Port of Seattle CEO Yoshitani will take care of unfinished business

By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly

Tay Yoshitani

Between competing ports, the Panama Canal, a minimum wage lawsuit, and a looming sports arena, Tay Yoshitani has a lot to deal with in his final months as CEO of the Port of Seattle.

After replacing former CEO Mic Dinsmore in January 2007, Yoshitani, the only Asian American CEO of a major port city in the country, confirmed last month that he would retire from the sixth largest port in the United States in June, when his contract expires.

Until then, Yoshitani, 67, will be keeping very busy in what he described as “one of the most interesting port jobs in the country.”

Last September in Orlando, Yoshitani became the 2013-14 American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) chairman of the board. He still serves on the board of the National Center for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and various local organizations.

At AAPA’s seventh annual Shifting International Trade Routes conference in Tampa last month, Yoshitani spoke about how global trade patterns have continued to shift over the years.

“I used the example, back in 1914, when the Panama Canal first opened. It obliterated the business down in the Port of Valparaiso in Chile,” he said. “That’s one of the things that port directors have to keep in mind — what is changing and then anticipate what those changes are, and what you have to do to prepare for them.”

The Panama Canal is responsible for 5 to 6 percent of international commerce.

“It’s hard to tell, but it has the potential of having significant impact on us,” Yoshitani said. Another impact is the development of British Columbia ports — Vancouver and Prince Rupert. “We have recently developed enormous competition from Canada, which was never there before,” he added.

Responding to “unprecedented industry pressures,” the ports of Seattle and Tacoma announced last month they were filing an agreement with the Federal Maritime Commission that would allow them to have open discussions about working closer together and sharing such information as rates, operations, and facilities. A merger is not part of the agreement.

“Under the Shipping Act of 1984, it gives us the authority to talk about things that normally would be inappropriate to be talking about,” he said. “We expect to hear back from them in early March.”

$15 minimum wage

One issue under considerable debate is the $15/hour minimum wage for 4,700 Seattle-Tacoma International Airport workers. Last November, Alaska Airlines amended its lawsuit against the City of SeaTac’s Proposition 1 and named the port a defendant.

On Dec. 5, the Port of Seattle issued a statement, “The Seattle Port Commission believes the fairness of our economic system is a critical issue and, in the coming months, will develop a thoughtful approach to employment at Sea-Tac Airport consistent with state and federal laws.” On Dec. 27, King County Superior Court Judge Andrea Darvas ruled the $15/hour minimum wage could not be enforced at the port-owned airport, but was enforceable at nearby parking lots and hotels.

“We do plan to play a constructive role in finding a pathway forward and a resolution that addresses this very complicated issue,” said Yoshitani.

The sports arena

The new sports arena in the SoDo neighborhood is another, different issue concerning the City of Seattle. Port of Seattle spokesman Jason Kelly said, “These are both major issues that we’re working with our neighbors, but each has its own unique complexities.”

In September 2012, the Seattle Port Commission said it “wants to reiterate its interest in working with the City of Seattle to site a new arena where King County and Washington residents can enjoy professional basketball, while also protecting the family wage jobs that depend upon our working waterfront.”

“What we disagree with is the location that is being contemplated,” said Yoshitani. “We think that SoDo is one of the homes to what is still a very vibrant industrial base with lots of family-wage jobs. We believe the arena will invariably do is make the traffic congestion much worse than it already is,” Yoshitani said.”

What’s next?

Reflecting on his seven years of service as CEO, he said, “I think I have helped transform the organization to one that is meeting the public trust and also reorganized and really strengthened the organization with some really top-notch, key executives.”

Along the way, he has also faced some challenges. Yoshitani said, “I think the changes to the trade pattern undoubtedly have been the biggest challenge that we have.”

“Tay continues to be a leader on issues central to the success of ports across North America,” said Tom Albro, Port of Seattle commissioner and president of the Washington Public Ports Association. “We thank him for his years of valuable service in Seattle, as well as his work to promote international trade and advance the success of maritime and aviation industries.”

Yoshitani is not ready to make his retirement plans. “I’ve got another five months that I really want to dedicate my attention and focus on continuing to be the CEO. When I retire, I am going to take some time off, and I will think about what my next act will be.”

The Port will hold a nationwide search for a new CEO later this year. (end)

James Tabafunda can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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