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Part 2 of an interview with Curtis Robinhold, the new executive director of the Port of Portland since July 1

PART 2

This is the second half of the interview with Curtis Robinhold, the new executive director of the Port of Portland. The half of the interview appeared in the July 11 edition.

The new executive director of the Port of Portland has been there for three and a half years.

However, few people outside of Salem politics know him or his management style. As he took over the top job from Bill Wyatt on July 1, Robinhold talked about some of the big issues facing the Port. The airport, and its expansion, is not the biggest.

The airport, which keeps winning awards, runs pretty smoothly. PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Robinholds immediate task with the airport is to help manage its $2 billion expansion over the next eight years, which includes a new terminal, new parking garage and eventually closing concourse A.

"It's not that it runs itself, but it's a pretty efficient organization," says Robinhold, 48, strolling through one of the concourses. This is the fun side of the airport, beyond security, where people spend money and relax.

"It's managing flow, it's managing incidents, it's a straightforward business proposition. As opposed to (marine) where the market is changing so much and the strategy might need to change. Or in the case of industrial property, we're running out of land to sell."

His immediate task with the airport is to help manage its expansion. The construction will run to $2 billion during the next eight years. ($1.3 billion for a new terminal, $250 million for a new parking garage, $215 million for terminal balancing plus a new lounge in for Alaska and eventually closing concourse A, the 30-year old temporary structure.)

Superfund

The airport expansion might be issue number three or four in terms of urgency because issue number two (after fixing bringing more work to the marine terminals), is the Portland Harbor Superfund site. Basically, the Port is on the hook for cleanup of polluted sites around the harbor it has owned for up to 126 years.

But it doesn't have the money.

He says the record decision that came out in January was "not especially helpful. It was very prescriptive and created a clean-up level that we think will be very hard to meet unless you have some flexibility."

Plus, the Port can't do revenue diversion and just move money around.

"It's going to be expensive and we're not allowed to use airport money to pay for it, just marine and industrial money. We call that our general fund."

When asked about the Port's portion of the Superfund cleanup cost, Robinhold keeps it unspecific.

"There's a whole legal process to allocate responsibility. If I even attempted to tell you what we think our numbers are, our lawyers would go bananas."PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ -  Curtis Robinhold, recently promoted from deputy director to executive director of the Port of Portland, hopes to bring some clarity to the marine terminal business while finding industrial land and keeping the airport winning awards.

Robinhold is trying to see the superfund cleanup not as "an intractable 30-year slog" but rather, "see what's possible in the short term, how would you break this up into bite-size chunks."

"Look at the range of parties involved: the Federal government, the Department of Defense at Swan Island, the City of Portland is a big potential responsible property, Northwest Natural, the State of Oregon is a PRP.... We have advocated be smart about the cleanup, saying don't go for the most expensive but the most effective."

Lean in

He adds it will take cooperation from the EPA, the administration and the people guarding natural resources to get something started.

"Our style has been leaning in to the Superfund and these big problems. I have the chance now to say let's make no assumptions about the past, let's move forward and see what we can do. And I'm hopeful," he says, a little like a politician.

He talks a bit about addressing human health concerns, and of maybe adopting an idea from New Jersey, of trading clean fish for contaminated fish from subsistence fishermen.

"We want to be part of this solution, there's opportunity there. Without casting aspersions on other folks, not all the parties feel that way, and this is an opportunity to lead. The City of Portland is also interested in getting started."

The port is reducing travel expenses and not automatically filling job vacancies. (Robinhold's old job as Deputy Director is one of those not being filled, which supports the argument that it was created to groom him to take over.)

"We're cutting costs so that when the Superfund comes we can put everything into it we can. But you still want to continue on your mission, to help manufacturers and farmers get their products to market."

Golden shovel ready

Another big challenge for the Port as landlord is the shortage of Class 1 industrial land, also known as shovel-ready land. Property where a buyer can just build, rather than go through the long clean-up processes associated with brownfield development.

