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Columbia Business Monthly

South Carolina Ports Authority Makes ‘Bold’ Moves to Ease Supply Chain Woes

Oct 03, 2022 11:15AM ● By Donna Isbell Walker

The supply chain crisis of 2021 caused a logjam at America’s ports, as congestion meant that ships had to wait longer than usual to unload their cargo.

But the South Carolina Ports Authority made some changes to help ease the congestion and get goods off the docks and headed toward their destinations.

Barbara Melvin, president and chief executive officer of the South Carolina Ports Authority, discussed the challenges of the last two years at Manufacturing Today, an event sponsored by Integrated Media Publishing that was held Aug. 16, 2022, at Jackson Motorsports in Greenville.

At one point last year, there were 30 ships waiting offshore to have a chance to unload in Charleston. It was a stressful time, Melvin said, but the authority found that the solution to the problem was to try several approaches to see which ones worked.

“Where you start seeing the needle move, you keep doing it,” Melvin said. “You stop being selfish. What we saw in the supply chain crisis of last year was people protecting themselves,” she said.

One strategy that worked well was extending the gate hours, including having workers in place on Sundays so that carriers could pick up cargo on the weekends. 

“We normally move 7,000-8,000 boxes, transactions, on a weekday. On Sundays, 1,000. … It’s expensive to pay for labor on the weekend, but motor carriers needed a break,” she said. “We had to be the ones to challenge everybody else around us to say, ‘Let’s do some things that don’t make sense. Let’s be bold … and let’s change the paradigm, and we did it, and we did it in five months.”

In addition, SC Ports dedicated Wando Berth 3 to smaller ships, maximized vessel calls at North Charleston and the Leatherman port, and invested $200 million on a new chassis pool and 11,000 new chassis to expedite the process.

Chuck Jenkins, vice president of operations for Sunny Days Entertainment, said he was pleased to see the progress SC Ports has made, as well as its plans for the future.

“I was quite impressed with their long-range plans,” Jenkins said. “With the size and scale, it appears that Charleston is a major player on the East Coast.”

Sunny Days, which manufactures and distributes toys, had been using Seattle as the primary port for products coming from China, but Jenkins said they’ve been shifting their products to South Carolina’s ports.

While shipping to Seattle can be faster, it could be more cost-effective to send products through Charleston.

“The scale of what they’re planning in Charleston is impressive,” Jenkins said. 

Melvin began her presentation with an aerial photo of the cargo terminal, with many empty spaces for containers.

“Some people see that as, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re not busy.’ I see it as, ‘Bring your cargo. We have space,’” Melvin said.

Charleston is ranked No. 8 among the top 10 United States ports, Melvin said, with Los Angeles in the No. 1 spot. Eighty-five percent of containerized cargo in the U.S. moves through those 10 ports.

“If you’re on this list, you’re spending billions of dollars every 10 years,” Melvin said.

In addition to the ports on coast, South Carolina also has inland ports in Greer and Dillon.

Imports and exports keep the state’s ports humming. 

“Imports go where the people live; exports typically come from where people do not live, the Southeast being the exception,” Melvin said. “Because we have significant manufacturing facilities, and we still have agricultural land and forests. We’re the best place in the United States to be in the ports business.”

SC Ports experienced “significant change” during the Covid-19 pandemic. In fiscal year 2019, the port handled 1,364,000 containers. A year later, traffic was down to 1,317,000 containers. The volume increased in 2021 as the pandemic began to wane. The projection for fiscal year 2023 is 1,580,000 containers.

During the 2021 fiscal year, SC Ports handled 1.475 million containers, compared to 1.582 million for fiscal year 2022, which ended June 30. Traffic at Inland Port Greer was down slightly in 2022, from 157,842 rail moves in 2021 to 151,261 for the year ending June 30.

Operating revenues were $288 million in 2019, and those numbers have increased each year, with fiscal year 2022 projected to bring in $440 million, and the projection for 2023 is $453 million.

“How did we jump up to $453 million? Storage. The most expensive place to park at the airport is by the door, right? We’re the most expensive place to park your container.”

But, Melvin added, “we’re not in the business, necessarily, to collect storage (fees). We’re in the business to move containers, and we’d rather do that any day of the week.”

The Charleston port is also working to be more attractive to the retail market. That’s important because retail is 35 percent of the gross domestic product, she said.

Walmart is the No. 1 importer into the U.S., and SC Ports created a dedicated facility that is the size of 52 football fields, Melvin said.

The Walmart terminal had its grand opening in April, and it is forecast to handle 70,000 to 100,000 containers in 2022.

“We have become a huge lifeline for Walmart,” she said.

Target, the No. 2 importer, has opened a facility at SC Ports, with a forecast of 15,000 containers in the first year, and an Amazon facility has been created at the Wando terminal.

With hubs around the state, SC Ports sees itself as “a tool for economic development in this state. We take both parts of our mission very seriously,” Melvin said. “And we are hoping to transform the Dillon area just as we have helped transform the Greer area.”