Longtime Port of New Orleans President and CEO Gary LaGrange — credited with steering the port through numerous disasters, natural and man-made, as well as economic downturns — will retire in April 2017.
Chief Operating Officer Brandy Christian is expected to be named his replacement.
LaGrange has headed the port since 2001 and been in the maritime industry for 40 years.
Under LaGrange, the port invested more than $500 million in infrastructure improvements, including new container, intermodal, cruise and refrigerated terminals. It generated record revenue in each of the past four years.
In 2015, the port topped the 500,000 twenty-foot equivalent unit mark for the first time. TEU is the measure used to describe a container ship’s capacity. The port also topped 1 million cruise passengers for the second year in a row.
“But I think the one thing that trumps them all is (Hurricane) Katrina. Being able to get the port back in business 12 days afterward is probably the single biggest thing, considering the fact that the city was basically vacant and empty at the time,” LaGrange said.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration brought in several ships to serve as temporary housing for port workers. LaGrange said he will never forget completing the application for aid at the Port of West St. Mary, where he had set up shop temporarily, doing the work on a cellphone he borrowed from “somebody from Beaumont.”
If he wanted to, LaGrange could divide his time in New Orleans by disasters. He started work on Sept. 10, 2001, a day before terrorist planes hit the Twin Towers in New York. Four years later, Katrina struck. In 2010, a catastrophic blowout at a BP well spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
“The unique thing about Gary is that throughout all that, he was always able to move the port forward. It wasn’t just recovery and getting back to the base line,” World Trade Center Chairman Eddy Hayes said. “He was always able to advance the ball.”
In 2002, for example, the Bush administration placed massive tariffs on steel imports. At the time, steel imports accounted for 37 percent of the port’s revenue.
LaGrange said that challenge launched the port’s diversification strategy, which has been the key to its growth.
Instead of placing all of its eggs in one or two baskets, the port has a multi-pronged strategy that includes container cargos, the largest cold storage facility in the northern hemisphere, recruiting cruise ships and building up the industrial real estate base, he said.
World Trade Center CEO Dominik Knoll said LaGrange’s passion, vision, knowledge and hard work have been evident in his work at the port and in the community.
That passion helped get the port open just days after Katrina and helped reassure shippers that the port was still in business after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, Knoll said.
In announcing LaGrange’s retirement, the port said it expects Christian to be its next CEO.
Christian joined the Port of New Orleans as chief operating officer in January 2015 after serving as vice president of strategy and business development at the Port of San Diego, the nation’s fourth-largest cargo port.
She helped the Port of San Diego secure major accounts for the cruise and cargo business lines and helped cut costs and improve operational processes.
“I am honored to be the first woman to head the port in its 120-year history,” Christian said in an email. “I feel fortunate to work for an organization that recognizes hard work and progressive ideas. I am humbled to be a role model not only for my own daughter but other female and minority staff and community partners that work hard and contribute to our success every day.”
She said the port is well-positioned for continued growth and is developing a new master plan and overseeing key growth projects, including expanding the container and crude businesses, further diversifying the port’s business portfolio and securing state, federal and private funds needed for capital improvements.
Kurt Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities, said Christian is among a growing number of women holding senior port positions in the United States and its territories.
There are six women seaport directors in the continental United States, among them directors in Freeport, Texas, New York/New Jersey and San Diego, Nagle said. Ports in Guam, Puerto Rico and Saipan also have women directors.
LaGrange said he’s not sure what he will do after leaving his job next year. For now, he will focus on efforts like turning the former Avondale Shipyard into a breakbulk cargo terminal. Breakbulk cargo describes goods that are loaded individually and not in containers or in bulk, like grain.
LaGrange said he is retiring only from the port and expects to continue working somewhere in the maritime industry.
“It’s been an extraordinary amount of fun, good luck, good times, bad times, challenges. But now I feel as though it’s time, after 40-plus years, to move on to the next chapter, whatever that may be,” LaGrange said. “Heck, I don’t know, maybe I’ll sky dive. Who knows?”
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.