Container terminal operations is a particularly demanding side of the maritime industry. Join INFORM’s Matthew Wittemeier as he catches up with Susan Gardner, Senior Director, Operations and Project at Georgia Ports Authority, to get a woman’s perspective on what it’s like to run operations on the ground day-in and day-out.
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MW: Susan, I find it’s easier for people to introduce themselves. You know what you’ve accomplished in your life?
SG: I’m Susan Gardner, and I’ve been with the Georgia Port Authority (GPA) for only seven months. Prior to that, I worked with Navis for about six years in sales and services.
When I left Navis, I was a vice president in the Americas Division, running sales and services for all of North and South America. That was a great experience, working for a software company. But before that, for almost 18 years, I was with APM Terminals. I worked mostly in operations at various ports in the US, as well as in their corporate office in North Carolina.
I started when the company was called SeaLand, which was purchased by Maersk and then became APM Terminals. Multiple name changes have occurred over 17 or 18 years, but that’s a summary of what I’ve done up to this point.
MW: If I do the rough math, that’s about 25 years in maritime. How did you get started in the field?
SG: Yes, that’s right. I went to the United States Merchant Marine Academy, a maritime school on Long Island in New York. I had no background in the industry, but the education was very interesting.
You spend a year out at sea, and you have to travel the world. I had just gotten to see an industry that I had no idea even existed before going there, and I was fortunate enough to get a job my first week out of school.
I was hired at SeaLand and just never looked back. I tell friends all the time that there’s no way I could be any in any other industry at this point. I’ve been too ingrained in it to even think about switching now, not that I want to.
MW: When you started in maritime, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
SG: I think the hardest part is just learning all the lingo and the acronyms and understanding all the past practices and histories and why things are done the way they are, especially when you go to work at a port. I went to work in Norfolk, Virginia, in the US in 1998 as a vessel superintendent.
Understanding the contract with the union and all the customer contracts and learning what it meant to work a ship was part of it, too. I didn’t know what that meant. Simply learning was the biggest challenge.
MW: How did you overcome it?
SG: I talked to anyone who would talk to me when I was in Norfolk. I made sure to spend my time with the foreman on the dock, with the crane operators, and with the checkers. I learned how they did their jobs and what was important to them or could make their work easier.
My goal was to understand every aspect of the operation, and the only way to do that was to talk with the guys who were actually doing the work. I’d say that my time in Norfolk was probably the most formative time for me.
It was four years of just learning, what we call “boots on the ground.” It included operations on nights and weekends, in all weather conditions, and you earn your stripes that way. You understand how a port works when you’re there all day and night, in all kinds of weather.
MW: You said understanding the history was an important part of onboarding into the maritime industry. What impact does understanding the history have on, first, being able to do your job effectively, and, second, how does that play out, for instance, in the way we look at the future of the industry?
SG: Well, I think the industry has changed some, but a lot of past practices have just become part of the DNA of the maritime industry. Also, contracts work differently on paper versus in reality and are sometimes two different things. Understanding those differences was very important.
MW: Interesting. You’ve been on both sides of the aisle, as they say. You’ve been an operator for probably most of your career, but you’ve also spent some time on the dark side with us, the vendors. Which side did you prefer?
SG: Yes, that’s true. I prefer the operations side. I’m an operator at my core. But, yes, my time at Navis was great. It was important for me to do that to really understand the other side of being a vendor, the challenges vendors experience in getting projects off the ground, and how different ports receive their funding. The financial calendars of different locations are different.
Really, the needs of each port are different. Every port does the same thing, and they have cargo, but their priorities vary. Understanding that was important. After working for one company for so long, it was good to get out and see other places doing the same thing, but in different ways. Understanding other terminals’ and operators’ best practices was enlightening for me.
MW: When you changed sides and moved from the vendor side back to the operational side, what was easy?
SG: Coming back to operations, I began working for the Georgia Port Authority, and I knew a lot of people here already, which made it easy. The job lends itself to that. If you’ve done operations before, and you’ve managed people before, then you can get right back into it.
But when I came into this position, I was managing a lot of break bulk and non-containerized operations, which I’d never done before. So, again, I was out trying to ask questions and learn, and relearn terminology on this side of the business as well. I hadn’t had to do that in a while.
I think the transition was easy just because I knew the people I would be working for. I’d worked for them before in Norfolk. I didn’t know the people who were going to be working for me, but that’s just something that, as with any job transition, you get to know everyone. And getting to know people right during COVID was interesting. It’s been an interesting transition, but all good.
MW: You noted again that when you came into your role at GPA, collecting knowledge and talking to people was an important aspect of understanding the operational realms that you were perhaps not used to. Do you find that people are open and willing to talk to you? Is there any apprehension in talking to you, or what’s that culture like?
SG: I haven’t found any apprehension here. I think everyone appreciates it when someone takes an interest in what they do. A lot of people who are out handling the cargo do the same thing every day, and it’s important for someone to show interest in what they’re doing.
