Executive Director Roger Guenther leads the Port Authority into the future
By Rod Evans
As a native of Baytown and the product of a family with deep ties to the Houston Ship Channel region, it was practically destiny that Roger Guenther’s career would lead him to become the Port of Houston Authority’s executive director.
Guenther, named executive director in January, graduated from Baytown’s Robert E. Lee High School and earned a mechanical engineering degree from Texas A&M University before embarking on his career with the Port Authority in 1988. But long before then he experienced the impact of living in the area.
“I like to say I’m a third generation resident of the region,” Guenther said. “My grandfather and father worked in industrial facilities around the area, so I grew up around the channel.”
Guenther was serving as the Port Authority’s executive director of operations when he was named to his current position following the sudden resignation of then-Executive Director Leonard Watersworth, but Guenther’s appointment did not come from out of the blue. Having served in a variety of positions related to facilities management, Guenther was well known as a skilled professional in port operations.
“The majority of my career has been in operations; the business side of the port. I spent many years working in container terminal operations, including the last couple of years before my appointment, managing all of the operations in the Turning Basin area, facilities maintenance and construction,” Guenther said. “I’ve been fortunate in 26 years to have been responsible for a lot of different areas at the port. I feel fortunate to be chosen by the Port Commission to the executive director position because it shows the commission had confidence in me and my staff.”
Given the ship channel’s position as one of the busiest ports in the U.S.—it ranks second in total tonnage—there was precious little time for Guenther and his staff to acclimate to the new office, so they hit the ground running to manage the numerous ongoing projects in and around the channel and launch new initiatives to keep the port on the cutting edge of technology and innovation in an increasingly competitive industry.
“The key to running a port is providing an environment where cargo can move across our wharfs productively and efficiently,” he said. “I also strongly believe that truck drivers have the right to make a good living, so they need to be able to get in and out of our terminals quickly.”
One of the biggest challenges confronting all U.S. ports is the increasing size of ships that move in and out of their facilities. Guenther says the ongoing work to deepen and widen the Panama Canal—scheduled to be completed in 2016—will require ports to keep pace in order to service these larger vessels. A key part of that effort along the Houston Ship Channel involves the massive dredging projects taking place at the critical Barbours Cut and Bayport channels.
The scope of the work in those two essential facilities involves dredging to deepen them from their current depth of 40 feet to 45 feet (the depth of the ship channel). Guenther says the Port Authority took a different approach to expedite that work specifically in the Barbours Cut area.
“Working through normal federal government channels, a project like that at Barbours Cut would cost over $100 million and going through the normal process of securing permitting, doing design work and obtaining funding you could realistically expect to do it in 15 years or more,” he said. “But our commission decided a few years ago that in order not to miss out on opportunities with ships possibly going elsewhere that we would go forward with funding the project ourselves.”
As a result of that decision, Guenther says the commission has obtained the necessary permits, completed the design phase and let a bid on the project, with dredging scheduled to begin soon and be completed in 2015. Instead of the 15-year window for such a project, Guenther says the Barbours Cut project will be completed in four year’s time.
As all consuming as the dredging projects are, they are not the only large scale re-development efforts needed at the terminal facilities in order to service the larger ships that will be calling on them. Guenther says while Barbours Cut is an efficient terminal, at 40 years old, the cranes currently in service there are older models that are too small to handle the larger ships, so as part of re-construction work on a new dock, the facility will soon install four new state-of-the-art super post-Panamax cranes that can handle the largest container ships sailing the seas. He says it’s the first phase of a re-development plan in which the commission will spend $700 to $800 million over the next decade or so to modernize container terminal facilities.
Houston’s fortunate position as a hub for the nation’s energy industry is driving much of the growth in facilities in and around the ship channel. Guenther says the tremendous growth of the shale play and its production of natural gas reserves create bountiful opportunities in exports in the region.
“More than $35 billion worth of investment will take place over the next three years or so around the channel related to the energy sector,” Guenther said. “The supply of cheap natural gas has caused many large companies to double and triple their construction of manufacturing plants to produce resins and plastic polymers that will be exported through the port.”
Guenther cites the recent decision by Enterprise Products Partners to build an ethane export facility along the ship channel as an indication of the investment companies are making in facilities related to the energy sector in the region. The 30-year agreement between the Port Authority and Enterprise calls for the company to use facilities adjacent to its current terminal located at Morgan’s Point.
With economists projecting that the population in the Greater Houston Area will double over the next 25 to 30 years, Guenther says port leaders must think outside the box in order to be in position to grow its import capabilities to meet the increased need for retail goods.
“An important part of my job is leading the business of the port,” he says. “With great guidance from the chairman and the commission, we have to engage our stake holders, the community and our customers to continue to execute the strategic plan of the Port Authority. We have to ensure that we are prepared from a waterway standpoint and a workforce standpoint in order for the port to continue to be successful.”