By Mark Lacter, November 5, 2013
is the last week on the job for Geraldine Knatz, who was brought on in
2006 by former Mayor Villaraigosa as the first woman executive director
of the Port of Los Angeles - and who was not asked back by Mayor
Garcetti. (She'll be staying on in a transitional capacity through next
January, working with interim executive director Gary Lee Moore.) The
mayor's office has been vague about its decision, though folks who
follow the port were not surprised. Container traffic has been down so
far this year, but more than that Knatz had a sometimes rocky
relationship with port tenants, as I posted
in early October. That's not ideal considering how Panama, Mexico,
Canada, and Long Beach all want a piece of L.A.'s business. "We don't
have the leverage we used to," she acknowledges. Even so, Knatz made
huge strides in reducing truck emissions, thanks to implementation of
the clean air program, and has overseen major investments in capital
improvements involving cargo terminals and related infrastructure. Prior
to coming to Los Angeles, Knatz, who is 62, was managing director at
the Port of Long Beach. She's held positions at the two facilities for
most of her career. This week, I sat down with Knatz at her office in
San Pedro to discuss her tenure (interview is edited for clarity).
So this is your last week...
My last board meeting is on Thursday. But I don't officially retire until Jan. 31.
It's been announced as a retirement. Are you really retiring or are you going to do something else?
Yes, I am actually retiring. But I had already made plans to resume
teaching at USC in the civil engineering school. I have a file folder
over there from everybody who's emailed me and wants me to be on this
board, do that thing, other academic appointments. I've also had people
coming at me with full-time jobs right now, but I don't want to work
Are you going to take it easy for a while?
(Laughs) No, I'm going to jump right into other things. For eight
years I've gotten up at 4:45 and I get here by 6. I like getting in here
early because you can get through a lot of work. So I'm looking forward
to sleeping late - until about 6.
What are the things you're most proud of?
I think the fact that we were able to clean up the port and turn our
capital program back on. When I came over here from Long Beach - and I
don't remember the specifics of my interview with the board members -
but basically it was "We have to get rid of the dirty old trucks" and
the board president told me years later that as soon as I said those
words he was sold. To me the most significant thing is that the
Wilmington air station now doesn't show any [particulates exceeding] the
national ambient air quality standards. That's monumental.
Everybody's heard about how the expansion of the Panama Canal
represents a threat to the L.A.-Long Beach port complex. As you leave,
how do things look?
I look at the competition on three fronts: Panama, Mexico - our
largest customer here is building a $1-billion terminal in Mexico - and
then Canada. We haven't lost services to Canada, but Long Beach has.
Tell me about the competition between L.A. and Long Beach.
I've been here for a long time and it's never been this cutthroat.
There's no organic growth now. So the carriers are trying to achieve
economies of scale by pooling their assets, getting rid of some ships,
and filling up the remaining ships. The terminals that those ships call
can make or break a port.
More consolidation, so more pressure to be included in their plans.
Exactly. If they're using five terminals in L.A. and Long Beach,
they're going to say, "Okay, which terminal is the most efficient,
provides the best turn time?" So there could be some winners and losers
in the future. In some sense, I've been playing defense to make sure
none of [our tenants leave]. It's a battle. You constantly have to be on
your toes. You have to be watching everything. Historically, we would
do business with smaller companies. They may have been family-owned
businesses, maybe just operating on the West Coast. Now, we're doing
business with multi-national companies, and decisions are being made
globally about where the ships are going. So we don't have the leverage
we used to before.
This is still very much a guy industry. Have you found yourself needing to show them who was in charge?
I'm pretty much a nose-to-the-grindstone person. In all my years at
Long Beach, I was known for getting things done. And so when you deliver
for people, I think they're pleased about that. I noticed in your blog
that you had made a comment about how everybody hates me. Where did that
come from? It's true that I've probably made some enemies down here.
We're a landlord. We have 300 tenants. Let's put it this way: I wasn't
going to let anybody take advantage of the city. So if people don't pay,
we're going to take action. If people don't do the right thing, we're
going to take action. And I wasn't shy about bringing those things to
our board. But all in all, I think I've been pretty fair.
So you and the mayor: Have you gotten along with him in the past?
Oh yeah. He was always very supportive of the port.
Why was the decision made to call it a day?
I felt a duty to stay on at least another year because of the
upcoming labor negotiations. It's a very critical year. But as soon as I
got an indication that they wanted to make a change, I was cool about
Are you pretty comfortable about leaving?
I worked [at the Port of L.A.] longer than I thought I was going to. I
thought I would be here five years. The average tenure of a port
director is six and a half years, and on the West Coast I'm the old
timer at eight years. The last Long Beach guy was there eight months.
You've spent pretty much your entire career at the two ports.
Did it just work out that way or did you have a real preference to be
This is the most exciting place in L.A. I swear. You never get bored.
It's constantly changing. It's just something that gets in your blood.