Port of Oakland’s new maritime chief talks logistics

By Patrick Burnson, Executive Editor · August 14, 2020

When longtime shipping industry executive Bryan Brandes was named Maritime Director at the Port of Oakland last June, he quickly took the helm by leading a staff of 20 responsible for one of the nation’s 10 largest container gateways. Oakland’s Maritime Director oversees everything from facilities management to real estate negotiations. In this exclusive interview, he outlines the challenges ahead.

Logistics Management (LM): What do your regard as the biggest challenges facing the Port of Oakland?

Bryan Brandes: The challenge facing everyone in our industry right now is recovery from coronavirus. We can’t control the impact on trade volume, but we can strive to keep cargo moving efficiently.

LM: What are the port’s greatest strengths at this time?

Brandes: Over the past three years or so we’ve greatly improved operating performance. From truck turn-times to container dwell times, we’ve implemented changes to move cargo faster. The changes include night operations, appointment systems, an online information portal and infrastructure improvements that enable us to handle the biggest ships on the water. Looking ahead, our big differentiator will be advanced logistics services that other ports can’t offer on their footprint. We’ve opened new cold-storage and distribution facilities. We’re about to bring the Seaport Logistics Complex online. These are capabilities located just a stone’s-throw from vessel berths. That adds up to greater efficiency, speed and cost-saving for shippers.

LM: What impact has COVID-19 had on the port?

Brandes: Coronavirus has affected the Port of Oakland just like everyone else in the industry. Cargo volume is down, though thankfully the decline is in single-digit percentages. Some vessel calls have been scrapped by carriers due to slack demand for space on ships. And revenue is declining. The good news is that in concert with labor and management on the waterfront, we’ve put an emphasis on the health and safety of the workforce and continue to operate smoothly.

LM: How does your background with ocean carriers and terminals shape your decisions as a maritime director?

Brandes: My experience has prepped me for this job in two ways. First, I’ve spent much of my maritime career on the West Coast. That means I know the Port of Oakland and its business partners well. Secondly, I’ve seen the supply chain from all sides. I know the issues facing shippers, carriers, truckers, dockworkers, railroads and terminals. What I’ve learned is that you can’t make decisions in isolation. All parties to cargo movement need to be considered because they’ll all be affected by the moves you make. That’s where the Port of Oakland has a leg up. It has a Port Efficiency Task Force that brings all parts of the supply chain together to improve operating performance.

LM: What is your forecast for the ocean cargo industry?

Brandes: Cargo volume will recover as the world emerges from this pandemic. But the way it’s shipped and distributed is likely to change. We foresee an acceleration of the trend toward placing more cargo on bigger ships while shipping lines continue to reduce the number of scheduled sailings. We could see distribution center relocation, as well, as online retail gains greater share of the retail sector.

LM: Should Oakland be concerned about losing export market share to ports like Savannah?

Brandes: Shippers always have choices in export gateways. That never changes. We’ve just got to maintain, and in fact improve, our competitive advantages. We’re near California’s largest growing region. We’ve got excellent rail access to Midwest producers. Our cargo-handling capabilities for agricultural exports are the best in the business. There’s also this: we’re the quickest way to get cargo across the Pacific to Asia. And one other thing: we work the biggest ships in the U.S. We’ve got 50-foot-depth at berth and new cranes coming that’ll be the tallest in the country. Ships of 18,000 and 19,000 TEUs come to Oakland. We’re ready for more.

August 14, 2020