By Alex Binkley
In interviews with colleagues and customers, a picture emerges of Donna Taylor, CEO of Oshawa Port Authority, as the kind of person you would want on your side in a bind.
Taylor has spent 35 years with the Port and helped steer it earlier this year into the coveted status of a Port Authority, the big leagues of Canadian Ports. She’s battled municipal leaders and others who wanted to turn Oshawa’s waterfront into another Lake Ontario preserve for condominium and sailboat owners rather than a facility to serve industry in the Greater Toronto Area and Eastern and Northern Ontario.
And as the first female Port boss in Canada, she has been a trailblazer for current and past counterparts Karen Oldfield in Halifax, Sylvie Vachon in Montreal and Lisa Raitt in Toronto. Gary LeRoux, former head of the Association of Canadian Port Authorities, describes Taylor as ‘the kind of person who goes to bat for her customers.” Her long tenure with the Port has been a consistent anchor for the Port sector as other CEOs have come and gone.
“If short-sea shipping ever lives up to its potential on the Seaway-Great Lakes, Oshawa will be well positioned to take advantage of the commerce with its location close to Hwy 401 and with a rail spur being built from the CN mainline into the port,” LeRoux points out. He notes that at the 2012 ACPA Annual Meeting, the Port community presented Taylor with a certificate acknowledging her long service in the industry. In the presentation, ACPA President Robin Silvester, President and CEO of Port Metro Vancouver, noted that her position “is no small feat in an industry that, certainly in the early days, was dominated by men. While that has changed a bit, the Port sector still needs more Donna Taylors.”
Achieving Port Authority status recognized “the fact that Oshawa, while not as large as some, plays a significant role on the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway. That role is expected to become more important in the years ahead,” he continued.
Gary Valcour, Chairman of Oshawa Port Authority, credits Taylor for maintaining a clear vision of the Port’s commercial potential in a long running battle with Oshawa City Council over the fate of the community’s waterfront lands. “When the other commercial Ports in Canada were moving to Port Authority status, Oshawa was stuck in the middle.” Being a Harbour Commission was better than the designation as a port that Transport Canada wanted to hand over to local communities, he explained. But being a Harbour Commission didn’t carry the benefit of federal financial assistance that Port Authorities could tap into. Taylor kept pushing on the Port Authority file and was finally rewarded. “We couldn’t get an agreement on the ownership of the port’s lands because of the opposition from the city,” he notes. But Toronto was becoming diminished as a port for industrial shipping and growth patterns were pushing industry East of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).” With the rail line, a new ethanol plant under construction and new wharf, Oshawa’s future looks increasingly bright. “Taylor was in the middle of all this,” says Valcourt.
For years, Transport Canada balked at Port Authority status in the mistaken belief that Port of Oshawa would lose its battle with the City and be closed, Valcour recalls. “She struggled with all of that and the Port kept improving its situation. She was sure it would keep growing. She got the port users to back her in the fight. She had a business plan.”
John Carrick Jr., is President of McAsphalt, which established a facility in Oshawa in the 1980s to serve customers in the Eastern end of the GTA. McAsphalt came to Oshawa because a facility wasn’t possible in Toronto, and Oshawa was looking for business. “There was industrial land available and they had a plan for development. We ended up as one of the anchor tenants. It is a great location for our business, supplying asphalt by barge across the Great Lakes.” Later, the City decided it didn’t want commercial development on the waterfront, but Taylor stuck up for her customers. “There were some pretty nasty fights,” says Carrick, who is President of the Oshawa Port Users Group.
He recalls when the Port Authority issue came up. “Ottawa wanted to wash its hands off the port, but Taylor wouldn’t give up. She was great proponent for the port users. We had a lot of anxiety over whether we should reinvest in our facility because of all the uncertainty. There were a lot of tough moments for us.” In the end, McAsphalt poured more money into its Oshawa operation. Carrick says the soundness of that decision has been reinforced by the plan to build an ethanol plant and other port developments. “We’re back to growing the business and creating jobs,” he says. The addition of the rail line “will make it more like a proper port. With the Canadian Port Authority (CPA) status, we feel confident that we can stay and grow.” The company delivers asphalt by barge to the port for paving projects on a regular basis from the opening of navigation right up to Christmas.
Henry Pankratz, President of steel importer Coutinho & Ferrostaal Ltd. describes Taylor “as an absolutely tough negotiator. She’s also very straightforward. She’s 100 per cent committed to building Port of Oshawa to its potential.” His company is the largest steel importer on the Great Lakes. It brings in product from the U.S., Brazil and Russia in up to 10 shipments a season. “We sell to brokers and wholesalers across Ontario and out to Western Canada. Some customers pick up, and soon we will be able to ship directly by rail.” It switched its operation to Oshawa more than a decade ago because it wasn’t happy with the service in Toronto and “the traffic congestion in the city made it less and less appealing for us and our customers,” he adds. Coming to Oshawa was the right move for the company because of the professional attitude of Taylor and her staff, and good relations with the local of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). “We can work with them.”
Barry Macdonald is the business agent for the ILA local in Oshawa. He agrees with the other assessments of Taylor’s determination and persistence.
He also likes to relate how he can call her sister Taylor. In recognition of her long service to the marine sector, she was made an honorary member of the ILA two years ago – the first woman to receive that award. Macdonald has worked at the port for 20 years and witnessed the battles with the city council and local groups over the development of the port. “More than anything, she is a very passionate woman, very focused on her goals.” Her scraps with the council and Transport Canada show how strong and determined she is. He says her success is all the more remarkable because there are few women in the port and shipping sector and in the past, men were uncomfortable with her presence. For the workers, the achievement of CPA status lifted fears the port might be disbanded, he notes. “This is something we’ve worked on since the beginning of time.”
Bruce Hodgson, Director of Market Development for the The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, says Taylor is a champion for the entire Seaway-Great Lakes system as well as her own Port. “She’s always been active in trade missions and in Highway H2O promotions. You can always rely on her to promote the system.” Taylor is also famous for the personal touch she brings to the industry and any activity she undertakes, he added. “She always wants to move forward. She was the first one to talk about he industry, but she never talks about herself.” One of Oshawa’s strengths is “that it has continued to diversify and Donna is a key part of that. She’s worked her way through the whole organization and she’s very dedicated to the Port and its customers.”
In his presentation, Silvester noted, “Many of the great Port operators in Canada and around the world have worked their way to the top, as Donna has done so admirably. As with many Ports, stakeholder relations can sometimes be a challenge, as I can certainly attest. This was never more pronounced as the Port of Oshawa, engaged with the city over the years on a host of issues. I think it’s safe to say that Donna and her Board have some of the scars to show for those skirmishes, as many of us do in the room. But, the Port forges ahead with Donna at the helm. I know, in speaking with some of her Board members over the past couple of years, that they hold her in very high regard, as do others in the Canadian Port system.” Taylor has also served as ACPA Chair dealing with common issues faced by Ports across the country, he added. “She has shown that she is willing to help advance the cause of Canadian Ports and for that we are eternally grateful,” Silvester said. “I know I speak for the ACPA Board and the entire membership in recognizing your tremendous contribution to the Canadian port community over the past 35 years.”