Loaded with mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and paper products, the Maersk Wakayama - a ship 176 yards long - docked at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philadelphia on Wednesday. For Holt Logistics Corp., which runs the Packer Avenue port, the Wakayama marks the start of much new business, worth millions of dollars and tens of thousands of man-hours. "You're probably looking at 50,000 additional container moves," with 104 vessels arriving each year, exulted Leo Holt, 50, president of Holt Logistics Inc.The Maersk Group, based in Denmark, will send two vessels a week to the Packer Avenue port through each of two SeaLand shipping lines. The South American Express line, linking Central America to the Northeast, previously traveled only as far north as Norfolk, Va. The North American line adds Philadelphia to a roster of ports that includes New York and Panama. It's an exciting time for Holt, 50, and his brothers, - Thomas Jr., 51, and Michael, 41 - all executives in a related web of businesses started nearly 90 years ago by their grandfather. In three generations, they have built a growing empire on the waterfront. A new 190-acre port facility is rising in Paulsboro on the site of the long-closed British Petroleum refinery.
How's that going?
Leo: The State of New Jersey . . . [just] tendered the bid for rail improvements, which will be 21,000 feet of track. The pier itself is being constructed. The pylons are being driven. I would say it's on pace for opening in the beginning of 2016.
Any customers yet?
Leo: Customers in the steel business are lined up and ready to go. The Paulsboro story is a real renaissance story. This is a perfect example of brownfield development. It's not a site you can put a playground on, but it provides a backdrop for employment, opportunity.
Your dad, Thomas Holt Sr., and your uncle, Leo Holt, had reputations for being tough.
Leo: [I've heard disagreeing with them] was like having the Panzer Division come across the bridge. I would say if we believe we're doing the right thing, and it's based in safety, productivity, growth, and being progressive, we've gotten a lot better since Panzers.
You grew up in this business. Now you lead it. How do you earn the respect of people who knew you as the boss' kids?
Michael: You have to put the hours in with your coworkers and be in the foxholes with them to earn their trust. And then? By bringing in more business, making sure everyone has jobs. A rising tide raises all boats.
Raised boats is good in a port. What's helping to lift them?
Leo: [Los Angeles port strikes] mean that Port of Norfolk is in meltdown, the port of New York is stretched beyond its limits, and we're at capacity because companies are saying that if 'I'm importing 100 widgets, 40 are coming to L.A. and 40 are coming to the East Coast.' You feed the local markets and you feed the heartland.
What else could make a difference?
Leo: The real apple that hangs out there - and we're not ready - is when one of these shipping lines puts in a Far East service because that's where the volume is - Singapore, China. And Philadelphia doesn't have one. When that happens, it won't be 50,000 containers, it'll be 200,000, 300,000, or more. We'll need five new cranes, a pier that works, electrification, serious infrastructure improvements.
What's the price tag?
Leo: $250 million to do it right.
If business is so good, why can't you finance it yourself?
Leo: We can do it for some things, but we have 10-year leases. You go to Wall Street, and Wall Street says, "OK, but you have to give us a 79-year lock on that."
The ports are so exciting, with cranes, containers, the vessels, the river, cargo from around the world. What appeals to you?
Leo: It is one of great dividends to pursuing a career in international trade. You have the opportunity to make friendships that last a lifetime. It is truly an ambassadorship.
Michael: My favorite place is the freezer, in the morning, walking through. It's the crispness in the air. It's like walking from summer into instant winter.
Tom: For me, it's watching the vessels as they come on and off the berth. The tugs move them and they come in very slowly. It's very dramatic to see them spin in the river.