Port player plans for future

By May 6, 2006Articles

SSA Marine, a Seattle-based cargo handling company, is poised to become a major player on Tacoma’s waterfront with its pending purchase of 52 acres near the Blair Waterway. The property SSA plans to buy is adjacent to a large swath owned by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and near property owned by the Port of Tacoma. The port and tribe have been discussing the potential of partnering to create a mega-terminal on the Blair – and as the future owner of a key piece of property, SSA executives said they want to play too.

“We felt it was a good opportunity for us and would help cement our position as the company that really wants to do a container terminal in Tacoma,” said Jon Hemingway, SSA’s chief executive officer.
The company has a reputation for being aggressive and savvy in business deals, while retaining the feel of a local, family-owned company. SSA has had operations in Tacoma since the early 1960s, though they’ve been relatively low profile. That could change with SSA’s hopes to develop and operate a container here.

Here’s a new look at the company, its leaders and its plans:

The guy in charge
Hemingway is the grandson of the company’s original founder, Fred Smith. He joined the business in 1985 after practicing law in Seattle. His uncle was the previous chief executive.
“I got talked into trying it,” said Hemingway, who became CEO and president in 1991. Under his leadership, the company went from having most of its operations on the West Coast to expanding into East Coast and Gulf-area ports and international ports, as well as getting into railroad management and most recently technology products. The company remains privately owned and operated, something that keeps it easy to make quick decisions, Hemingway said, despite its size. SSA employs 12,000 people, with about 230 in its Seattle offices.

In national news
SSA Marine remains interested in buying the Dubai Ports World operations on the East Coast, Hemingway said. The controversy over the Dubai-owned company managing terminals at six major ports also thrust SSA Marine into the spotlight as the last U.S.-owned international terminal management company.

Plans for Tacoma
With much environmental clean-up to do on the site, 2010 is the soonest the property would be ready for development. Hemingway said the best option for a new terminal involves the tribe and the port, though for now, the company is focusing on its work with the tribe.
“The port is the port authority and it has a central role to play,” he said. “But the tribe is extremely important. Its (property) is a key element to improving rail access, building up the natural footprint of the property. … Their property is the one our property is closest to, and we think we can add a lot of value to their aspirations.”

Terminals and more
The company’s core business is managing cargo terminals at ports, including two at the Port of Seattle and three at the Port of Long Beach in California. In Tacoma, the company provides stevedoring services for Alaska carrier Totem Ocean Trailer Express, manages a rail yard and handles non-containerized cargo such as cars. Carrix, SSA’s parent company, also includes Rail Management Services, a company that manages the loading of rail cars, and Tideworks, a company that develops terminal management software.

International ports
The company has locations around the world including in Panama, Chile and Mexico. The Seattle company also worked at the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr in 2003 and 2004.

Labor relations
Tim Faker, business agent for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 23, said the SSA has had limited business in Tacoma.
“If SSA were to become a terminal operator, we would find it necessary to sit down with the parties and make sure their intention and process for moving their cargo would be agreeable with Local 23,” Faker said. “Then we’d be able to create a good working relationship to address the volumes and process for moving those containers in and out of Tacoma.”

Andy McLauchlan, the company’s senior vice president for business development, said company supports union activities, including encouraging its employees in Panama to form a union.