New Port of Gulfport Director Jonathan Daniels says hes not about spin. Thats not in his game plan. But after years of bad publicity and harsh criticism that pockmarked the port before he arrived, he wouldnt mind a little community love coming his way.
Hes willing to work for it. In fact, hes willing to do more than polish the veneer; one year after taking over the head job, hes making to-the-core changes in the way business is done.
Hes hired a full-time marketing team for the first time in recent history at the port. But instead of making them paint a pretty picture to show off, hes trying to give them what any public relations professional would beg for: real stories about real progress.
We have a central role in the community and region, Daniels said. While we had been getting out in the community, we were missing some areas. We lacked that direct liaison between the port and those areas. Weve completely changed the way of business development. We have a very personal, hands-on approach. Its led by me as the CEO, but we tag team.
Included in his team are two of Daniels most recent hires: Carlos Bell, director of marketing; and Kim Aguillard, community relations and marketing specialist.
While neither was central in the signing of McDermott as the big new tenant (which has been developing for eight months), they will be an important part of business development going forward.
Any time you deal with business in the port industry, its a long, drawn out process. In the case with a move of a tenant, it can move at a glacial pace in an industry that tends to be impatient. The seeds you sow now may take years to come out of the ground.
What you will see is a much more proactive organization identifying opportunities to expand our brand.
The port has had its share of bad publicity and unfortunate timing since $560 million was redirected from post-Katrina housing assistance to expand the West Pier under then Gov. Haley Barbour. In 2012, a review ordered by Gov. Phil Bryant revealed several problems with the ports expansion plans including no economic development return from a $100 million-plus investment in elevation and the inability of one new tenant space to help the port meet its requirement to create 1,200 direct jobs.
In 2013, the federal government reported that the Mississippi Development Authority, the states economic-development agency that administers the port money, had documented only 50 of the 1,286 direct, full-time jobs it claims at the state port.
Then, this year, 40-year tenant Chiquita announced it would be moving to New Orleans in July. However, within days after that announcement came the news that the port would be signing on oil leasing company McDermott, Inc., to a 10-year lease.
I wish I had been smart enough to plan that, Daniels said with a laugh. It just happened to work out that way.
While we were not receiving information about Chiquita, we had already started internally planning for best case and worst case scenarios to look into the future a what we can do. Losing Chiquita hurts, but our view is now we know it. We have to deal with it and move on.
Daniels said the image beating the port has taken was not that we were doing things wrong. Things were occurring that might not have been popular. We got into a mode where it was difficult to get out. We are moving in the right direction, but we never take things for granted.
Moving in the right direction includes shoring up the relationships with current tenants. Of high priority is Dole, which has celebrated its 50th anniversary at the port. Daniels said the port is working on infrastructure precise to Doles specification in anticipation of the company staying at the port for generations to come.
Every port has struggled to establish relevancy and our community relations marketing team will help us do that, he said.
My view is that marketing is part of business development developing new tenants and opportunities within that framework.
McDermott is an example. It represents the ports move to light manufacturing (fabricating pipe barged in from the company), which Daniels described as an extremely important avenue. Its not a scatter-shot approach. Well continue to work in targeted industry sectors.
Daniels also hopes a soon-to-be-released environmental compliance certification that promises to show the port as a good ecological steward will provide more community outreach fodder.
Not to suggest that the port is currently in crisis management mode, but Bell has plenty of experience in that specialty.
The 36-year-old Army veteran most recently was manager of emergency services with Waggoner Engineering. Before that, he was lead advisor for the Gulf Coast Recovery Office, working with political, business and community stakeholders impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He also was state liaison for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency for more than three years following Hurricane Katrina.
Bell also believes community outreach is not a one or two-person job.
I think ultimately when we entertain new tenants, they look at our team as one, he said. My director has said in team meetings that our team is one of the best in the country.
Were not the savior of the port, he said. There is no key person, but everybody has a great responsibility and everybody is unique.
Although his background may suggest that he thrills in emergency situations, he said thats not really the case.
I think its more of a servant spirit rather than the thrill of being in a crisis, he said. Its a servant spirit to serve the community.
Aguillards background is in public relations and sales, with her most recent work being at the Louisiana Childrens Museum in New Orleans.
I bring a younger approach to marketing, including developing a strong social media presence, she said. We want to give people an inside look. We like doing tours, but we want people to know that we are here and we are personable.
But, shes not coming into the job ignorant.
I definitely knew what had been going on, she said. My family was living here. I knew it would be a challenge but I was prepared for it. I like a challenge. There are two sides to every story, and we want to make sure people know the positive things as well.
Added Daniels: There is a great story to tell here, and Carlos and Kim will help us tell that story.