Capt. Allan Gray is on a sharp learning curve as he feels his way through his early days as the new President and CEO of Halifax Port Authority (HPA). The very affable Australian succeeded Karen Oldfield in the Port’s top job in November. Oldfield had been in the position since 2002. The new Port boss came to Halifax from Perth where he held the position of Harbour Master and General Manager – Operations of Fremantle Ports.

Halifax is a long way from Fremantle but moving halfway around the world to take on a new challenge is nothing unusual in the marine industry. But why Halifax? “The city is going through a lot of growth. The port has got potential to grow so I looked at it as an exciting opportunity and to bring some of the experience and global perspective that I have, but it is just exciting. The people I have met are full of optimism, which is terrific,” Gray said in an interview.

Gray spent 20 years at sea and traded on various vessels, including RO-RO, container, bulk and tankers. After his sea career he was involved in various marine safety management positions. He diversified into systems development and management, with extensive experience in the operation of dynamic under-keel clearance, berth warning systems, ship movement displays and real time geographic information systems.

Gray comes to a port where growing container cargo has been a challenge. In each of the last three years, when other ports along the East and West coasts have shown continued increases in cargo, Halifax has been steady at approximately 550,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units). The new CEO is considering available strategy options to increase volumes.

Normal growth at the Port will likely be one to three per cent, based on population and normal GDP growth (Gross Domestic Product), he says. To build on that, he points to the U.S. Midwest and Central Canada, which are already markets for Halifax cargo, to further increase business.

“The only way we are going to get that is by reliable service by train. We have got to be able to turn (containers) around quickly. So shortly after a ship arrives, we have got to have containers headed out in 24 to 48 hours” to their destinations, he said.

A second option option is building local exports. With better utilization of Halifax’s several carrier services, Gray said “you open up the export markets for Nova Scotia products. So it is important, from my perspective, that I do everything I can to keep Midwest growth going, so I continue to have slots available for further growth in Nova Scotia and that’s certainly a target for the province, to get great export growth to both the airport and the port.”

A third part of this plan is Europe which for several years was the port’s top market until stronger trade links shifted to Asia. But new optimism comes from the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) that Canada signed with the European Union in 2016. The increase in cargo hasn’t been as dramatic as was anticipated, but Gray still sees opportunities in Europe if done correctly.

There has been some movement in Europe, he says “but it (Europe) is always a tricky market. Europeans have lots of rules and you have to make sure your customers comply with those rules if you want to break into those markets. So it is about working with our customers to make sure we get through those rules and comply. I think it will open up fairly well. The Great Circle route that Halifax is on, coming from Europe and Asia, puts us in a good position to further expand opportunities there.”

The Asian trade, which has been strong in Halifax, may get a further boost with the purchase of South end terminal operator Halterm Container Terminal Inc. by Singapore-based PSA International in 2019. Gray likes what this acquisition could mean for the port and cargo volumes. “I’m well aware of PSA from being in Australia and the Asia region,” he said. “They are a highly prominent player in the terminal markets and also very savvy in the terminal business. They will leverage their knowledge through Asia to draw additional markets.”

Gray said PSA has a good reach into Asia and are very well respected. He said PSA isn’t a company to rush into anything, “they are methodical in what they do. They will take their time to make sure they develop their terminal to be efficient so they have a great product to sell and then you will see them reaching out into the market space. I think they will work with us and CN, and grow the business. It was one of the things that excited me when you see someone like the Port of Singapore show confidence in the Port of Halifax and the city.”

With an eye on developments in the region, Gray also has to keep watch on planned major container cargo projects in Quebec City and in Sydney and Melford, Nova Scotia, any of which, if developed, could cut into Halifax’s cargo volumes.

In 2019 the Quebec Port Authority signed a major, long-term commercial agreement with Hutchison Ports and CN to build and operate a major, new container terminal. Is Gary concerned that agreement could impact CN’s service to Halifax?  “CN has both Halifax and Quebec in its sights,” he said. But he feels Halifax has an advantage over Quebec because “we already have capacity and we don’t have to spend a lot of money to get there. So from a competitive point, we are ready right now. We will see the big ships coming here very shortly and we can handle them. We have plenty of spare capacity across our two terminals, so we are in a very competitive position.” He said Quebec has to develop its own business case and suggested CN wants business from both ports so the rail line is making sure it has covered both bases.

As for the two proposed Nova Scotia projects which have been on the books for several years, while both have said they are shovel-ready to start construction, neither has signed a long-term contract with a major carrier. At this point, Gray’s tone didn’t denote any immediate concern.

“I think it is important across the whole port system in Canada that we provide a competitive system, not a competing system,” he said. “Again, those Ports need to stand on their own business cases as they go forward and it will depend on cost and volume available in the market. Time will tell on those,” he said.