Blue Economy Convergence Conversation: Brian Clark, NC State Ports Authority

A graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Brian Clark has spent his professional life in the maritime industry. His purview of how the shipping industry works is vast, having spent time working in ports in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Alabama. For 22 years, Brian was with AP Moller-Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company. He worked in their terminal operations gaining valuable experience that led him to join the NC State Ports Authority in 2017, first as Chief Commercial Officer and now as Executive Director since 2021. He is responsible for managing the business and supporting operations of the Port of Wilmington, the Port of Morehead City, and the Charlotte Inland Port, which connects Wilmington and Charlotte by rail.

In this Blue Economy Convergence Conversation, Brian and I discuss the importance of focusing on the needs of stakeholders as the Wilmington area pursues environmentally sustainable economic growth for the area and its citizens.


Deb: How big is the Port of Wilmington compared to the Port of Long Beach or the Port of Los Angeles? 

Brian: Significantly smaller. The Port of Wilmington is not on the same scale. Combined, those two west coast ports handle over 20 million TEUs (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) per year. Last year, Wilmington handled a record cargo number of approximately 330,000 TEUs.  The east coast ports of New York, New Jersey, and Savannah are also significantly larger than Wilmington, although they don’t do quite the volume that Los Angeles or Long Beach handle. That said, Wilmington does extremely well. We serve a number of customers, on the container side and on the general cargo side. Also, the Port of Morehead City is fully dedicated to bulk and breakbulk and we have about 200 of our 300 acres in Wilmington dedicated to breakbulk cargo.

Deb: Talk a bit about the complexity of a port?

Brian: It’s a complex operation. North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia are unique because we are what is known as “operating ports.” In most gateways, the port authority is the landlord. They lease the space to a tenant, which operates the facility. Our three states are unique because part of the operation is actually conducted by state employees. This means my employees operate the ship-to-shore cranes, the heavy equipment in the yards, and the gates. The balance of the operation is then run by third parties, whether or not they’re tenants. One unique facet of our operation is that we have an operating role. At the end of the day, there are a number of ships that are being loaded or unloaded, and we’re both efficient and safe at handling that cargo to its place of rest. We manage the ultimate delivery of that cargo out the gate into whatever means it’s departing — could be by both rail and truck. It takes complex coordination amongst a number of stakeholders to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible.

Deb: What is your definition of Blue Economy?

Brian: Admittedly, it’s new terminology. In the last couple of years, we have worked closely with the University of North Carolina and have learned a little bit more about it. In layman’s terms, the Blue Economy is the sustainable use of the ocean or waterways to support the economy and the way of life in a particular region.

Deb: When you think about the Blue Economy concept, why is it important, especially to a port authority?

Brian: Obviously, everything moving in and out of our ports is being moved by water. So it’s important that we’re good stewards of the environment and good neighbors. We support the economy of the state by supporting the movement of cargo efficiently and effectively, but we also help to make sure our operations and businesses don’t have a negative impact on others. The Wilmington and Morehead City region bring tourism, which is a very important component of the local economy. And there are businesses that enjoy the benefits of the beaches, rivers, and waterways. We want to be good neighbors as we plan for the future and the growth that we aspire to achieve. So in all of those ways, the Blue Economy is about making sure that we live cohesively with all other stakeholders.

Deb: Has anything significantly changed on the economic aspect since you began leading the organization in 2017, especially given the increased attention on climate change and the environment?

Brian: I don’t think the perspective has changed much. I joined the organization in 2017, but certainly, the leadership that was in place prior to me had a focus on growing the business. Ultimately, our mission is to support the economy of the state by being a more efficient means of moving cargo in and out of the state. Today, a lot of the cargo that moves in and out of North Carolina actually moves through other ports on the east coast, which adds to the cost of moving that cargo and potential environmental impact. By making the investments we’ve made here in the area and increasing our capabilities to attract more natural cargo through our ports, we’ve ultimately decreased the cost of doing business.

We’ve made investments to be able to handle the larger cargo vessels as the industry has seen a rapid increase in the size of the ships that these carriers are utilizing to benefit from economies of scale. The investments were geared towards making sure that we can continue to support these ever-growing vessel sizes. But accommodating larger cargo comes with challenges. The bigger the equipment, the more changes must be made to the port. We’ve dredged a turning basin and we raised wires over the river already, and longer-term we’re addressing a need to have the channel deepened in the river to support larger ships. All of that plays into the importance of the environment and making sure that we can co-exist with the other stakeholders in the area.

Deb: If you put yourself 10 years from now, what does it look like and what did you do today to ensure the port’s successful co-existence with other stakeholders in the area?

Brian: When I look forward 10 years, I’m seeing a need to achieve our mission and grow the volume that we’re handling through the port. We’ve made investments in the equipment. Technology will certainly be a piece of this investment as well so we can make sure that once the cargo comes off of a vessel, we can handle it as efficiently as possible. One of our goals in growing the volume is to make sure that the service levels we deliver our customers today continue in the future. 

The turnaround time for a ship in port is extremely important. It needs to be as quick as possible and the same is true for the trucks or the trains picking up the containers, depending on which means the cargo leaving needs to be as short as possible. As volumes grow, that turnaround time is driven by technology, so I certainly see technology being a key to the future. All that means we need continued investment in the latest technology communications platforms to ensure stakeholders are notified in real=time as cargo arrives and is available, or when trucks arrive in the port to make sure that we’re prepared to deliver their service.

