Leonard Sampson – The new face at the helm of Port of Tauranga

If incoming Port of Tauranga chief executive Leonard Sampson is weary of being asked how his shoe size compares to Mark Cairns’, he’s too polite to say.

Then again, perhaps the issue doesn’t come up much in polite company because Sampson is already well-known at the port, having worked there for nearly eight years, and is the product of a long-term succession plan.

Whatever, Sampson takes the question in his stride.

“They’re certainly big shoes to fill; Mark has done a fantastic job and I’ve enjoyed working with him. But we are different people.

“I’m really fortunate to have been involved with customers and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Sampson says Cairns is probably “more direct” than him. “My style is a bit of horses for courses – not one size fits all.”

Certainly, the horses haven’t been spooked. The port’s share price hardly moved when Sampson’s appointment was announced in September to succeed Cairns later this month, and stakeholders sound relaxed about the handover.

Container shipping giant Maersk: “We have been working very closely with Leonard over past years and the entire leadership team works very close with customers like Maersk to enable flexible supply chain solutions.

“Leonard is very collaborative and customer-focused and has significant industry experience, including his time at Port of Tauranga as COO and commercial manager.”

Don Braid, managing director of NZX-listed global logistics company Mainfreight says “the team here has a lot of respect for him”.Sampson started his career in freight and logistics in Mainfreight’s graduate programme.

Harbour Asset Management director, portfolio manager and research analyst Shane Solly
notes Sampson and new chief financial officer Simon Kebbell are the third generation of the listed port’s management.

“They look like they have the right stuff to keep the strong momentum of PoT keeping going. Leonard has shown a good understanding of PoT’s clients.”

Arie Dekker, head of institutional research at investment bank Jarden, notes Sampson was in logistics roles before joining the port. “Leonard … was likely identified as a potential CEO successor some years ago and has progressed from commercial manager to chief operating officer, which has given him an opportunity to form strong relationships with the port’s key stakeholders well in advance of Mark’s retirement.”

Thames Valley born and bred Sampson, 43, reckons he understands the freight and logistics world “reasonably well” after senior roles at Toll and KiwiRail, and working overseas, before joining the port.

In Mainfreight’s graduate programme, he started “from the ground up”, sweeping floors and unloading trucks and trains.

The supply chain appealed as a career because it’s fast moving and essential.

“By and large until six months ago, people didn’t know what the supply chain was. What I like about it, it’s in the background and it keeps the wheels of industry moving. It’s essential but not up front. By and large it’s invisible but something’s always happening.”

The projects ahead of him in the new job don’t sound invisible. Top of mind is the port’s plan to build a major extension to its container terminal, and with it, introduce semi-automation.

The $68.5m proposal for a 385m berth extension – initially of 220m – is off to the Environment Court but the port is also preparing to introduce the first automated container stacking cranes in New Zealand.

Now that may spook some horses.

Ports of Auckland’s unfinished, problematic five-year automation project has been under fire for contributing to supply chain problems in the upper North Island. The challenges of the project may also have contributed to the resignation of the Auckland port company’s chief executive Tony Gibson, who leaves on June 30, the same day as Cairns.

Sampson says Tauranga’s automation plan is a totally different proposition.

He says the technology has been used in terminals around the world for 20 years. Automated gantry cranes will simply intensify capacity in the new yard by stacking containers higher and wider than at present.

Also, the cranes will be working in a large new, greenfield environment. Auckland’s port has been trying to introduce automation in a limited space at the same time as manual systems are operating.

“This is not leading-edge technology,” says Sampson.

“Rightly so, the board has questioned us on the lessons from Auckland. But we really want to have time to bring it in while we have a greenfield [site] to limit disruption but also to embed the new systems and technology.

“As close as we can, we are looking to get off-the-shelf products, not new technology.”

Initial development of the automated crane system will cost between $35m and $40m, he says.

Another focus for the new chief executive will be the port’s licence to operate and improving its engagement with the community and stakeholders.

He expects this to challenge him as it’s an area that “isn’t tangible”.

