Chris Connor, who will take the helm of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) from long-time President and CEO Kurt J. Nagle in September, has 38 years of experience in the maritime industry, but is humble enough to say that he still has much to learn about the varied needs of the more than 130 ports AAPA represents.
While media coverage of the shipping industry often focuses on large ports and those handling containerized cargo, Connor said AAPA represents a diverse group of ports of varying sizes with a wide variety of activity. In addition to 81 U.S. ports, AAPA represents ports throughout Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean.
In mid-July, Connor attended a meeting of port directors in Chicago, where he was impressed by the diversity of cargo types they handle and the locations they serve. In addition to big container ports, “there were also lake ports and river ports represented and it is just really cool the amount of economic activity that is encompassed in the total system.”
Connor knows some of those large ports well. He is the former chief executive officer of Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics, the largest company in the roll-on, roll-off shipping industry.
But he added, “Candidly, I have a lot to learn about some of those other types of ports.”
Connor, 60, said he “quickly fell in love with the shipping industry” back in 1981, when as a recent Villanova University graduate he got a job with the container carrier U.S. Lines.
A big and complex world suddenly seemed smaller and the reason, he said, was the “connectivity of world trade, with shipping lines and ports and all of the infrastructure around logistics at the epicenter.”
After U.S. Lines declared bankruptcy in 1986, Connor joined Crowley Maritime’s American Transport Lines (AmTrans) unit and stayed until 1994, when he joined Wallenius Lines. His work included stints in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Netherlands. He eventually became CEO, based at the Oslo headquarters of Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics (WWL).
After retiring from WWL in 2017, he became a board member of the Pasha Group, another company involved in the automotive logistics business. Pasha also operates container and ro-ro services that connect Hawaii with the U.S. West Coast. In 2015, it acquired Horizon Lines’ container liner service to Hawaii.
Doing lobbying work for the domestic shipping industry in Washington, D.C., Connor learned about the AAPA job and “realized this could be a great place to bring that love of trade and shipping to a new place.”
Despite current trade disputes, most notably the tariffs being levied by the U.S. and China against the other’s products, Connor firmly believes demand for world trade will continue, even if some businesses are having to “push the pause button” on investments because of uncertainty.
“There is going to be a need for items to be produced in the most efficient location and sold in another location. The underlying things that have created trade over so many generations aren’t going to go away because there is a trade dispute between the U.S. and China,” he said.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that trade flows won’t change. Connor noted that the regionalization of trade has been a topic of discussion in the automobile industry and “to some extent that is occurring. But I don’t know if it is an absolute game-changer for that particular segment of the shipping industry.”
Connor admitted he is still learning about AAPA’s full legislative agenda, but said one obvious need in the U.S. is to obtain full spending of the harbor maintenance tax (HMT) for its intended purpose. Much of the money collected from the tax has been used to reduce the federal budget deficit rather than for waterway dredging or other port improvement projects.
In June, AAPA, together with 100 supporting U.S. ports and other organizations, delivered a letter to the leadership of the U.S. House and Senate urging “full spending of prior year Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund revenues according to a framework that ports agreed would be fair and equitable.”
AAPA said its proposal “makes maintenance the highest priority, provides protections to address small port and regional port needs, provides increasing equity to large HMT donors and acknowledges Congress’ priority to provide support to energy transfer ports.”
Connor said, “It’s fascinating what ports touch and what kind of economic activity ports are involved in. They are absolutely integral to economic activity, but you don’t hear a lot of fanfare about it. Ports don’t get the attention that they deserve.”
In March, AAPA unveiled a study that said “between 2014 and 2018, the total number of jobs supported by cargo moving through America’s deep-draft ports increased by more than one-third, from 23.1 million jobs to 30.8 million.”
The same report found the total economic value that U.S. coastal ports provide in terms of revenue to businesses, personal income and economic output by exporters and importers amounted to $5.4 trillion – nearly 26 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.