Deb: As you move to this kind of expansion in growth and increased volume is there pushback from the local community stakeholders that may be concerned about such growth?

Brian: I’m not aware of any pushback. I believe that the local communities of Wilmington and Morehead City see the value of the ports to the state and its economy. As volumes grow or vessel numbers increase, certainly there’s concern or perception that the increased traffic will negatively impact the way of life. But ultimately, I think a lot of people in the state depend on what we provide as a service and are supportive of seeing the growth.

Deb: From a workforce perspective, what is the spectrum of needs that you have, now and for the future? 

Brian: The workforce issue is front and center for a lot of employers. We have a great team. It’s small, only about 225 people total, which covers the administrative side, police force, and operations. As we grow the use of specialized technology, we’ll see that important skill set be the highest growth area within our organization. Some unique systems are used in the industry, so having that background and experience or the ability to learn those systems is important.

There are multiple providers for operating systems to manage the port. How they communicate with each other and the community through an access portal could be unique. Having the knowledge of those systems and how they interact in the electronic data interchange between our customers and the regulatory agencies that oversee the port could have some uniqueness as well. We have new technology that’s going to come online next month, including optical character recognition and RFID license plate readers, which will capture data and marry up information that’s contained in a community access portal. For example, technology tells us when a driver arrives, who the driver is, what truck they’re driving, who they’re driving for, and what cargo they’re coming to pick up. It makes the transaction that much more efficient for somebody to arrive at the port facilities. There are ports that do deploy automated operations but that’s not something we’re looking to do here at this time. 

And while it’s important to have the ability to grow from a technology standpoint, equipment operators are extremely important as well. We operate a lot of heavy equipment, such as ship-to-shore cranes. The operators sit 150 feet above the dock, using joystick controls to load and unload containers and heavy equipment in the yard. That takes a special skill set and we also maintain all that equipment. We have to prioritize the technical expertise to diagnose issues and perform preventive maintenance.

Deb: Does a strong pivot to alternative fuels impact the port?

Brian: Not directly. We have looked at opportunities for electric vehicles to support our operations. The equipment we operate — like our ship-to-shore cranes — is heavy equipment, so there is a high demand for looking for efficiencies. There hasn’t been a good solution in the industry. There’s a slow but steady change towards fuel efficiency and cleaner energy that comes when we purchase new equipment. For example, our big container cranes are all-electric. In the past, those would be diesel.

Deb: Who are the top two or three organizations that you need to be working with because they’re on the critical path to growth?

Brian: As we look at growing the volumes, there are a couple of key groups that I see as being key stakeholders, mostly the economic development groups around the state. That’s a broad statement, but whether it’s statewide, regional, or local, it’s really working with these economic development groups closely to utilize our capabilities and theirs to attract new investment in the area. Whether it’s distribution, manufacturing, or supporting existing businesses that are looking to expand, as we grow our global capabilities and our global reach, the benefit we can provide to those looking to invest in the area becomes that much greater. 

Obviously, the partnership comes with a high demand for the right workforce. Whether it’s the community colleges or UNCW, we need to be aligning with educators to make sure that the workforce is being trained and developed. There’s competition out there, specifically in the Wilmington area. The construction industry is growing. We compete against construction companies from an employment standpoint. So as we look towards the future, we have to make sure we can provide a good position or a good job, and also a future that helps a talented individual justify joining the organization.

Deb: What does a Blue Economy leadership consortium look like and what are the most important things they should be focusing on? 

Brian: It would be understanding the drivers for individual stakeholders — their motivators, the risks, challenges, and where there is alignment or where there needs to be better alignment. It’s really understanding the differences between those stakeholders and their vision of the future.

Deb: What are the greatest challenges and greatest opportunities for supporting the Blue Economy?

Brian: I don’t think there are challenges per se. But it’s making sure as we do grow, there are open lines of communication with key stakeholders — whoever those stakeholders might be. It’s understanding that how we grow our volume could impact other stakeholders. We have to be aware of that, and then be transparent and communicate and make sure we’re good neighbors. At the end of the day, I think it’s probably the best way to put it.

Deb: What is your greatest hope for the future?

Brian: It’s ensuring that as the port grows, we grow smart. We grow aligned with the community. The benefit we provide is not just to the ports, but to the community as a whole. We’re always a positive impact on the region, whether it’s here or Morehead City. If we look through the last 18 months, almost every single port has had issues here and there, but I’m not aware of any US port that had to shut down and stop handling cargo. It takes a lot of people to run the collective ports in the US, and they are essential frontline workers. People are so important.


Brian reminds us that we live and operate at the nexus of many macro- and micro-systems. And each of those systems has its own size, boundaries, processes, decision-makers, and tempos. Many of these systems seem to operate outside of our control or input. But our connections are real even though the complex, connected global environment we live in continues to evolve through the decades. Because we are so hyperconnected, the potential for sweeping consequences and disruptive impacts grows exponentially. Interrelated systems like politics, economics, environmental issues, and business shape our collective and individual lives. The world is a system of systems that swirls around and between us, impacting our decisions and outcomes for our organizations, for others, and for the larger communities where we exist and interact.

Deborah Westphal is a leader in future-focused strategy. In her book Convergence, she leverages more than 30 years of experience helping the world’s most innovative business and government leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections. She delivers this rich insight with an empathetic and thought-provoking writing style to chart a path for readers. Throughout the book, personal stories and historical examples highlight convergences that span the globe, impacting everything from global supply chains to climate change, and reshaping the future of business, technology, and humanity everywhere.

Get your copy of Convergence here.

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