Longview — During Norm Krehbiel’s 26-year career with the Port of Longview, he has seen the organization’s acreage triple, its revenue double, its business diversified and its docks become more accessible due to a major rail project.
The port has also seen its share of controversies and frustrations, but as he prepares to retire on Feb. 29, Krehbiel says he’s confident that the port is positioned for growth and success. The commissioners who supervise him agree.
“The legacy Norm leaves behind is really his plan for the future,” said Commissioner Allan Erickson. “He is leaving the port in great shape financially. Organizationally, I think he has a great staff.”
Early in his career, Krehbiel managed projects that changed the cargo makeup and improved the economic viability of the port. He’s watched the port make significant gains after successful successfully leasing to new tenants, most notably the EGT grain terminal.
He’s leaving at a time when the port is planning a $70 million to $100 million expansion of an industrial rail corridor, which port officials consider key to luring employers and cargo to port grounds.
“I actually had planned to retire in October of 2016 and changed those plans when I was named the interim (CEO in 2016),” said Krehbiel, 63. That’s when the port commissioners abruptly fired then-CEO Geir Eilif-Kalhagen.
With his calm and even-handed demeanor, Krehbiel helped “stabilize” the port after Eilif-Kalhagen’s ouster, port commissioners say.
“All in all, Norm has made sure the port didn’t have any major crises and handled everything professionally,” said Commission President Doug Averett.
Krehbiel joined port staff in 1993 as the director for facilities and engineering. He was the port’s first on-staff professional engineer, said Ken O’Halloren, a former port executive director who hired Krehbiel.
“We were at a point in the port’s growth and complexity that (a professional engineer) was needed. Norm brought a tremendous amount of civil engineering background to the port. … As we expanded into industrial development, his skillset became invaluable,” O’Halloren said.
During his first half decade at the port, Krehbiel helped with three “major land purchases” from International Paper Co., he said. Those purchases, which included the old Long-Bell Lumber Co. mill site, added almost 340 acres to the port, more than doubling the port’s acreage at the time.
The land purchased created space for the port’s east industrial park and berths 8 and 9, Krehbiel said. Opening the industrial park, which now serves Skyline Steel, was a big step for diversifying the port’s cargo, which had been too dependent on the shrinking log export market, Krehbiel said.
Today the port handles a variety of cargo and product, including logs, steel, grain, wind turbine parts, calcined coke and other bulk commodities. Diverse cargoes help the port survive in an unpredictable and quickly changing global market, said spokeswoman Ashley Helenberg.
Krehbiel also oversaw construction of the Industrial Rail Corridor and Fibre Way overpass, the port’s single largest infrastructure development. That project was completed in 2005 and added more than 3 miles of rail line and connected both major rail companies directly to the port.
Paired with the construction of Berth 9, the IRC made possible the 2012 addition of EGT, one of the port’s most productive marine tenants. Those projects “changed the port, as far as revenues go,” said Commissioner Averett.
This year port officials lauded EGT as a primary driving force behind a nearly 50% increase in jobs and revenue at the port over the last six years.
“Now we see the results of that corridor. It’s the only way, say, EGT can prosper, much less exist at the port of Longview,” said Commissioner Jeff Wilson.
Filling Berth 9 was not without its hardships, though. Krehbiel said several companies considered leasing the space, including Toyota.
“We saw a lot of potential customers come and go. … Some of them were pretty disappointing when they didn’t go through,” said Krehbiel, who served as the port’s deputy director and chief operating officer from 2008 to 2016.
Another false start involved a proposed propane export terminal, which the port commission ultimately unanimously rejected in 2015 after months of study because the longshore union objected to use of the break bulk yard, which handles a wide array of cargo. The fiasco likely contributed to Eilif-Kalhagen’s ouster nine months later.
And about a year shortly before EGT officially started operations, a labor dispute about longshore employment levels at the terminal broke out between the company and the International Longshore Workers Union Local 21. After demonstrations and arrests of union protesters, the company and ILWU settled about a year later after “secret negotiations” opened by then Gov. Chris Gregoire.
“EGT was certainly an interesting and challenging project, both to bring it to fruition from the standpoint of getting them here as a tenant, but also the aftermath was interesting,” Krehbiel said. “We don’t want to repeat that. … A lot of lessons were learned in that.”
Averett said Krehbiel helped rebuild a positive relationship with the union, as well as realign the visions of the commission and staff amidst Eilif-Kalhagen’s turbulent departure.
“I think one of (Krehbiel’s) greatest accomplishments has been bringing the port together … from the commission down to the staff and the labor force,” Averett said.
With that unity in mind, port officials are optimistic about continued growth at the port.
In the next half decade, the port plans to redevelop Berth 4, a long vacant terminal, and expand the Industrial Rail Corridor. The latter project hinges on finding up to $100 million money for it.
“It’s a project that will probably take six years minimum. … It still needs final designs. It till needs permits. It still needs right of way acquisition,” Krehbiel said. “And then you’ve got the challenges of construction and the cost. … It’s … going to take additional resources than the port can provide for.”
If successfully completed, the rail expansion would add about 10 miles of rail line and greatly increase the port’s capacity for rail traffic, which is maxed out, Averett said.
Although he won’t be on staff to see the expansion move forward, Krehbiel has “positioned the port well to leave the project in capable hands,” Helenberg said.
Averett and Erickson said they through Krehbiel “had a few more years in him” before retiring. But considering Krehbiel’s age and eligibility for public employee retirement benefits, his decision to step down isn’t entirely unexpected, they said.
“To put it simply, I think he’s just ready,” Averett said.
Krehbiel said there is never an opportune time for a CEO to retire, but he waited until after the general election and budget approval to avoid disrupting those processes, he said.
In his retirement, Krehbiel plans to spend time with family and travel, he said.
“There is not a time you can leave that’s not somewhat disruptive,” Krehbiel said. “But I think the port is positioned well for the future.”