Looking back on an action-packed first year in office

Just over a year has passed since Mario Girard took the helm of the Quebec Port Authority (QPA). Mr. Girard was more than happy to meet with us and reflect on an action-packed first year at the head of one of Canada’s largest port authorities.

Mr. Girard, what springs to mind when you think back on your first year at the helm of the Quebec Port Authority?

First of all, I couldn’t be happier with my first year. We set a record for tonnage handled with almost 29 million tons of freight. That’s 18 per cent better than last year, one of the best growth rates for the year posted by any port in Canada. And while we’re on the topic, I want to mention the excellent work of our terminal operators. They’re the driving force that got us back on the path to growth. We diversified the types of products we handle, and our operators rose to the challenge, allowing the port to step up and play a bigger role in Canadian foreign trade. 

Now more than ever, the Port of Quebec is a leading and unique hub for solid and liquid bulk on the St. Lawrence River and for the heart of Canada. I feel fortunate to have experienced a record year in my first year at the head of the port. The truth is we couldn’t have done it without our partners and operators, who bring such huge experience to the table.

In my opinion, the breadth of knowledge and years of experience of people are one of the driving forces of the whole Quebec marine industry. It’s not unusual to meet people who started their career in a port setting and are still here one, two, even three decades later.

We handled a lot of tonnage this year, but it was also a busy year on the international cruise front. We started with a setback: two cruise lines pulled out, which has contributed to a nearly 20- per-cent drop in traffic for 2011. But the future couldn’t be brighter. Updated data shows that traffic in 2012 should bounce back to 2010 levels, the historic high for cruise ship traffic in the port. We’re talking over 100,000 passengers.

It’s easy to have high hopes when I look at the work we are doing with partners such as government of Quebec, Quebec City administration, Cruise the Saint Lawrence association, Québec City Tourism as well as the other ports along the St. Lawrence, who have put together an action plan to increase the number of cruise ship stopovers on the St. Lawrence. Furthermore, we’re working with several other partners to tap into Quebec City’s potential as a homeport and to get more turnaround operations at the port.

Passenger satisfaction levels are always very high, and Quebec City’s already considerable draw is getting even stronger. In an October 2011 survey by world-famous American magazine Condé Nast Traveler, readers chose Quebec City as the top destination in Canada, third in North America – and sixth in the world! Add to that the excellence of the St. Lawrence as a tourism destination, with stopovers that continue to improve year after year, it’s not hard to see why I’m so excited about our prospects here. But tourism is competitive, so we have to keep working hard and doing what it takes, with the help of our partners, to keep developing this key industry for the Port of Quebec, the whole Quebec City area and obviously for many ports on the St. Lawrence.

What are your short- and medium-term projects for the port?

At our last annual general meeting, in June 2011, I made it clear that the most pressing issue facing the port is its aging infrastructure. Even though we have state-of-the-art technology, some of the infrastructure behind this technology has either already reached or is nearing the end of its service life. Upgrading the port will require investments of tens of millions of dollars over the next ten years. We need a significant part of this for high-priority projects in the immediate future if we want to secure our position in international trade and seize the new opportunities coming our way.

The port and its partners decided to develop a strategy to pursue growth by working to upgrade infrastructure that needs attention. We agreed to strive for new revenue streams to ensure the port’s long-term success. Plus, I want to point out that we also maintain excellent relationships with various government authorities, who are aware of our situation and are working with us to optimize various types of investment scenarios. It’s also crucial — and I won’t compromise on this – to do the work that needs to be done in a socially and environmentally responsible manner, and according to sustainable development principles.

In summary, we chose to prioritize projects that reflect what is happening in the industry globally. These projects have to be self-financing, and they also have to offer the potential to generate substantial recurring revenue in the long term. They must include major private investments and have the backing of the various social and economic stakeholders concerned.

In the short and medium terms, the port will continue to develop its main markets of solid and liquid bulk. We have several projects planned for the three areas under QPA jurisdiction. For example, the Anse au Foulon sector will be undergoing some changes in the near future, mainly due to the upcoming demolition of the Champlain Harbour Station and the fire that razed Hangar 101 on November 25, 2011. So there’s going to be a reconfiguration of the space to optimize land use. Our partners are of course as committed to these projects as we are. With the tens of millions of dollars that will be invested in the coming year, 2012 will definitely be the biggest year in terms of new investment since the Beauport sector was built in the sixties.

The Plan Nord is now becoming a reality. Where does the Port of Quebec fit in?

First of all, let me say I just got back from a Plan Nord prospecting mission attended by the premier of Quebec, the mayor of Quebec City, and some 25 business people from the Quebec City area. Although I was well aware of the virtues of this project before the mission, my belief in the Plan Nord is now stronger than ever. The potential of this project is tremendous. This project could represent $80 billion in investments over the next 25 years, and some 20,000 jobs that will be created or maintained every year. This isn’t the kind of opportunity that comes along every day, so it’s important to take a long, hard look and plan carefully, to take full advantage.

I think the Port of Quebec is going to be a major player in the transport side of the Plan Nord. I’d even go so far as to say that the port authorities along the St. Lawrence have a critical role to play in the Plan Nord. Marine transportation will be in very high demand at every phase of the project. The Quebec government has done a lot to plan for harmonious development in the area covered by the Plan Nord, and it’s essential that the ports involved follow suit and work together to demonstrate the efficiency of the maritime sector as well as the importance of its role in developing the Plan Nord.

I should also mention that the Port of Quebec is already an integral part of the Plan Nord. Our location makes the port the natural gateway to southern Quebec and beyond. We’re a multimodal deepwater port with quality equipment and infrastructure, a major asset in a scheme like the Plan Nord.

We can’t forget that moving dry bulk is what the Plan Nord is all about – and bulk is precisely what the port does best. We’re already moving bulk from the area covered by the Plan Nord through Quebec City. For all these reasons, I firmly believe that the Port of Quebec is more than just a gateway. It is also a key player in this historic project.