“Being a commercial or operational manager, you either delivered or you didn’t. Measuring your licence to operate in the community and measuring your attractiveness as a sector, those measures are a little more challenging to get binary reads on.”

By now, Sampson has had exposure to the rigours of operating a sharemarket-listed company so that’s not daunting.

“It was one of the things that appealed about the Port of Tauranga – coming from a commercial background I saw the elements of the listing that really drove that strong commercial acumen and financial discipline around investment.”

But he says in the years he’s been at the port, the way it is viewed as a listed company, and the lens through which financial analysts see it, have changed.

“It’s not just the financial performance now. It’s ESG[environmental, social, governance criteria], it’s more than about a financial return. The challenge is now it’s not just an ‘either/or’, it’s ‘and’.

“You need to improve all things. We are up for the challenge and I look forward to that.”

Harbour Asset Management’s Solly says the new team has “a real challenge and an opportunity positioning PoT in a rapidly changing logistics chain – a logistics chain that is crucial for NZ which has been tested by Covid”.

“For investors the key may be how the business captures this opportunity on a sustainable basis – continuing to capture long term growth while managing the environmental footprint of trade growth.”

Sampson will take Cairns’ seat on the board of Northport, a joint venture between the Tauranga port and Marsden Maritime Holdings, also a listed company.

Like Cairns, he believes Northport has a bright future supporting Tauranga and Auckland ports.

He was involved in directing the Constantinos P container vessel to Northland last year in a Christmas cargo delivery mercy dash as Auckland’s port choked up, and was frustrated by the negativity around a major accomplishment by a minor container port.

The vessel, which has since unloaded twice more at Northport, was due to berth in Auckland with its Christmas imports on December 3, only to learn it couldn’t berth until after Christmas Day,Sampson recalls.

“Northport took on a vessel of that size and length carrying 2000 containers and turned them around [for Auckland] in six days. All we heard was a lot of noise about trucks and road congestion.

“Northport did so well and has progressively got better.”

Also, like Cairns, Sampson believes New Zealand can’t afford to have every port in the country trying to attract international container vessels.

“As the average size of vessels cascading into New Zealand continues to get bigger, it’s going to mean those vessels can call at fewer and fewer ports.

“So coastal shipping has got a bright future.”

Asked about forecasting the challenges he will face in the next five to 10 years, Sampson nominates shipping’s boom/bust cycle.

Carriers, he says, are doing very well in the Covid environment, better than they’ve done in 15 years.

The order book for new ship builds is bulging as freight rates reach record levels. But what will happen if booming consumer and trade spending move back into travel and tourism as the world opens up again?

“As that capacity comes on stream there’s a significant reduction in freight rates; overlay that against a world potentially opening up and moving away from buying as many consumer goods and carriers struggle as we’ve seen in the past …

“And when they’ve struggled they’ve tended to consolidate. We think that will continue to happen. The ships they are building are not small.”

This makes it challenging for a port to plan.

Cairns says operating a major infrastructure operation and all its moving parts is only one part of the CEO’s job.

“It’s more complex than a lot of people realise. Most of our customers are not in New Zealand, so it’s quite a complex relationship to manage.

“That’s something Leonard really shines at.”

Sampson, who unwinds tending a few Angus cattle on his family lifestyle block, and like the fishing-mad Cairns enjoys water sports, says he’s proud to have been part of the port’s development.

But he wants something firmly on the record: “I think Mark’s fishing is over-rated.”

Leonard Sampson

Age: 43
Job: Port of Tauranga chief operating officer 2019-21; commercial manager 2013-19
CV: KiwiRail general manager sales; general manager intermodal & service. Toll Group national manager import/export

Port of Tauranga

Market capitalisation: $5b ($532m when Mark Cairns started)
Revenue 2020: $302m
Net profit after tax 2020: $90m
Total shareholder return last 10 years: 23.3 per cent per year
Imports 2020: 9m tonnes
Exports 2020: 15.8m tonnes
Ship visits 2020: 1515

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