The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the nation's busiest gateways for imported goods, though not for the BMW in your driveway or the bananas in your kitchen.
The car from Germany and the fruit from Ecuador dock instead in Ventura County at the Port of Hueneme (pronounced why-NEE-me), the only deep-water commercial harbor between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay.
The Port of Hueneme is so small that it can't be seen from the nearest freeway, so tranquil even on the busiest days that a visitor can drive directly up to the main gate to chat with the sole security guard. Covering 165 acres, it could fit inside a single shipping terminal at its 7,500-acre cargo competitor in Los Angeles.
But Hueneme is proving that a port doesn't have to be super-sized to succeed.
Hueneme, which was dependent on the Navy for most of its business until 1984, is poised for its busiest year ever. Traffic is up by more than 14% from the first three months of the port's last fiscal year. It is No. 1 in California in handling banana imports and ranks second in motor vehicle imports.
"This was the little port that wouldn't die, and now it's at the top of its game," said William J. Buenger, executive director of the Oxnard Harbor District, which owns and operates the port.
Experts call Hueneme one of the nation's best examples of a niche port. Unlike the giant hubs that dominate the West Coast for a flotilla of merchandise, niche ports prosper by focusing.
For the Port of Hueneme that means concentrating on, in the arcane terminology of the maritime industry, perishable "break-bulk" or loose commodities, such as fruit, that are carried on "reefers," or refrigerated cargo vessels. It also means substantial traffic in "ro-ro" -- that's for roll-on, roll-off cargo -- including farm vehicles, construction and military equipment and motor vehicles.
Between August and October, the port moved 81,800 metric tons of cars and sport utility vehicles, up 62% from the same period last year; traffic in other types of vehicles, including farm equipment, rose more than 32%.
According to the most recent statistics from the World Institute for Strategic Economic Research in Holyoke, Mass., the Port of Hueneme handled more than $106 million in banana imports in the 12 months ended Oct. 31. That was nearly twice as much as its nearest California competitor, the port of Long Beach -- which Chiquita Brands International Inc. ditched in favor of Hueneme in November.
Cincinnati-based Chiquita shifted its operations for "greater flexibility" in moving its produce on time, a company spokesman said. That, according to experts, can be translated to mean that Chiquita wanted to avoid the other ports' notorious congestion.
Hueneme doesn't necessarily hammer on that when it courts fresh-produce companies. It also touts its proximity to the state's agricultural heart. To capitalize on that, the port built the region's first on-dock refrigerated warehouse in 1993, and Sherman Oaks-based Sunkist Growers Inc. has used Hueneme to ship all Japan-bound fruit ever since.
"When Hueneme opened a dockside refrigerated warehouse, there was nothing similar at Long Beach or Los Angeles," said Sunkist spokeswoman Claire Smith, adding: "We have seen delays at those ports but not at Hueneme. It's a very efficient little port."
Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc., based in Coral Gables, Fla., has been shipping through the port since 1978. Ecuador banana exporter Grupo Noboa's Bonita brand signed up in 1999, said Will Berg, director of marketing and trade-zone services for the port.
But the biggest growth in business has been in machinery and transport equipment, a category that has surpassed $4 billion in total value in each of the last three years; only the Port of Los Angeles unloads more.
Hueneme's growth isn't a shocker. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have had a tough time keeping up with record increases in containership traffic, and that has left importers and exporters few options but to look elsewhere.
South Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Co. moved from Los Angeles in 2004 when it saw its planned expansion of North American sales running aground for lack of space at the giant port.
"Los Angeles was too small for our growing volume, and they weren't interested in giving us more space," said Marv Baisden, chief operating officer of Glovis America Inc., the shipping arm of Hyundai Motor America and Hyundai affiliate Kia Motors America Inc. "Hueneme is giving us significantly more space and more growth potential."
For BMW of Germany, which relies on four Atlantic Coast ports to distribute its vehicles in the Eastern U.S., Hueneme is the main port of call on the West Coast. Other automakers, including Ford Motor Co.'s Jaguar and Land Rover, Mazda Motor Corp., DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi Motors Corp., BMW's Rolls-Royce, General Motors Corp.'s Saab and Suzuki Motor Corp., also use Hueneme, port Executive Director Buenger said.