Two months after Todd Coleman’s resignation as Port of Vancouver CEO, commissioners are starting to get the first draft of their help wanted ad together.
Each of the three commissioners used these words in separate interviews about what they’re looking for in the next port executive. While their visions differ from there, each recognizes the port has some bridges to rebuild in light of the fight over the proposed oil-by-rail terminal.
“The community is divided, mostly along those that support the port’s continued successes in growing the regional economy versus those that believe the decision and decision-making process around the energy project has been flawed and reflects a lack of connection to broader community sentiment,” reads a report by Jones Strategic Consulting based on interviews with 25 influential community members, top port staff and commissioners.
So the next administrative head of the state’s third-largest public port will need a strong handshake and an honest smile, commissioners and the report say. Because the public, now more than ever, is watching.
Commissioners agree the port needs an effective leader inside the port, someone with “organization,” and that outreach will be crucial. But wait, there’s more.
Port of Vancouver CEOs
Julianna Marler 2016-present
Todd Coleman 2012-2016
Larry Paulson 1999-2012
Byron Hanke 1985-1998
Commissioner Jerry Oliver stressed the next executive director needs to be able to “function in a political setting.”
“The port certainly for the past two years has been keeping a lot of public and political balls up in the air,” he said. “That role will still need to adapt politically to our community.”
Oliver was the only one to mention Coleman, who left the job May 19 after four years, with the commissioner saying “in some respects I’d like a clone of Todd.”
Commissioner Brian Wolfe focused some of his comments inside the port, with its 125 “tight-knit” employees and internal culture.
“You might think we want someone with port experience, but I’m not sure that’s as important as managing that team,” Wolfe said. “The other element we have is keeping the warehouses full and expanding on the Centennial Industrial Park, so those are real estate issues that aren’t just port issues.”
Looking for the next CEO
What is wanted:
Per the Jones Strategic Consulting report, “The next CEO will have a clear set of priority responsibilities.”
• External communication and collaboration.
• Effective and transparent governance.
• Management and business development.
• Organizational leadership.
Where to look:
The port is at a crossroads as to where to even begin looking for such a candidate. The Jones report recommended:
• National executive recruitment process. “A variety of accomplished professionals from the public and private sectors also are likely to be interested in this high-profile leadership position.”
• Transition executive. “The commission might consider a shorter-term executive to lead the repositioning and transition of the organization through the acrimony and controversy around Vancouver Energy.”
Commissioner Eric LaBrant, not yet a full year under his belt yet faced with one of the biggest decisions port commissioners make, wants a CEO who looks at “the triple bottom line — the bigger picture.”
“It’s one thing to say they should create jobs, but we need to be planning for what kind of economic development makes sense for this area,” he said. “Here’s what the community is going to get, and here’s an honest discussion of what it’s going to cost.”
Commissioners are working with staff to complete this Venn diagram of needs and wants for the next CEO, and they may have some discussion at Tuesday’s 9:30 a.m. meeting on next steps. Perhaps the most important next decision is where to even start looking.
“Do we even put out a help wanted ad or do something less of an outreach?” Wolfe said. “I could go both ways today. The hard part is whether we could continue to hire someone internally like we have the past few decades.”
Coleman and Larry Paulson were both internal promotions, in 2012 and 1999, respectively, though Byron Hanke was hired away from Clark Public Utilities in 1985.
The Jones report presented July 12 suggested either mounting a national search for a permanent replacement or hiring someone internally or regionally as a “transition” CEO.
“Personally, I tend to lean toward wanting to bring in someone in a transitional role,” LaBrant said. “We are looking at some changes as far as something’s going to happen one way or another with the Vancouver Energy (oil terminal proposal).”
Wolfe and Oliver haven’t made up their minds about whether to look in or out, short-term or long-term.
“There are pros and cons,” Oliver said. “There are at least one or two highly qualified individuals from outside; people are expressing interest. I know that’s going to be a hard decision.”
Wolfe agreed, and said the commissioners, port staff and the public need to set that course.
Port in transition
If you’re going to ask any member of the public about the Port of Vancouver’s needs and wants, start with Ron Morrison. The Vancouver man has attended port meetings for decades and is quick to ask for specifics for which few others would think to ask.
“This is a very big deal in the community,” Morrison said. “They control four miles of the Columbia, 2,000 acres, and it’s coming to the point where the community wants the port to be a more active presence in the community for more than just that jobs-and-revenue aspect that they continue to give as their purpose for being.”
He said the oil terminal proposal has brought the port from a “private club” to “who are these guys, and what is their appropriate role in the community?”
So for the next CEO, Morrison said, “I hope they don’t think what they need in an executive is more of the same.”
The Jones report lists dozens of characteristics and skills, from “quality of character” to “resilient in the face of public controversy,” that those interviewed in the report “recognized these were unlikely to be found in one person.”
Like any job, the bosses — the commissioners and by extension the public — will need to weigh the positives and negatives of any candidate. At the same time, Jones Strategic said the ongoing oil terminal controversy “could distract and possibly discourage highly qualified candidates. The controversy may (also) create continued change in the commission’s composition,” since Wolfe will be up for election next year.
Morrison, who has a background as a Coast Guard port security specialist, said issues from Vancouver Lake, river access and C-Tran routes to the port need to be considered along with more prominent issues such as revenue sources, job creation and transparency.
“They have made some mistakes, they haven’t always been as transparent as they could or should be. Because the public has a right to know, and as the public we are the owners.”