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Long Beach port chief's long voyage nears an end

Richard D. Steinke plans to retire after 14 years as executive director of the second-busiest U.S. seaport. That's almost triple the average tenure of a head of a major U.S. port, a trade group says.

August 07, 2011|By Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Time
  • Richard D. Steinke has been executive director of the Port of Long Beach for 14 years, triple the average tenure of port chiefs.
Richard D. Steinke has been executive director of the Port of Long Beach… (Port of Long Beach )

The gig: As executive director of the Port of Long Beach, Richard D. Steinke runs the second-busiest U.S. seaport, after the Port of Los Angeles, and the 18th busiest in the world. The port handled 6.3 million cargo containers last year, which is about 1 in 5 moving in and out of the United States. The port is directly or indirectly responsible for about 30,000 Long Beach jobs, or 1 in 8 in the city.

Landlubber beginnings: The Denver native graduated from Chadron State College in Nebraska, where he focused on business and political science. But the foundation of his work later in life might have come from the summers he spent in high school and college in a $3-an-hour job at the city auditor's office in Denver. It was a crash course on how just about every part of a city operates. "The variety of the work was pretty amazing. You would go from auditing the rental car companies to the city's petty cash accounts, auditing the Denver Zoo, landing fees at the airport, auditing the city hospitals," Steinke said. The airport work was among the most interesting, leading Steinke to become the airport property officer at Stapleton International Airport in Denver.

Study the strategy: Early in his career, Steinke learned to study the decision makers to know exactly how decisions had been reached. "Rather than just listening for the answer, you should observe the rationale, watch who is able to carefully weigh all of the options and reach the best decision and not just the most expedient one," Steinke said.

Down to the sea: After five years at the airport, Steinke needed a change. The opportunity closest to what he was already doing was in the properties department at the Port of Long Beach. "Negotiating dock and wharf fees is similar to negotiating airport fees," Steinke said. Steinke was responsible for negotiating leases and other real estate agreements with port customers. He also directed the wharfinger office, which is in charge of day-to-day operations and enforcement of port rules. "If it was just about trains and trucks and ships it would be pretty easy, but there's everything else. This was one of the few ports in the world with an operating oil well. There were film permits for production companies. It's a place where there are so many things happening," Steinke said.

Choppy waters: In 1997, Steinke was appointed executive director of the port, but it came with pressures unlike those at any other of the nation's major harbors. In the 1990s, Long Beach had lost 10,000 aerospace jobs. It lost the Navy base and a major shipyard to San Diego. It tried and failed to land Disney's next major theme park. "Trade became the rallying cry. The opportunities for trade were big, and we knew that Pacific trade would continue to grow," Steinke said.

Make a deal: Using negotiating skills that he began learning back at the Denver airport, Steinke and his team helped convince customers that Long Beach's harbor could accommodate much more business. For a time, it was the nation's busiest port, even though it had a much smaller staff than the neighboring Port of Los Angeles. It remained No. 1 until Los Angeles built an island in the middle of the harbor and lured away Long Beach's biggest customer, Maersk. But perhaps the port's biggest accomplishment was that its numbers barely registered the huge loss, going from 4.6 million containers in 2000 to 4.5 million in 2001. "We lost 25% of our business to the Port of Los Angeles in 2001, but we reacted quickly. We found others who wanted to expand into the space Maersk left," Steinke said. Today, Long Beach is still one of only two U.S. ports to have handled more than 7 million containers in a single year. (Los Angeles is the other one.)

Time to sail on: Steinke is retiring this year after 14 years at the helm. That's almost triple the average tenure of an executive director of a major U.S. port, according to the American Assn. of Port Authorities. For a while, he intends to enjoy "not having a harbor commission board meeting to attend every week." He plans to watch a lot of baseball before deciding how to continue his maritime career, perhaps as an advisor or consultant. But if you go to a game with him, don't ever say it's boring. Steinke tends to watch in the same intense way he did in his business career, observing what decisions are made. "Boring? There are probably 17 things going on out there on the field," he said.

Watching the water: Steinke, 55, can watch the ships come and go from his harbor-front office for a little while longer. But at his Long Beach home, which Steinke shares with his wife, Tamy, and their daughters, Sarah, Kylie Marie and Lauren, the view is ocean-free.

ron.white@latimes.com

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