The Port has had success developing in Troutdale and Gresham Vista for big name clients such as FedEx and Amazon, but where next? PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Curtis Robinhold is the Port of Portlands new executive director since July 1.

"There isn't an equivalent at that scale inside the Urban Growth Boundary," he says.

"You have to be patient. Each of those projects took eight to 12 years." Compared to that, most people in industrial real estate are flipping targets every two or three years. They could consolidate smaller properties into larger ones, buy more or change the use of existing Port properties. We don't want to go in and start demanding folks start selling their property to us."

He likes how Swan Island was industrial but now has Daimler's big glass office tower. That's one kind of diversity.

"What we need next is to think how are we going to adjust the new market conditions and fulfill our need and help create jobs? Our mission has economic development in it: connecting people and products to markets. The world includes visions of equity. Is it just job creation, or jobs of a certain caliber?"

Reaching out

Rather like the listening tours politicians go on, he spent June 2017 talking to Port employees, to people in the communities adjacent to the Port, and into the Tri-County area, where the Port has a property tax base.

"It's just to hear what they would like us to be doing, not just what we have on offer. What's the desire, what do the demands look like? I'm not sure, I'm open to hearing what is out there."

He's on the board of the Nature Conservancy, and has sat down with environmental kingpin Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society.

"It's not that we're all that different. I did a master's in environmental management and have spent time engaging the environmental community." He says his approach and style would "invite different kinds of cooperation."

"The Audubon would say, 'Your airfield stuff, and work on airport futures and large birds of prey, are national leaders. Why are you so bad on Superfund or West Hayden Island?'"PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ -  Bringing traffic to the marine terminals, paying for Superfund cleanup and finding industrial land are the Port of Portlands real challenges.

He sees a chance to not dwell too much on the past. "For example, why West Hayden Island proposals failed twice. I wasn't around for that, so I really don't have to wear it. I view it as an opportunity to say let's start over and see what we can do."

Robinhold went to work for British Petroleum as an intern straight out of business school. He was impressed by John Brown's rebranding the company "Beyond Petroleum," and its embrace of renewable energy. He worked for five years selling wind and solar systems in Europe and Asia but ended up running gas-fired power plants.

This was when big wind turbines were two megawatts, now they are eight to 10 megawatts. It's experience that may serve him well with the environmentalists. As luck would have it he left BP around the time of the world's biggest accidental oil spill, the Deepwater Horizon, or the Macondo oil well in 2010, making one less thing he has to wear.

His own man

Robinhold marks a few contrasts with Wyatt. For a start, the new guy feels fine admitting he doesn't know something. "Bill's pretty intimidating, he's very smart, and he knows the history of the Port inside out. There's some organizational expectation that everything will be 100 percent, buttoned down. There's a reluctance to not know something. I hope we'll get out of that." He chuckles when he says he'll be happy to admit "I don't know" occasionally.

"Bill and I are similar in a lot of ways. I'm less formal, probably a little less politic — meaning diplomatic. More direct."

"Bill never really had substantive business experience, although he did represent the Association for Portland Progress. I like the financial element, which I learned in my time at B.P. I still have conversations with my CFO about execution of bonding authority... but it's not really my job anymore."

Robinhold might look like a young Steve Ballmer but he's neither a yeller nor a rah-rah motivator. He is a straight shooter. "I'm very transparent, there'll be no B.S. involved," he says. He prefers face-to-face over email for big issues, and short emails over long ones. He might get rid of the annual glitzy Gateway to the Globe luncheon at which the Port boasts of its achievements in front of the governor, because a series of smaller meetings might work better. And he's a fan of Laszlo Boch and his book "Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live." He plans on taking quarterly his 'ask me anything' sessions, whereby staff can have some risk-free back and-forth with the boss.

He likes removing distractions so he can focus on the big things.

"I suspect I'll do more team leadership. I think decision making should be pushed deeper into the organization. That gives people responsibility for making decisions and accountability when they're made. When I was in those jobs I liked that. I like to think my style is very fair. I have high expectations, and this is an opportunity to hit things pretty hard."


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter

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