Exit interview with Port of L.A.'s executive director

knatz4.jpgThis is the last week on the job for Geraldine Knatz, who was brought on in 2006 by former Mayor Villaraigosa as the first woman executive director of the Port of Los Angeles - and who was not asked back by Mayor Garcetti. (She'll be staying on in a transitional capacity through next January, working with interim executive director Gary Lee Moore.) The mayor's office has been vague about its decision, though folks who follow the port were not surprised. Container traffic has been down so far this year, but more than that Knatz had a sometimes rocky relationship with port tenants, as I posted in early October. That's not ideal considering how Panama, Mexico, Canada, and Long Beach all want a piece of L.A.'s business. "We don't have the leverage we used to," she acknowledges. Even so, Knatz made huge strides in reducing truck emissions, thanks to implementation of the clean air program, and has overseen major investments in capital improvements involving cargo terminals and related infrastructure. Prior to coming to Los Angeles, Knatz, who is 62, was managing director at the Port of Long Beach. She's held positions at the two facilities for most of her career. This week, I sat down with Knatz at her office in San Pedro to discuss her tenure (interview is edited for clarity).

So this is your last week...

My last board meeting is on Thursday. But I don't officially retire until Jan. 31.

It's been announced as a retirement. Are you really retiring or are you going to do something else?

Yes, I am actually retiring. But I had already made plans to resume teaching at USC in the civil engineering school. I have a file folder over there from everybody who's emailed me and wants me to be on this board, do that thing, other academic appointments. I've also had people coming at me with full-time jobs right now, but I don't want to work full time.

Are you going to take it easy for a while?

(Laughs) No, I'm going to jump right into other things. For eight years I've gotten up at 4:45 and I get here by 6. I like getting in here early because you can get through a lot of work. So I'm looking forward to sleeping late - until about 6.

What are the things you're most proud of?

I think the fact that we were able to clean up the port and turn our capital program back on. When I came over here from Long Beach - and I don't remember the specifics of my interview with the board members - but basically it was "We have to get rid of the dirty old trucks" and the board president told me years later that as soon as I said those words he was sold. To me the most significant thing is that the Wilmington air station now doesn't show any [particulates exceeding] the national ambient air quality standards. That's monumental.

Everybody's heard about how the expansion of the Panama Canal represents a threat to the L.A.-Long Beach port complex. As you leave, how do things look?

I look at the competition on three fronts: Panama, Mexico - our largest customer here is building a $1-billion terminal in Mexico - and then Canada. We haven't lost services to Canada, but Long Beach has.

Tell me about the competition between L.A. and Long Beach.

I've been here for a long time and it's never been this cutthroat. There's no organic growth now. So the carriers are trying to achieve economies of scale by pooling their assets, getting rid of some ships, and filling up the remaining ships. The terminals that those ships call can make or break a port.

More consolidation, so more pressure to be included in their plans.

Exactly. If they're using five terminals in L.A. and Long Beach, they're going to say, "Okay, which terminal is the most efficient, provides the best turn time?" So there could be some winners and losers in the future. In some sense, I've been playing defense to make sure none of [our tenants leave]. It's a battle. You constantly have to be on your toes. You have to be watching everything. Historically, we would do business with smaller companies. They may have been family-owned businesses, maybe just operating on the West Coast. Now, we're doing business with multi-national companies, and decisions are being made globally about where the ships are going. So we don't have the leverage we used to before.

This is still very much a guy industry. Have you found yourself needing to show them who was in charge?

I'm pretty much a nose-to-the-grindstone person. In all my years at Long Beach, I was known for getting things done. And so when you deliver for people, I think they're pleased about that. I noticed in your blog that you had made a comment about how everybody hates me. Where did that come from? It's true that I've probably made some enemies down here. We're a landlord. We have 300 tenants. Let's put it this way: I wasn't going to let anybody take advantage of the city. So if people don't pay, we're going to take action. If people don't do the right thing, we're going to take action. And I wasn't shy about bringing those things to our board. But all in all, I think I've been pretty fair.

So you and the mayor: Have you gotten along with him in the past?

Oh yeah. He was always very supportive of the port.

Why was the decision made to call it a day?

I felt a duty to stay on at least another year because of the upcoming labor negotiations. It's a very critical year. But as soon as I got an indication that they wanted to make a change, I was cool about retiring.

Are you pretty comfortable about leaving?

I worked [at the Port of L.A.] longer than I thought I was going to. I thought I would be here five years. The average tenure of a port director is six and a half years, and on the West Coast I'm the old timer at eight years. The last Long Beach guy was there eight months.

You've spent pretty much your entire career at the two ports. Did it just work out that way or did you have a real preference to be here?

This is the most exciting place in L.A. I swear. You never get bored. It's constantly changing. It's just something that gets in your blood.

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
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