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Find Your Niche

It has become increasingly challenging to be ‘all things to all people.’ Ports need to identify their strengths to pinpoint the areas where they can grow and excel. Finding your port’s niche is a matter of matching your strengths with the opportunities out there – then being realistic in your expectations.

By Sandy Smith

Back in the 1950s, the Port of Portland was working to secure its position as a leader in auto imports. The time was post-WWII America, and the auto import of choice – the German Volkswagen – stood as a potential obstacle to the port’s success. There wasn’t much appetite for the Hitler-designed vehicle so soon after the war, and the Port’s West Coast location did not make it an obvious location for an import from Europe. The port was able to overcome both.

As the auto production shifted to Japan in the 1980s, the port was in a prime spot to build upon its niche. In the years since, more than 11 million autos have come through the port, enhancing its reputation in the specialty.

“It’s just a matter of matching your strengths with opportunities that are out there in the market and being realistic about it,” said Ken O’Hollaren, the marine marketing director at the Port of Portland. “You can’t be all things to all people, or try to compete with other ports that are. It means having a strong sense of what your strengths are and how that matches opportunities.”

And these days, looking for those opportunities makes sense, said Richard Heintzelman, executive vice president and head of business development, terminals and EPCs for Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics. “While I’m sure most ports would like to offer a wide variety of service capabilities across various maritime industry segments, the reality is that it has become increasingly challenging to be ‘all things to all people,’” he said. “Whether we’re talking about available acreage, terminal footprint, rail connectivity or other services, each port is different and unique in its ability to service both its export and import customers.”

That means capitalizing on inherent skills, as well as taking advantage of what sets the port apart, whether that is location or nature. “Overall, it is important for cargo to move quickly and economically through the supply chain, enabling all of the port’s customers – both carriers and end customers alike – to meet their market needs,” Heintzelman said. “Certain ports have a bigger container capability based on crane capacity. Other ports a bigger ro-ro [roll on/roll off] footprint based on land availability and vehicle processing services, while bulk terminals have their own unique service requirements. I think ports in general have evolved over time in line with their histories, the markets they serve and their capability for development.”

This evolution has led some ports to capitalize on routes while others have begun to dominate in cold storage, commodities and, yes, autos.

Landing in the sweet spot of finding, growing and dominating a niche area takes a combination of luck, resources and foresight. And it means being willing – and able – to ride out fluctuations that are well beyond the control of the port.

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