I don’t feel there’s been any lack of transparency, holding information back or anything like that. The Georgia Port Authority is a great place to work, and everyone is very open. Not every location is like that, but that’s part of the fun.
MW: I had the opportunity to tour Savannah a couple of years ago, and it’s definitely a large operation. You’ve got a lot going on. What part of the operations is your favorite?
SG: My favorite part is just the camaraderie of the people you work with at a port. Every day is a mission. You have a task at hand. There’s a sense of completion at the end of the day that you don’t always get when you’re on the vendor side of things, like when you’re trying to get a contract, and it takes a year or more to get one signed.
At a port, there are a lot more tangible levels of success, and the team comes together to get things done. I really enjoy the camaraderie of working at a port.
Industry Challenges Moving Forward
MW: Let’s change track and look at the industry as a whole. What do you see as the biggest challenges for maritime in the next five years?
SG: The biggest challenge for the industry is to embrace technology and to figure out what technology is right at each terminal’s point in the journey. It’s going to be different for different places, but understanding how technology can make them more efficient without losing their secret sauce, the thing that’s made them successful, is key.
A risk also comes with that, and that is a need to make sure whatever technology’s deployed is safe. The cybersecurity aspect is important to be aware of, and we can’t be haphazard in what we’re doing with technology. We’ve seen that when cyberattacks happen in the industry, it’s crippling.
The fear of cyberattacks shouldn’t hold us back from implementing technology, but there are both risks and rewards there, a fear versus excitement that needs to be harnessed and embraced.
MW: Do you think there’s a lot of discussion in the industry right now about the coronavirus pandemic accelerating more traditional mindsets toward embracing digitalization? We’re meeting remotely via Microsoft Teams, which has to be the buzzword of 2020. Do you notice those kinds of discussions, or is that a short-sighted view of the pandemic?
SG: Because we try to find positive things coming out of COVID-19, I think one of the positives is companies embracing technology, such as Teams. Part of that isn’t embracing the technology itself, it’s trusting their team to use the technology correctly, and trusting that their employees can be effective while they’re not on company property.
That trust had to be built very quickly in most organizations and most ports. Most port operations were surprised at how efficient their groups were while working from home, that they were actually in front of the computer all day and getting things done. They weren’t goofing off, but actually getting things done and being trusted to do that.
There’s a level of trust from the executive team that has to be earned, but there’s also a level of trust the employee wants to have as well, to know that they still have a job. I think COVID-19 helped to mesh those two sides of trust together well. Management had to believe their team was going to be able to function, encourage them, and get them the right equipment – the laptops, the screens, and so on.
It was a rush. I’m sure every company has rushed to try to outfit their teams and make this work. It’s still a journey, right? We’re still working to get laptops and additional screens for some people. We’re setting their work environment up at home the way they had it at work so they feel comfortable enough to do their job. What that will do with future technology rollouts, it’s going to be interesting to see.
MW: Definitely. Let’s flip that question around 180 degrees. What are the biggest opportunities for the industry?
SG: It’s the same, really. If you embrace technology, so many things can be done with regard to safety, getting people out of the operation and into a safer environment, and improving transparency with your customers so the data can flow faster to them.
Rather than constantly asking questions over the phone or over email, letting technology flow a little more freely with our customers will be vital as well. It’s about understanding automation and what that means in every sense of the word.
MW: It sounds like, again, they’re very technologically focused aspects if we look at improving safety. A couple of weeks ago, in a panel discussion, we talked about the fact that a lot of white-collar workers have the luxury of working from home in digital environments.
But a lot of port operators, like yourself, are at the office wearing high-viz vests and still going out on the terminal despite these health risks. As one of those workers, how do you justify that when you go to work?
SG: Cargo has to keep moving, right? We had to find a way to do that so both the people who manage the process and those who are doing the work felt safe. It meant we had to change a lot of our processes. We don’t have big group check-ins of labor anymore. We don’t have big meetings with our teams anymore.
We’ve staggered our lunch hours so we don’t have a group of people all leaving at the same time. We’re using technology to get information out to the teams a lot faster. We avoid having people ride in trucks together as much as possible. We’re also making sure, when we talk with people, to ask them how they’re doing, not just work-wise but family-wise. Checking in on them from the personal side is very important.
We have a lot of people who have been impacted by COVID-19, and we can’t lose sight of the personal impact it has had on people and their ability to focus when they’re at work. We want to make sure everyone knows we care, not just about the job at hand, but about their ability to be here, and when they’re here, to be here 100%.
Women in Maritime
MW: If we look around at conferences, at terminals, and at the industry at large, it certainly seems very male-dominated. How do you envision inspiring more women to join the industry?
SG: I’ve been asked this question so many times over the years, and I wish I had the magic formula, but I don’t. I think it’s partly that a lot of people don’t even know the industry exists. For those of us who are in it, that may be hard to envision.
Many people just don’t realize how their goods get on their store shelves. They don’t think about the two-week transit it takes to get from here to there, or vice versa.
