Tacoma native brings deep grounding in managing large, complex organizations to expansive airport and maritime operations.
I wanted to talk with Ted Fick, chief executive of the Port of Seattle for the past nine months, about everything other than the Shell Artic-bound oil rig. We’ve written about that and will continue to do so.
While he lacks a background in the industry, his deep grounding in managing large, complex organizations attracted the port commissioners. He’s also a Tacoma native who started out at his family’s Fick Foundry.
Meet Fick and he comes off as whip-smart, gregarious, intense and quick to describe himself as demanding. He has that special confidence of a hired management gun, and I mean that in a good way. He will seek to lead, not be a mere timeserver.
Ted Fick resume
Family: Married 32 years to Cheryl Fick; children Stephanie, 21, and Teddy, 24
Education: B.A. in economics, University of Washington; MBA, University of Puget Sound; MS in management, Sloan Fellow, Stanford University
Career: President and CEO, Polar Corp., 2009-2013; president and CEO, CPI Card Group, 2007-2008; president, Thermo King Americas brand of Ingersoll-Rand, 2004-2007; vice president, commercial tire systems, Goodyear, 2001-2003; senior VP, Hino Diesel Trucks unit of Toyota, 2000-2001; Paccar, 1983-2000; and Fick Foundry, 1977-1983.
Enthusiasms: Started running in 2006 and has completed 15 marathons and 33 half-marathons.
Port of Seattle
He has a bundle of challenges, from helping make the new container alliance with the Port of Tacoma work to balancing the needs of Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines as Seattle-Tacoma International Airport grows.
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A couple of additional tests will affect his tenure. First, Port commissioners, often with the best of intentions, are not shy about bypassing the CEO and meddling with the staff. Second, Port employees have been through demanding leaders before, and there’s a risk of fatigue if Fick doesn’t handle his mission with finesse.
Then there’s the ongoing education of the community about the importance of the maritime sector to Seattle’s economy and the nearly 130,000 jobs directly supported by the Port. Here Fick seems much more outgoing than his predecessor, Tay Yoshitani. Much teaching is needed.
Our conversations took place over lunch and through email. The following transcript has been edited for space constraints.
Question: You don’t come from a maritime or airline background, but you have deep experience in business and manufacturing, including in the Puget Sound region. How are you synthesizing your experience with the new job, and what is the learning curve like?
Answer: The Port’s operational areas and the political process that comes with work for a public agency were not part of my prior work experience.
Running a large and growing international airport in addition to maritime operations, real-estate and tourism businesses is really like leading three or four different businesses in one. And while there are always new things happening, after nine months I feel like I’m nearly through the learning curve.
I’m using the same kind of process approach that worked for me in private industry: a dramatic growth strategy, operational excellence and talent development.
Building high-performance teams is one of the most important tenets that I brought with me. I’m developing results-oriented leadership that operates with a sense of urgency, empowering teams by sharing strategies and providing the resources they need to get the job done. I’m also a strong believer in holding people accountable for results and rewarding and recognizing successes.
Q. In addition to such things as competition from Prince Rupert, the wider Panama Canal and consolidation of shipping lines, how do you assess the Port of Seattle’s strengths and challenges?
A. The Port is a highly successful organization that has achieved good results. Now we are going to transition from good to great. We can leverage the strengths of the Port and the strong regional economy to overcome some of the challenges we face, like the increased competition in the cargo industry. That’s why our partnership with the Port of Tacoma and the creation of The Northwest Seaport Alliance is so timely.
Our gateway needs to work with our labor partners and customers to take back lost market share in the cargo container business with the goal of increasing volume from 3.2 million TEU (20-foot equivalent units) per year to 6 million TEUs annually within the next 25 years.
A significant challenge and an economic opportunity is managing the growth that is happening at the airport. Through April, nearly three times the projected number of passengers traveled through Sea-Tac, with a 13 percent overall increase, year over year, and a 16 percent jump in international passengers. We’re on track to set a fifth straight record this year. And our relationships with the private sector, especially the airlines, are a strength that will help us manage that growth.
Q. What are the biggest items on your plate and how are you moving to address them?
A. The airport and seaport capital projects are a top priority so that we can manage that growth.
The four large airport projects include: the International Arrivals Facility, the Northstar improvements, rebuilding the center runway and a new high-speed baggage handling system. But there are smaller capital projects under way as well. Altogether these improvements will ensure that Sea-Tac remains a key gateway for international and regional business.
And reorganizing our workforce for greater efficiency is another priority right now. We’ve created a Maritime Division to focus on all of our water-related businesses, including cruise, Fishermen’s Terminal and the marinas. We’ve created an Economic Development Division to manage our real estate, focus on workforce development and provide a small business accelerator/incubator. I expect the new director of that division to work closely with all 39 cities in King County and then to work with all 39 counties in the state.
The Port of Seattle has been working to make Terminal 5 “big-ship ready” to serve the larger cargo vessels so that we continue to be able to meet the needs of the industry. There is an ongoing capital project under way right now to modernize this key terminal facility.
Q. What has been the biggest surprise in the new job?
A. When I worked in private industry, I was aware of the political nature of public agencies, but now I am living that reality. Everyone’s input is equally valued, which is different from the private sector where customers and stakeholders hold more influence.
But working in this new environment is helping me to become more accountable to the public and elected officials. It’s also helping me become a better leader by developing a skill set that I didn’t need as much in my prior work.
Part of the surprise was how much Seattle changed since I moved away in May 2000. In the past 15 years the area has experienced a dot-com boom and bust, as well as the growth of new industries and new populations. It is a different place than the one I left, so I had to draw a new mental map to navigate successfully.
Q. What is the most valuable lesson of business or life that informs your management style?
A. The Port of Seattle has very talented people. By harnessing the potential of people and teams, recruiting and retaining the best and the brightest, we can achieve that dramatic growth and operational excellence that will be critical to future success. That happens by being focused on the customer, empowering employees and having a results-oriented culture with a sense of urgency.