Corpus Christi Port 2013 Directory — Corpus Christi Port 2013 Directory
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An Interview With Executive Director John P. Larue

Looking to a bright future, offering diverse opportunities

As he nears his 20th year as executive director of the Port of Corpus Christi Authority, John P. LaRue shares with readers of the 2013 Port Corpus Christi Directory his observations on how the port has become such a diversified success story, with a future brighter than the South Texas sun.

Q while serving as executive director of the Port of Corpus Christi Authority since 1994, after serving in executive positions with Philadelphia port entities, you clearly have developed a passion for Corpus Christi and its port. What, John, is behind that passion?

A coming nearly 20 years ago from Philadelphia to a smaller community and a whole different environment, it was very easy to move here and get acclimated. The people and the port staff made me and my family feel welcome from the beginning, so we felt at home right away.

Corpus Christi is a very enjoyable place to live, and I enjoy coming to work. Everybody here is kind of on the same page, including our staff, our commission and our elected officials.

I must admit, though, that, whereas we have lots of great restaurants here in Corpus Christi, more than every once in a while at about 10 o’clock at night, I get a craving for one of Jim’s Steaks [Philadelphia-style cheese steak sandwiches], which you just can’t replicate here.

Corpus Christi does, however, have the recipe for prosperity in the port business.

Q In the port industry – indeed in any business – it is unusual anymore for someone to stay in the top executive position in one place for almost 20 years. To what do you owe this extraordinary longevity?

A One reason is the commissioners who we have. We have staggered terms and term limits, so nobody has been here even close to the whole time I have. There’s a lot of change, and I think that’s good. We’re always kind of reinvigorated and reinvented when we get new commissioners who come in with different backgrounds and different thoughts. Obviously, I couldn’t do what I’ve done or have stayed as long as I have without the commissioners’ support.

The other reason is the port staff. We have very little dramatic turnover. In Corpus Christi, the port is viewed as one of the best places to work. People who come here tend to stay. There are people who have been here as much as twice as long as I have, and they’re younger than I am. When you combine that kind of tenure with some of the highly qualified newer people we’ve brought aboard, we have a lot of collective wisdom on our staff.

Q A couple of the things you’ve done over the past nearly 20 years are to lead a thriving diversification strategy for the port while dramatically increasing its real estate footprint, to where it now encompasses more than 22,000 acres. Why have these efforts proven so successful?

A It’s always a bit of a risk when you diversify, but I must say our commission has been very proactive. Originally, we were founded as an agricultural port, for moving cotton and other products, and that’s how we developed in the 1920s, with the channel being built with one of those earmarks.

Then the oil and petrochemical industries emerged in the ’30s and ’40s, and, from that time until now, that’s been our dominant player. But the staff and the commission, in the ’90s, after Texas ports were hit with the oil crunch, decided we really needed to diversify to where we could bring in cargos and revenues wherein we weren’t totally dependent on the petrochemical industry – and the petrochemical industry agreed with that.

Now, with the Eagle Ford shale play, we’re seeing that all that importing of crude oil that we’ve been doing for 70 years is starting to decrease for the first time, because the refineries are able to use crude from Texas. I would expect that two of our three refineries, within 10 years, may be using completely domestic product. That’s a huge change for us, as we’re starting to see oil being shipped from here, domestically, more than compensating for the decline in crude imports. Things can change pretty dramatically, and, here at Port Corpus Christi, we’ve proven to be ready.

Having enough land is crucial. I don’t think ports can ever have enough land. We are always looking for where we can get involved, including in partnership with private companies.

The 12,000-square-mile Eagle Ford shale area begins about 70 miles from here. New pipelines are being built. Existing pipelines that were running toward San Antonio are now reversing the flow and bringing the crude here. It’s a dramatic change.

With Eagle Ford, it’s both oil and gas. When market conditions change, we can expect natural gas to come to the port from Eagle Ford, including to a $10 billion liquefaction facility and export terminal to be built at Port Corpus Christi by a subsidiary of Cheniere Energy, benefiting from the extension of our La Quinta Channel. That channel project is a $58 million federal investment that is facilitating a $10 billion private investment.

