Curtis Robinhold: A new path for the port
The new Executive Director of the Port of Portland has been there for three-and-a-half years. But few people outside of Salem politics know him or his management style.
Strolling through the terminal at Portland International Airport, Curtis Robinhold warmly greets some players from the Timbers 'B' team. He schmoozes the Stumptown Coffee guys, then patiently gives directions to a tourist.
"The question I get more than any other is 'Are you going to be the voice on the overhead speaker for the airport?" says the new Executive Director of the Port of Portland.
"They've been hearing Bill (Wyatt) for 16 years.... It's a running joke, instead of saying 'Are you going to fix Terminal Six, they say 'Are you going to be the voice?'"
Robinhold is acting fully prepared to be the face of the Port of Portland, which includes the marine terminals and a lot of industrial land, as well at the airport.
The post of Deputy Director was made just for him. He was in the wings for three-and-a-half years until beating out two other candidates in a national search in May.
The day before he started the new job, and on Bill Wyatt's last, Robinhold sat down the with Business Tribune to introduce himself and to lay out where he plans to steer the Port.
Issue number one will be sorting out the marine terminals, specifically Terminal 6, which lost all its container traffic due to an industrial dispute between longshoremen and ICTSI, Oregon the port operator.
He follows the same line as his predecessor. Wyatt increasingly stressed how hard it is to make money with container traffic, since the new megaships don't fit here. We're talking Maersk's 22,000 TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit) ships, versus the 7,000 TEU ships that Portland can attract.
"Getting the marine business back on its feet is one challenge," he says. "But it's not all about containers. There's break bulk, such as steel, and the import-export auto business." Only 190 acres of Terminal 6's 420 acres were used for containers.
"There's a beautiful rail yard there.... As time goes on hopefully the marine business will have a little more clarity." The message seems to be don't hold your breath for more containers. Expect more raw steel, cars and bulk products coming and going.
The airport accounts for 75 percent of the port's business financially, but only 50 percent of what he calls the "activity set." The non-airport business side is changing quickly.
"The marine business and industrial properties business are changing a lot, which forces a lot of focus of management on what's happening, how's it going, can we get T6 back on its feet?"
Ed Westerdahl, who was Director of the Port as it entered the modern era in 1971, was Governor Tom McCall's executive assistant.
Mike Thorne was senate president before he was Director of the Port.
Bill Wyatt was the chief of staff of former Gov. John Kitzhaber during Kitzhaber's second term.
And Wyatt lured Curtis Robinhold, who was Kitzhaber's then chief of staff, to the Port in 2013.
(Talking of political families, Gov. Kate Brown's chief of staff Nik Blosser is married to Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury.)
Is this link between Salem and the Port a tradition?
"No, the Port is an organization that's very political with a small P. It does a lot of things in the public interest. We view ourselves as the sharp edge of the governor's spear on trade issues, and regional economic development issues."
He stresses, "My former boss the governor (Kitzhaber) did not advocate for me getting the job. The same with Bill Wyatt. As far I know he was neutral."
Robinhold said he left Salem for the Port because he had two small children and was tired of the commute. "It was less about patronage than the job description."
He says he could make more money in the private sector, but this is more purposeful.
At British Petroleum, his team of 15 had nine different nationalities. This informs his take on diversity.
"I get goose bumps when I think about it," he says.
Bringing that to the Port is essential but it won't be easy. He believes that money — especially the money of high finance — is color blind if not gender blind. But the Port is more set in its ways.
"It's hard but some of it is our own doing. Historically we have a recruitment process that focuses on people we know doing jobs we know, and that makes for 'I hire people who look like me and think like me,' and that's not good enough."
He says diversity has moved on from the 1990s Supreme Court affirmative action, tick-the-box thinking. Now it's about still hiring competent people, but about making people welcome, feel like they can be promoted, and also valuing broader perspectives.
"So, you might broaden the requirement of someone who has done accounting to Level 6 to someone who has done it to Level 5 but in three different markets."
On race, his eyes were opened when he went to the Historic Black Williams Project Walk and learned how many people of color had been displaced to make way for Emmanuel Hospital, but also years later, had to put up with the new Williams bike lane without being asked. "As a privileged white male, who grew up in Eugene, educated, no one ever did that to me and my family. There was real vitriol to the Portland Development Commission."
"I saw that as someone who has had a really good education, two parents, a white male perspective which is a benefit everywhere you go in the world."
The fact that Prosper Portland (formerly the Portland Devlopment Commission) is trying to move on impresses him.
He cops to his roots and his status, and does have some personal skin in the game.
"My wife is Pacific Islander. We have two little girls who are brown, and I want for them what I got, and everyone should have it. As women of color it's going to be harder for them than for me. But if there's something I can do I'm going to do it. Not just for my girls. We're going to do a lot and it's going to be meaningful, not just ticking the box."
Robinhold says he will speak out on politics where it's relevant to the Port.
He will be loyal to the Port instead of any political leader. "My commissioners are appointed by the governor, but I don't work for the governor I work for the commissioners. That gives us an arm's length from the politics."
"Bill has done that very well. He has advocated around certain issues that affect the Port."
"For example, I care a lot about climate change, and we have a role to play. We can be a leader."
So, transportation package, yes. But congestion pricing, also yes.
"Is it my job to talk about President Trump? Probably not, except on things like trade, where he's not helpful on trade. Or the visa program, it's not good for us."
He was in a room listening to marine maintenance workers recently and kept his approach respectful.
"There were a bunch of Trump supporters in the room, and I personally am not a Trump supporter, but I'm still there as the Executive Director, I have to be respectful of the crew. At the same time, on the President, the unpredictability and zaniness he's inserted into some of our politics, makes our life more difficult. It's my job to say that. The more uncertain environment around visas is not helpful, and cutting State Department funding or customs and border protection, the President pulls more of them down to the border, that's bad for us, and that's my job to say."