Interview: Eric Casey, CEO, GT USA Wilmington

Under new management and Casey’s leadership, the once-sleepy port of Wilmington, Delaware is undergoing a remarkable transformation.

Eric Casey
Eric Casey

Published Feb 13, 2020 5:42 PM by Jack O'Connell

(Article originally published in Nov/Dec 2019 edition.)

Okay, “GT USA Wilmington” is a mouthful. What is it?

It’s the company that manages operations at the Port of Wilmington. The “GT” stands for Gulftainer, the world’s largest privately owned port operator, based in the United Arab Emirates, and the parent company of GT USA.

Are there other Gulftainer operations in the U.S.?

Yes. In 2014 Gulftainer signed an agreement with the Canaveral Port Authority to manage the cargo facility there for the next 35 years. Operations began at the end of 2015.

It’s been just over a year since GT USA signed a 50-year lease agreement to manage operations at the Port of Wilmington. How did all of that come about?

When seeking new projects, Gulftainer looks for areas where it can add value operationally and make a difference. Wilmington was a good fit. We have the financial and managerial capacity to expand the port and create a new facility just down the river.

What are the advantages of such an arrangement for stakeholders – the state, the port, the community?

There are major advantages. Delaware was spending significant taxpayer money to run the port. It will now receive revenues from port operations without having to incur any expenses or risk. It also relieves the state of having to invest limited capital in maintaining and modernizing the facility in order to compete in the market.

GT USA is investing in the port to upgrade cargo-handling equipment and introducing new technologies to speed up processing, making operations safer and more efficient. Shipping lines will benefit from the upgrades to the facility as will their customers and the local economy.

What are some of the new investments?

GT USA pledged to spend around $100 million on the current Port of Wilmington and around $500 million on a new container terminal to be located on the Delaware River about two miles away from the current port. We began making improvements almost immediately, resulting in numerous benefits to the port, its customers and, of course, the local economy.

The initial program of civil works has been mostly completed including the refurbishment and re-inforcement of Berths 1-6 and the extension of rail for the ship-to-shore cranes from Berth 3 to Berth 6.

The phased upgrade to the roofing of Warehouses A, B and C and the installation of additional racking for palletized cargo not only increased capacity but, more importantly, improved cargo safety and security. These initiatives were completed in August.

Moving forward, improvements to upgrade the container yard capacity from 350,000 TEUs to 600,000 TEUs, as well as additional capacity for roll-on, roll-off cargo, are on the horizon. A new gate design is underway, and we’re currently working traffic-modelling to ensure we continue to improve traffic flow to handle the expanded volume.

In addition, plans for new dry and reefer warehouses are currently out to bidders with demand from customers leading us to evaluate additional warehouse expansion. Wilmington is, among other things, the largest fresh-fruit importing port in the U.S.

New cargo-handling equipment has been purchased including nine 41-ton Konecrane Rubber Tired Gantry (RTG) cranes, three 45-ton Reach Stackers, 16 terminal tractors from Terberg Tractors Americas, 30 all-electric forklift trucks and new lifting gear to support bulk and palletized operations. This fuel-efficient, low-emission equipment has been introduced in a phased manner since mid-June with subsequent deliveries scheduled before the first quarter of 2020.

So you can see we’ve been busy!

Have the many improvements succeeded in attracting new customers and cargoes?

As the upgrades have taken effect we’ve been able to translate that into new business and as a consequence have increased our handling of bulk cargo products including the largest wind turbine blades seen at the port, rocket boosters for NASA, roll paper, lumber and steel barges.

At the ceremony marking the changeover last year the stated goal was to “transform the Port of Wilmington into the principal gateway of the Eastern Seaboard” – an ambitious and challenging goal. Can you do it?

Yes. With the improvements we’ve made and will continue to make, we’re taking great strides toward achieving this goal. The Port of Wilmington currently sits at number 22 among the top U.S. container ports, but by 2021 we expect to be number 14. When the new container terminal is built at Edgemoor, we’ll rank in the top 10.

What’s your biggest challenge right now?

Minimizing construction impacts to our customers is probably our biggest challenge. We’re making significant upgrades in all areas of the port, structurally and technologically, and we have to ensure we don’t hinder any of our customers in any way from getting their products to market. In this regard we are in fact already making progress, improving both our moves-per-hour rate and our gate times in the first year.

Have the Trump tariffs and the ongoing trade war with China had an impact on business?

With a diverse portfolio of commodities coming through the port, we haven’t seen any significant impact yet. However, we continue to closely monitor the situation as we may be impacted on future cargoes and equipment purchases.

Tell us about the concept of “partnering,” which seems to be a key component of Gulftainer’s global strategy of “partnering progress around the world.” What does it mean for the Port of Wilmington?

We truly believe in this concept. It’s not just a tagline for Gulftainer or GT USA. We look to develop partnerships with all our stakeholders – customers, employees, the communities in which we work and live, suppliers and investors. If people feel invested in a partnership, if they can see that what we say is what we’re going to do, that we stick to our word and follow through, that we take their input into account in the decisions we make, then that will develop the trust to grow long, robust relationships.

How has the changeover been received by the local community? We understand there is a new training center in the works.

GT has been welcomed with open arms by the communities around the port and especially by our union partners. In fact, this changeover couldn’t have happened without labor union support. They’ve been fantastic in partnering with us, demonstrating their professionalism and making the whole operation a success.

To demonstrate our commitment, we recently signed a 10-year lease to take over the running of a local school that had recently been closed by the school district. After a review and refurbishment where required, this building will be utilized to provide the International Longshoremen’s Association with a hiring hall and will also house the planned GT training center – another example of our continuing community involvement.

Let’s talk about you now. Where did you grow up and go to school?

I’m originally from Ohio. My undergraduate degree is from The Ohio State University, and I received my M.B.A. from the Mason School of Business at the College of William and Mary. I’ve been married for almost 26 years and have three children.

Prior to joining the business world you had a most distinguished career as a decorated Marine Corps officer. Tell us about that.

My father was an Air Force veteran. I had known at an early age that I was going to serve in the military. I was interested in service to my country, and the Marine Corps offered me the challenges and discipline that aligned with my personality.

Did your Marine Corps experience help in transitioning to the private sector?

Very much so. There’s no better crucible to determine what’s effective and how to focus on specific tasks – while keeping abreast of the overall picture – than in the military and, specifically, in combat. It distills your efforts and removes ambiguity from your decision-making processes. It also drives you to ensure care for your colleagues, customers and clients.

The Marine Corps teaches a “Lead from the front” style that is famous for its “Leaders eat last” mentality. You care for your personnel from the bottom up and worry about yourself as the leader last. You are out front and visible. You learn how to manage the decision cycle, critically assess issues, prioritize and execute – keeping the completion of the mission in mind at all times. This is especially true in Special Ops, where I spent a lot of time. The private sector likewise expects good leadership and results. So that made the transition easier.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I’m a student of the leadership game and a steward of the Port of Wilmington. I continuously learn, every day. My style is engaging, positive and proactive. I look to counsel from my colleagues at all levels and apply a calm to the daily chaos that is the maritime industry. I focus on ensuring my partners and I have the tools and training necessary to succeed and then let them demonstrate their excellence daily.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

My family is most important to me. I try to be as active as possible in my family’s interests. I’m a soccer coach, U.S. Swim official, Boy Scout Assistant Scoutmaster, and involved with my children’s orchestra. I love to exercise and am fond of golf but haven’t had much time to play, unfortunately.

Thanks very much for your time! Any final message for our readers?

Be passionate about what you do. Learn from your teammates. Give your team the chance to succeed and enjoy the journey.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.