With the expansion of the Panama Canal, more larger tankers will be able to transit the canal and ship LNG to Asia. And it’s worth noting that exporting is better for the U.S. economy than simply handling imports.

Q And Port Corpus Christi is diversifying to other energy sectors, including emerging as America’s Wind Power Port. How do you see such developments advancing not only the port but the region, as the port serves as a multibillion-dollar economic engine?

A Wind energy has been a focus the past couple of years, both import and export, generating revenue and jobs. We’re one of the top five U.S. ports in handling wind energy components. That required investment in creating laydown areas with paving, lighting and fencing so that the wind energy components could be stored there. And we created rail facilities, providing access into those areas, for shipping wind energy components as far away as Oregon. We’ve gone from dealing with one major wind energy company to five or six of the major players.

Q So what can we expect in terms of Port Corpus Christi’s future?

A Well, because of some of the things I’ve mentioned, in particular Eagle Ford, we are clearly out of the recession here in South Texas. Well-paying jobs are abundant.

Diversification continues to be important. We’re looking at mixed use at the La Quinta site, including talking to steel companies, container shipping lines and others.

As we continue to get more into exports, we are finding the need to upgrade our rail. In that regard, we were fortunate to get a $10 million federal TIGER [Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery] grant to enable us to work with the three Class I railroads [BNSF, Union Pacific and Kansas City Southern] in developing a new, $18 million main interchange rail yard as the first step of rail upgrades throughout the region.

Investment is coming both from U.S. companies and foreign companies – like China’s Tianjin Pipe Corp., which is building a $1 billion oil and gas pipe plant near our La Quinta Terminal, and which will be using the port for the import of raw materials and the export of pipe, and Italy’s M&G Group, which is building a $1 billion plant, the world’s largest of its type, for producing the raw materials used in the manufacture of plastic bottles.

I think the foreign investors are seeing our availability of energy, our intermodal accessibility, our abundant clean water supply and clean air. Unlike most major port areas, we’re the largest city in Texas in attainment of federal air quality standards, which makes permitting and building much easier than if we were in nonattainment, as is the case with most major port areas throughout the U.S.

And, of course, we’ve got a good labor supply. Texas is consistently ranked as one of the top three states in which to do business. Texas is a right-to-work state, and there’s no state income tax.

Plus we’ve got a 45-foot-deep channel at Corpus Christi, and we’re permitted to 52 feet.

So we think the future is really bright.

Q you have been active beyond simply the scope of Port Corpus Christi, with engagement in community organizations and with your participation in industry efforts, such as the Panama Canal Stakeholder Working Group, to which you were recently selected by the Texas Department of Transportation [TXDOT]. How does this all tie in as far as the port and you personally?

A There’s a strong working relationship between all the ports in Texas. Ports in Texas tend to be capital-intensive, where a company comes into a port and invests significant dollars, wherein they’re usually not leaving.

The ports in Texas have a strong relationship with the State of Texas, which really began when George W. Bush was governor [from 1995 to 2000, when he was elected U.S. president]. He and some of his people at TXDOT took a much greater interest in ports and the whole transportation system. TXDOT, for example, is now hiring its first in-house port director.

TXDOT’s Panama Canal stakeholder group is another perfect example of looking together at opportunities related to exports as well as imports.

I also serve on the TXDOT Port Authority Advisory Committee, which is made up of representatives of ports throughout the state, and right now I’m the chairman. We meet on a quarterly basis with TXDOT, which, in recent years, has been much more aggressive related to ports than we’ve seen in the past.

Q you certainly are very dedicated to your work and your community. When you want to get away from these commitments, what is it, John, that you personally enjoy?

A I live in Port Aransas, so I like the beach. I don’t fish, but I play golf, and there’s a nice Arnold Palmer golf course about a mile and a half from my house, and I can walk to the beach from my house.

When we really want to get away – although it’s hard to these days with modern technology – we go to New Braunfels, a German-themed town a little over 150 miles from here, at the edge of the Texas Hill Country.