It may be difficult to imagine a maritime industry without Chris Lytle. But that is what will happen at year’s end.
The 73-year-old Lytle will retire July 19 as executive director of the Port of Oakland after 53 years in the business. Lytle will serve as a consultant to the port through the end of 2019, and then will embark, as he said somewhat tongue-in-cheek in a July 10 telephone interview, “on a second career.”
Lytle, who steps down two days before his employment contract expires, leaves after six years running the port, which includes the nation’s seventh-busiest seaport, the 11th-busiest cargo airport and a large chunk of real estate. Lytle came from the Port of Long Beach, the nation’s second-busiest seaport, where he was its executive director.
Port Attorney Danny Wan was named acting executive director pending a search for Lytle’s successor, the port said. The port added that Lytle will assist in the search process.
In Lytle’s final two years, containerized ocean cargo volume hit record highs, while the port has posted record operating revenue for the past three years. Lytle said today that box import traffic is actually up year-over-year despite the impact of higher tariffs on Chinese imports. The gains are in the low to mid single-digits as opposed to double-digit increases in recent years, he said. However, agricultural exports, a huge part of Oakland’s traffic mix, has been hurt by retaliatory tariffs by China, he said.
Oakland handles virtually all of the agricultural exports originating in the state’s vast Central Valley region. As a result, Oakland has a balanced flow of imports and exports, unlike other West Coast ports whose traffic is heavily skewed towards imports.
During his tenure at Oakland, Lytle oversaw the transformation of a decommissioned U.S. Army base property into a 180-acre Seaport Logistics Complex, the first phase of which is a 440,000-square-foot distribution center next to the port’s rail yard and across the street from the ship berths. The port’s Board of Commissioners is expected to vote on July 11 to approve the distribution center’s building permit. Should that happen, work would begin in the fall.
Lytle also managed the construction of a 280,000-square foot refrigerated distribution center known as “Cool Port Oakland.”
Lytle led the development of a five-year strategic plan for the port called “Growth with Care,” which was designed to enable business expansion that would benefit neighboring communities. Under his guidance, the port adopted a long-term air quality plan aimed at achieving zero-emission seaport operations. Lytle said the commitment by Oakland and other North American seaports to clean up operations has been one of the biggest changes in his five decade-plus career, along with the increasing use of technology and, perhaps most important, a redefining of the role of port authorities themselves. Ports are no longer just rent collectors but are stakeholders whose responsibility extends beyond the “fence of the marine yard,” he said.
Lytle said he is proudest of building a rapport with the multiple stakeholders at Oakland, notably with the port’s customers. “The biggest single thing has been listening to our customers and stakeholders, which wasn’t being done very well at Oakland before,” he said.
Few people were satisfied with the status quo when Lytle came aboard, he said. “People were unhappy with the (terminal) operators, and truckers were unhappy with wait times,” he said, citing just two grievances. “I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve gone from dissatisfaction to satisfaction,” he said.
Lytle faced a crisis 15 months into his tenure at Oakland when the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the powerful union that runs waterfront labor from Seattle to San Diego, staged a progressively severe work slowdown over a contract impasse. The slowdown, which began in the fall of 2014 and extended into the winter of 2015, clogged ports up and down the coast. At Oakland, hundreds of ships carrying Asian imports were forced to idle in San Francisco Bay because there were no dockworkers to unload the cargo. Exports, many of them perishables, spoiled in warehouses as ships could not get loaded in a timely manner, if at all. Because of its huge presence in the agricultural products export segment, Oakland was disproportionately hurt by the slowdown.
Today, Lytle characterized current relations with the ILWU as “impressively improved” from the recent past. The terminal operators that run the port have said that Oakland’s union workforce is the best on the West Coast, according to Lytle. “No one would have said that five or six years ago,” he said.