Stephen Metruck, a former rear admiral and chief financial officer at the U.S. Coast Guard, will take over at the Port on Feb. 1 with a $350,000 salary. His selection is a shift away from the private sector, where the port’s former leader came from.
Plagued by public-trust issues that led to the ouster of its former leader who came from the private sector, the Port of Seattle on Tuesday went in a new direction and selected a retired military commander to lead the agency.
Stephen Metruck, a former rear admiral and chief financial officer at the U.S. Coast Guard, will take over as executive director at the Port in February following a unanimous vote from the five-member Port commission.
During his 34-year career, Metruck has overseen 3,600 military and civilian personnel as the commander of the Coast Guard’s mid-Atlantic region, helped plan the Coast Guard’s $10 billion budget and served on the board for the Coast Guard’s academy for new recruits.
In the middle of the last decade, he spent four years as commander of Sector Puget Sound, where he helped lead safety operations at the Port of Seattle. He has a master’s in public administration from Harvard University.
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The 57-year-old D.C. resident, who retired from the military last year, will be relocating back to Seattle with his wife. He’ll make $350,000 a year, the same as his predecessor, and is expected to sign a three-year contract.
Commissioner Courtney Gregoire, who co-chaired the search for a new executive director, said the agency got about 35 candidates and interviewed nearly a dozen before bringing in Metruck for two rounds of interviews. She said they mostly focused on government employees like city managers with Pacific Northwest experience but did get some candidates from the private sector and from inside the Port.
In an interview after the vote, Metruck said he’ll be focusing on growth at the airport, improving relationships with other government agencies and protecting the environment.
He said he won’t be bringing to the Port the “Do it this way because I said so” mentality from the military. Metruck said he will spend the beginning of his run listening to Port workers, and those who deal with the Port.
“I feel so lucky to be here,” he said.
It’s an abrupt about-face for the Port, which had previously been led by former private-sector executive Ted Fick, who was given the title of CEO. The hire was meant to stimulate business activity at the Port, which oversees Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, local maritime operations and other real estate. It also manages about 2,000 employees and spends about $1.3 billion annually.
Fick was arrested on suspicion of a DUI in 2016. Then a scathing internal review in February found he had secretly given himself a $24,500 bonus that also enriched other top staff at the Port — a move that the state auditor found to be illegal.
The review also found Fick had steered business toward his father’s company and taken tickets and other gifts from Port customers like airlines. Fick resigned in February as the internal review was released.
In response, Port commissioners said they needed to hire someone with a proven track record of integrity and public-sector experience. They also changed the job title from CEO, commonly used at companies, to executive director, a typical government job title, to help reflect the shift.
“We wanted to hire somebody who knew who he really worked for, and that’s the citizens of the region,” said Commissioner Fred Felleman, the other co-chair of the search process.
Former Chief Operating Officer Dave Soike had been leading the agency in the interim since Fick left and will return to his old job. The Port, with the help of an outside executive-search firm, launched a nationwide job search for a permanent replacement in July.
About 500 Port employees and local residents responded to a survey about the search this summer, and backed up what commissioners said they were looking for in a candidate. About 79 percent of survey respondents said it was important for the new executive director to have experience in the public sector, and “integrity” easily won out as the attribute respondents were looking for most in a new leader.
Still, Metruck does not list any airport experience on his résumé, a significant portion of the job at the Port, particularly as Sea-Tac bursts at the seams (though he has overseen military-aviation commands).
Felleman said while Metruck is “not an airport guy,” they weren’t going to find a “Superman” with experience in all the areas the Port oversees. He noted the Port has several other administrators with airport experience.
And while Metruck has lots of military experience, he hasn’t led a local government agency before. He does say he’s worked with Congress and other public agencies in the past.
His career has taken him from the State Department in his native New York to Coast Guard posts in San Diego; Seattle; Alameda, California; D.C.; and Portsmouth, Virginia.
The vote happened at the last meeting of the current commission before the new board, with two new members, takes over Jan. 1. Board President Tom Albro is retiring while longtime commissioner John Creighton was voted out of office in November.
The selection of a new executive director was an issue in the Port campaigns this election season, though all the candidates generally agreed that the new leader needed to have public-sector experience and a strong resume of integrity.
The two incoming port commissioners, Peter Steinbrueck and Ryan Calkins, got to weigh in on the selection. Both said Tuesday that they supported Metruck’s appointment.
Steinbrueck said he did not participate in the vetting process for the other candidates or get to interview any other contenders but was “very happy” with the selection of Metruck.
“The record hasn’t been so good in the recent past” on hiring a leader, Steinbrueck said Tuesday. With Metruck, “I think it will be a new day.”
Calkins said he was also impressed by Metruck when the two met during the selection process.
Felleman said the board wanted to vote on a new director now because current board members have been inside the Port for years, while it will take some time for new commissioners to get up to speed.
“No new commissioner is in a position to make that judgment call,” Felleman said.