A new chief at port's helm

State officials promised a new era of cooperation in announcing the appointment yesterday of F. Brooks Royster III as director of the port of Baltimore, but the longtime maritime industry executive comes into the job mindful of the messy public spat that forced the departure of his predecessor this year.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan praised Royster for his experience and commitment to teamwork, drawing a contrast with James J. White, the former port director. Though highly regarded by the state's maritime community, White resigned in February after a dispute with Flanagan over promotional expenses and personnel decisions at the port.

"Jim White did a terrific job. ... Obviously, there were issues between Bob Flanagan and Jim White," Ehrlich said after yesterday's formalities at the Dundalk Marine Terminal. "The reason this port will do better in the future is a very fundamental understanding of working in the same direction."

Former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a White supporter who led the search for a new director, endorsed Royster as the best candidate because of his experience and connections in the industry. And in a key piece of symbolism at the announcement ceremony, the administration seated next to the podium Capt. E. Lorenzo Di Casagrande, the head of one of the largest shipping lines at the port who wrote a letter critical of Transportation Department interference just days before White resigned.

Before accepting the job, Royster spoke with White and had what Flanagan termed a "long and very candid conversation" with the transportation secretary about the circumstances of his predecessor's departure. He also negotiated a hefty raise over what White made and a guarantee that he will have hiring and firing authority at the port.

"This is a remarkable opportunity for me, and I'm excited for what's ahead of us. There are some great opportunities," Royster said.

Royster, who most recently was chief executive officer of the Port of Miami Terminal Operating Co., which operates the largest terminal at the Port of Miami-Dade, has experience in both port operations and marketing. He has worked extensively in containerized cargo and cruise ship operations, two areas that Baltimore port officials have been working to expand.

In the past three years, he guided the terminal operating company through a computerization of its cargo tracking systems, major structural upgrades at the port, a work stoppage by truck drivers and four major hurricanes, all while increasing the company's business by more than 10 percent a year.

"He knows the business. He has the contacts. It's not a training period - he's ready to roll right now," Bentley said. "He was in the Port Commission meeting this morning and he was able to offer a lot of good points. He was able to chime right in."

Royster is still negotiating his contract but expects it to last five years and pay him $225,000 annually, up from the $174,000 White earned. He also expects to retain power to hire his own staff. White says he did not have that power. He also did not have a contract.

"I regret that their relationship deteriorated," Royster said about White and Flanagan. "While they're both professionals, these things happen. Secretary Flanagan and I discussed it, and we've pledged to work together. On the occasion that there needs to be additional staff, the responsibility will rest with me."

Flanagan said he believes the days of troubled relations between the port and the administration are over. They were due to no structural problem in the relationship but were the result of "a lack of teamwork," Flanagan said.

"The reason why we're going to succeed is there is a positive emphasis on teamwork, open communication, on being candid with each other, getting issues out on the table and trying to work through them," Flanagan said. "We agree on almost everything,and I'm sure when we find areas of disagreement, we're going to work through them."

Royster, 54, a Gulfport, Miss., native, began his career in 1971 as a truck driver and forklift operator in Mobile, Ala. He studied business administration at the University of South Alabama and attended the Tulane Institute for Port and Terminal Operations in New Orleans. He worked for more than 20 years for Ryan-Walsh Stevedoring Inc., where he rose to be vice president for operations for South Carolina and Mississippi.

He has also served as chief operating officer for the Mississippi State Port Authority and as president and chief executive officer of RioMar Agencies Inc., a maritime corporation based in Houston and New Orleans.

In his last position, Royster focused on the container business, which has been relatively flat in Baltimore.

The port is a day's trip up the Chesapeake Bay, and port managers say it's a hard sell to shipping lines and those who import goods in containers. The big metal boxes are by far the most common method of shipping cargo.

With the influx of containers to the United States from Asia and backlogs at ports in the West, some of the traffic is making its way to East Coast ports. Baltimore invested recently in new cranes so workers can stack containers at the Seagirt Marine Terminal, doubling the space there.

"Now's a good time to focus on containers here," said M. Kathleen Broadwater, deputy executive director of the Maryland Port Administration and interim executive director since March 4.

Baltimore has focused on building its niche cargo business, such as automobiles, paper products and so-called ro-ro such as farm and construction equipment that can roll on and roll off ships. In recent years, it has become one of the largest ports for this type of cargo.

Royster said he has experience in other types of commodities and welcomes the challenge in working in a more diversified shipping environment.

"This will be a challenge, and that's a reason I wanted the job," Royster said.

Industry officials expressed optimism about Royster yesterday but said they were still nostalgic for White, who had a long career in operations at the port of Baltimore before becoming director.

Even Bentley, who proclaimed at the Royster announcement, "In my 300 years around the port of Baltimore, this is one of the most exciting events," said she will probably always consider White her favorite port chief.

Di Casagrande said he is still sad about White's departure but wants to give Royster a chance.

"I don't know him, but he has a good reputation," Di Casagrande said. "So far, I feel comfortable, but it's the first day. We'll talk again in a year. Helen Bentley recommends him, and I believe she is very focused on protecting the port."

Carlos Arocha, a senior vice president at Eller-ITO Stevedoring Co., one of the companies that owns the Port of Miami Terminal Operating Co., said he knows White and Royster well and thinks there are many similarities between the two in terms of experience and ability.

Arocha said Royster knows how to keep a port running smoothly and has a heavy background in marketing, which is a skill White was known for in Baltimore. Royster knows port politics and will be no pushover when the state wants to do something he thinks isn't in the port's best interests, Arocha said.

"Brooks has a lot to follow. I think Jim did a very good job up there," Arocha said. "But Brooks is a strong personality, has a lot of marketing background, is definitely an operations guy, knows the business, knows the marketplace, knows the carriers. I think he's going to be a good thing."