Organization. Port Manatee Industry. Shipping, transportation Key. Port aggressively courts new business.
The phone numbers on Carlos Buqueras' business cards are not-so-subtle signals he recognizes he's in an all-out hot pursuit for business.
Executive director at Port Manatee, Buqueras has his mobile phone number and his office number on the card. Nestled in between those digits is a Miami number, with a 305 area code. One hitch: Port Manatee doesn't have an office, or any business, in Miami.
Buqueras says the Miami number, routed to his Port Manatee office in north Manatee County, is his way of telling potential customers he and his team of 70 employees are ready to help. Many targeted clients are shipping goods from South America and Europe, says Buqueras, and to them Port Manatee might as well be Mars. Ditto for Bradenton and even Sarasota. But Miami resonates. So Buqueras will often drive over to Miami and meet with possible clients there, where he pitches the benefits of working with Port Manatee.
“We are always hustling,” says Buqueras, named top port official in January 2012 after David McDonald, who ran the port for 20 years, retired. “We want to make sure people hear about us.”
People are listening.
The port has raised its profile considerably in the last three years, and while overall tonnage handled is down about 10% since 2011, the data are up in multiple individual categories. That includes a few where the port had no presence in recent years. In ports, tons are everything because the more tons shipped, the more fees a port can make and the more people it can hire. At Port Manatee, the list of stuff that posted an increase in tonnage in 2014 over 2013 includes citrus concentrate, melons, pineapples, diesel, compact cars, wood pulp, steel and scrap metal.
“Carlos is doing what he needs to do, and that's sell the port,” says Manatee County Port Authority Chairwoman Carol Whitmore. “It's night-and-day different from what it used to be with Carlos here.”
But with the success has come scrutiny.
Port against port
Specifically, there's the little brother perception of Port Manatee when compared against Port Tampa Bay, the big competitor less than 20 miles north.
In pure numbers, it's a wipeout: Port Tampa Bay handled 36 million tons of cargo in fiscal 2014 — nearly one-third of all goods moving in and out of Florida. Port Manatee handled 6.5 million tons of cargo in fiscal 2014, a decrease of about 10% from 7.2 million tons in 2013, records show. Also, Port Tampa Bay has 130 employees, nearly double the size of Port Manatee's payroll.
The port battle has gone up and down for decades. It's currently on an up.
One standout example of the competitive juices between the ports lies in pineapples. Early last year, with Port Manatee handling a 40% annual rise in pineapples to nearly 100,000 tons, Tampa port officials decided to host a global pineapple conference. Tampa wanted in on the action so badly it invited many of Port Manatee's pineapple customers, including representatives of fresh food giant Dole, to the conference.
The lone entity not on the invite list was Port Manatee. Tampa port officials later physically blocked a Port Manatee sales executive from getting into the building, Whitmore says. “I wouldn't stand for it if our director did that to another business person,” says Whitmore, also a Manatee County commissioner.
Tampa port officials, while not denying the pineapple incident, say they prefer to focus on the future. “We want to look forward, not go back,” says Port Tampa Bay senior adviser and spokesman Ed Miyagishima. “We don't view it as a competition among ports. They have their piece of business and we have our piece of business.”
Buqueras generally takes a similar pragmatic view on the clash. “There's no need to have a rivalry,” he says. “There's more than enough for all of us. Our main goal is to get business away from Louisiana and Mississippi.”
Buqueras adds that he faced a similar situation for two decades prior to Port Manatee, when he ran business development at Port Everglades in south Broward County. The bigger competitor there is PortMiami. Buqueras says he grew the business at Port Everglades to $100 million in annual revenues, mostly by doing what he's doing now at Port Manatee: relentless marketing and selling of shipping opportunities.
“We want to grow and we aggressively go after business,” says Buqueras. “We don't wait for business to show up at the door and see if we could handle it.”
While Buqueras plays down the rivalry, he eagerly points out what he calls a key difference in the two ports. The Tampa Port Authority receives ad valorem taxes from Hillsborough County residents, while Port Manatee's only source of funds is what it makes on user fees. That, Buqueras says, is an annual $10 million advantage for Port Tampa Bay.
Says Buqueras: “We don't tap into the taxpayer pool for jobs.”
'Presence of mind'
Port Manatee faces more challenges, beyond Port Tampa Bay.
On a local basis, Buqueras says one obstacle to growth is some deals have been held up for lack of timely financing.
Going statewide, another hurdle is all 15 ports in Florida work in a highly regulated environment, which brings uncertainly to projects and bids for business, according to the Florida Ports Council. “Out-of-date or unnecessary regulations can have the unintended impact of hindering the flow of legitimate trade into and out of Florida,” states a report the council published last year.
That could be one reason the Sunshine State's share of the U.S. container market dropped from 8.3% in 2000 to 7% in 2013, the report adds.
But few challenges seem to slow down Buqueras. A native of Spain, he speaks four languages — English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. Before the port industry, Buqueras worked at glass company Corning for a decade, where he handled distribution and logistics. That job was heavy on travel, particularly to ports, where he got to know the shipping industry. That led to Port Everglades, and his success there led to several promotions.
Buqueras tried to build relationships in non-traditional shipping sectors at Port Everglades, the types of businesses PortMiami officials might overlook. He's doing the same thing at Port Manatee. He's met with officials from Collier, Lee and Sarasota counties, for example. Those are all places without a shipping port. Buqueras calls the meetings “presence of mind” sessions, so if those officials have a business lead that might fit, maybe they'll call Port Manatee.
Buqueras also recently spent a Saturday in Fort Myers with Key West Express, the popular ferry business that shuttles passengers from Fort Myers and Marco Island to Key West. While there's nothing like that at Port Manatee, Buqueras wants to know how successful people operate in case something like that becomes an opportunity.
The hustling continues with Port Manatee's international trade hub, set up in June. The hub, at the Port Manatee Intermodal Center, is an office where global companies lease space to work on shipping and logistics projects. Eight companies from Spain have signed up to lease space there so far, say Port Manatee officials.
Other successes have come outside of standard shipping. Port Manatee signed a new tenant in July, for instance, Manatee Ship Repair and Fabrication, which will have eight onsite employees. Those kinds of victories motivate Buqueras to keep up the fast pace for new business. “You have to get the jobs,” says Buqueras, “if you want to move a port in the right direction.”
Port Manatee: A History
1960s: The idea for a shipping port in Manatee County goes back to 1950, but it wasn't until 1965, when the county bought 357 acres near Piney Point, that the plan came together. The county paid $321,000 for the land, or about $900 an acre.
1970s: Primary goods handled were petroleum and phosphate.
1980s: Port branched out to other goods, including scrap metal, waste paper and plywood. A company began to import cement in 1983, and Fresh Del Monte Produce launched operations in 1989.
1990s: Regal Cruises sailed from Berth 9 from 1993-2003.
2000s: In 2007 a 174,000-square-foot warehouse was completed and a new crane for container shipping made its debut. In 2009 Port Manatee became the 10th American port to sign a strategic alliance memo with the Panama Canal Authority. The Manatee County Port Authority also approved the first phase of a $750 million master plan in 2009.
Source: Port Manatee