they are a part of what's happening out there (in the terminals and industrial lands).
When you want something for the Port, who do you reach out to?
A lot of it is about educating people, and that means talking our state and federal legislators, and our community partners, which is anyone form business leaders to Chamber (of commerce) to neighborhood associations to local government. I serve on the local chamber of commerce as a representative of the Port, and on the board of Greater Portland Inc., a regional economic development group. They are helping people around the world realize on what we have in our region. Our hope is to bring family wage jobs to our community and it takes a lot of outreach to do that.
If you wanted to talk to the Governor of Washington what would you do?
We have a Chief External Affairs officer who is our government affairs liaison, and I'd work with him on the most appropriate approach.
How did you make it this far, to being head of the Port of Vancouver?
My dad had a general maintenance business, a small one-person show, and my mom was in purchasing, she worked for Tektronics for many years. I never had limitations. Naturally, I always want to make things better, regardless of the role I played. I started out as a receptionist at a plastics recycling company right next door, my first official job out of high school. I just focused on general business, how to make things better. I was fortunate that I had folks recognize I could help them in some area, and so a lot of times I was just asked to take on a role, and it kind of evolved over time.
How do you network?
I don't really give speeches, I prefer to talk to people one on one. I think it's more intimate and I get to hear what they have to say. And I go out to the different department team meetings. I listen to people a lot. It's one of the most important things you can do. That's how you build a better product, have a better project. I learned to do that because I liked it when it happened to me.