Vancouver port president and CEO Robin Silvester comes to the West Coast from England, via Australia, to oversee a generational change.
As an engineering student at Cambridge University, Robin Silvester studied jet engine design and aerodynamics. It may seem a world apart from his current work as president and CEO of Port Metro Vancouver – at least until you realize that Silvester’s role is to give wings to the ambitions of the continent’s fourth-largest port.
Silvester took the helm of the port in March 2009, a year after its formation by the merger of the three port authorities that previously oversaw Lower Mainland port operations. The economy had yet to recover from the recession precipitated by the collapse of financial markets in October 2008, and pressures on industrial land were demanding a long-term vision for growth.
It was the ideal challenge for Silvester, who saw an opportunity to apply his business management skills to the port. As an outsider, he lacked intimate knowledge of the three predecessor authorities, but his independence also allowed him to bring a fresh perspective to port operations.
Silvester, now 43, originally came to Vancouver from London in 2003 to serve as president and CEO of P&O Ports Canada, a company formed earlier that year when London-based P&O Ports bought Canadian Stevedoring and the Centerm container terminal. He had previously worked in the chemical and steel industries in England, overseeing the creation of Corus, now Tata Steel Group, in the late 1990s while at British Steel. This background was what landed him a job at P&O Ports in London in 2001 as chief development officer, where he played a critical role in the Centerm acquisition. His appointment in 2004 as executive director of P&O Ports, then the world’s third-largest ports business, saw him move to Australia. When DP World Ltd. bought P&O in 2006, he stayed in Australia with his wife, Claire Waters, and joined the engineering and property services firm United Group Services ANZ as president and CEO.
“I’ve worked in business management and strategy and M&A, really, for the last 15 years,” he says in his office overlooking Coal Harbour. Then, anticipating the next question, he offers an explanation of the common thread underlying his varied experience: “capital-intensive, asset- and service-focused large corporate customers.”
This history suited him to lead Port Metro Vancouver, a business with revenues of $180.6 million in 2010 that handles $200 million in goods daily. The port, he points out, supports one in 12 jobs in the Lower Mainland when direct and indirect employment is factored in. “Those are jobs that are here because we have a port here,” he says. “It’s a huge part of the Lower Mainland economy, it’s a big part of the B.C. economy, and it’s materially important to Canada.”
The port is under growing scrutiny as it pursues what Silvester describes as a “generational change” in its operations. It plans to invest $750 million in upgrading road and rail infrastructure to service the port and billions more are expected to be spent on additional infrastructure and port-oriented development.
“These are projects that have been talked about for a generation. We’re actually building them now,” Silvester says, noting plans for a new $2-billion container terminal in Delta. “If you look at the whole west coast of North America, there are very few expansion opportunities for the container trade and we have that opportunity in Delta.”
But if container traffic is important – it accounts for approximately 18 per cent of the port’s overall cargo traffic – diversity is even more critical. The port remains largely a bulk cargo handler, with approximately 68 per cent of its trade bound up in products ranging from grain to potash. Break bulk cargo and autos account for the remainder. The mix has helped cushion the port’s overall volumes through economic turmoil and, this year, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Still, the port’s ambitious container-oriented expansion plans have drawn fire. Despite improvements to its public consultation process, the port regularly attracts the ire of agriculture advocates who denounce the loss of farmland to port-oriented development such as the South Fraser Perimeter Road.
Silvester acknowledges the critics and emphasizes the importance of consultation with communities where the port operates. While the port, as a federal institution, is independent of local planning authorities Silvester sees it working alongside residents and local governments in managing the Lower Mainland’s limited land base.
“It’s critically important that the Regional Growth Strategy and the municipalities recognize industrial land must be preserved. Otherwise, the economy will, over time, wither,” Silvester says. “Agriculture is emotionally important, but economically [of] relatively low importance to the Lower Mainland. And in terms of food security, [it] is almost meaningless for the Lower Mainland.”
Silvester is as much affected by the decisions the port makes as anyone. Born in Weymouth, England, he and his wife (no kids) live in the West End and are pursuing citizenship. He has no plans to leave the city any time soon. He enjoys the lifestyle in Vancouver, with its abundant outdoor recreation opportunities, including hiking and kayaking. Between these activities and his work, he’s content.
“I’ve wanted to put myself in environments where I can make a significant contribution based on my experience and aptitude, where I can learn, where I can deliver value and where I can enjoy myself,” he says. “And this certainly fits the bill on all of those.”