NCtrend: New at the helm

 In 2015-01
Leadership at the N.C. State Ports Authority has been a revolving door since the January 2012 departure of Tom Eager, who had led the agency for eight years. Lawmakers shifted oversight to the N.C. Department of Transportation from the state Commerce Department in 2011, and the Republican takeover of the legislature and governor’s office prompted boardroom changes. Shipping-industry veteran Paul Cozza hopes to provide some stability after landing the CEO job last March. He worked in Charlotte from 1995 to 2000 as an executive at CSX Corp.’s Sea-Land Services Inc. and most recently was president of the international division of Montreal-based CSL Group Inc. The authority, which charges fees to port users, projects annual revenue of $41.6 million in the 2014-15 fiscal year. Cozza talked with Business North Carolina about his initial experience as the agency competes with larger rivals in Hampton Roads, Va., Charleston and Savannah, Ga. Comments were edited for brevity and clarity.

What is your most important duty?
Our mission is to enhance the North Carolina economy. A recent study by N.C. State University showed that the ports support 76,000 jobs, and about $700 million in taxable revenue is related to them. They are big numbers.

What is the impact of the state’s proposed transportation plan for the ports?
Gov. Pat McCrory has talked a lot about his desire to see the ports become a more prominent part of our transportation network. Plans include improving the U.S. 74 corridor and rerouting rail lines. Transportation improvements don’t happen super fast. But it’s a fantastic thing for the state.

Are plans shelved for a state-owned port in Southport?
I would consider that old news.  We are looking at further investing in our ports authority, and while we’re not saying we’re never going to do that, we’d rather have capacity in Morehead City and Wilmington. We would rather prove our value now.

What is the impact of oversight by DOT instead of Commerce?
Our job is to make sure we run the ports as a business. That hasn’t been impacted by the switch. We’ve still got a great board that is very active, and our meetings are open to the public.

Will the new cold-storage warehouse scheduled to open in May boost revenues?
A third party, USA InvestCo, will operate that facility, which should attract agricultural customers such as turkey and hog producers, along with importers of fruits and vegetables. It’s a bit speculative for the party making the investment because the demand hasn’t been there in the past. But we think it will help us a lot.

Who are some of your major customers?
We do a lot in agriculture and textiles. Manufacturers are very important, along with retailers, including Lowe’s Home Improvement. Those are areas we are focused on.

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