As an industry, we need to do a much better job of simply getting curriculum into elementary schools. We need to make a logistics course available and get people thinking about trains and ships, and how they all work together in a port.
We’re seeing that a little bit more in colleges, in universities, but not so much in the elementary school and lower learning, too. When you ask kids what they want to be, they talk about becoming a police officer, a firefighter, an astronaut, or a doctor, and those are great professions, but no one ever says “I want to be a terminal operator” when they’re four.
And it’s not just women, right? The lack of diversity across the board is something that needs to be addressed. It’s long-standing in an industry that has a substantial lack of diversity across all spectrums.
As things become more virtual, when people apply for jobs, they’ll look at websites, the corporate board, the executive board, and who’s working there. They’ll want to know, does someone look like me on that board? Can I aspire to have that job? It’s important that companies realize people are looking for that when they’re deciding who they want to work for.
MW: As an industry, suppose we could focus on changing one thing in the next five years to increase diversity, and not just focusing on women, as you’ve rightly noted. What do you think that one thing would be? Where do you think a good starting place is?
SG: That’s a tough question. I think just encouraging the diversity that we have is a big part of it. We want to keep that, right? A lot of the challenge we have is that people start in an industry young, and then they get pulled away for some reason into something else. Longevity within the industry isn’t always what’s happening anymore.
We need to figure out how to keep entry-level people excited to keep going. Whether that’s accomplished through management training programs or mentoring programs, these programs are key to helping this happen. Entry-level workers need to know someone cares whether they leave or not. The more we talk about the future, the more we need to talk about keeping the people we have happy and here and excited about staying in this industry.
You don’t find a lot of people coming into this industry in their 40s, right? It’s not like, “Oh, let me go try something brand new and go run a port.” It doesn’t happen very often. So we need to make sure we have a continual cycle of people coming through the industry who have the knowledge, working from the ground up, who know what it means to work in this industry.
MW: Who do you see as a role model for women in maritime? You mentioned earlier that people are going to start looking, and probably do now, at whether or not they see someone like themselves, or can envision themselves, in a role or growing with the company. Who do you look up to in maritime?
SG: I was very fortunate. Several women blazed the trail here in the US well before I came along.
When I went to Norfolk, I was always being compared to another Susan, and Susan Winfree is her name. She’s now a vice president at the New York Shipping Association, but she was in Norfolk before I was. It was interesting because people would say, “Oh, we only hire women named Susan.”
And I said, “Okay, that’s interesting.”
It took years for me to finally meet her, but when I did, it was like, “Oh! So you’re that Susan.” Since then, we’ve become friends, and I’ve watched her handle her job.
Barbara Blanton is also at the New York Shipping Association. She was with SeaLand and Horizon Lines, in operations like Susan Winfree was. They were doing it well before I came along, and it was good to have them. Barbara and I actually worked in the same location in New Jersey for a while, which was good.
Sue Coffey is with the Northwest Seaport Alliance in Seattle and Tacoma. She’s the Director of Business Development there and has been in the industry for a long time as well.
Another good friend of mine, Sarah Gaillard, just retired from ICL after leading the sales organization there, but also worked at the Port Authority of North Carolina and South Carolina. She was a good sounding board for me, someone who’s been around for a while and had a much harder time breaking through than I’ve had. So, it’s good to have that, absolutely.
MW: It’s time for closing thoughts. If you had one piece of advice for a woman looking to succeed in maritime, what would it be?
SG: It’s just to come, have the right attitude, and be willing to learn from everybody. That’s true for anybody, whether they’re a woman or not. Just come to work every day, expecting to learn something new.
It could be hard to learn, but it will be worth it sometime down the line. Work with the team you’ve got because that’s what you have. It’s all about work ethic, and you either have it or you don’t. In this industry, it becomes pretty clear when you don’t have it, and those who do really do well.
MW: Thank you, Susan.
SG: Thank you.
Who is Susan Gardner?
Susan Gardner is the Senior Director of Operations and Projects for the Georgia Port Authority. She joined the GPA in February of 2020 with nearly 25 years of maritime experience. In her role at the GPA, she is responsible for all of the general cargo/breakbulk operations as well as leading the team involved with the design and construction of Savannah Container Terminal – a new terminal that will be built for the GPA, handling over 2.0 million TEUS when it is fully built out. Prior to joining the GPA, she was the VP of Field Operations for the Americas for Navis, where her team was responsible for the sale and successful implementation of all Navis projects in the Americas region. She gained terminal operations experience and knowledge in the nearly 18 years she worked for APM Terminals, with various leadership roles at several terminals in North America.
What is Women in Maritime?
The Women in Maritime initiative is a combination of a series of interviews and conference sessions brought to you by INFORM as part of its broader diversity program. The first step in increasing the scope of diversity in any industry is highlighting the diversity that exists and creating opportunities for conversations about diversity. While it is often men we think of when we consider the mental image of most logistics roles, women contribute to the industry in all its facets and at all levels of seniority. The initial aim of Women in Maritime is to show that diversity and to bring the conversation around it to life.