Captain’s Quarters

A peek inside the personal space of Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans.

Gary LaGrange sits in his handsome fourth-floor corner office at the Port of New Orleans headquarters enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the Mississippi River and the busy nearby cruise-ship terminal.

As president and CEO of the Port since 2001, LaGrange is the go-to man for everything that drives the second-most important economic force in New Orleans (surpassed only by tourism in economic scale).  

“The Port of New Orleans is the center of the world’s busiest port system,” he says, expounding on his work with the zeal of a preacher in a pulpit. “Here you have Louisiana’s lower Mississippi River’s famous port, connected to the major inland markets in Mid-America and Canada via 14,500 miles of waterways, six Class 1 railroads and the interstate highway system.”
 

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Flags from different countries serviced by the Port of New Orleans hang in the lobby. Large contemporary paintings occupy the high wall over the reception desk.

LaGrange’s office is befitting a man in such an important role. Light fills the large space that opens onto a balcony overlooking the Mississippi River. Mementos of his successful career – including his many awards, important photos of milestones for the Port – and family photos fill the space, which also offers comfortable seating and a private bathroom.

“It came in handy when I moved into my office during Hurricane Katrina and slept on the couch,” he says, adding, “We were up and running two weeks after Katrina.”

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Hurricane Katrina destroyed one-third of the Port’s infrastructure – almost $200 million worth of damage.

“The White House was in contact with me within three hours after the hurricane saying they knew how important the Port was and wanted to help,” LaGrange says. “‘What do you need?’ was the question asked, and I quickly answered, ‘We are going to need everything.’”

Today the Port is experiencing record operating revenues and strong, double-digit cargo growth.

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“Through a lot of hard work by many people, the Port has doubled its container volumes and added an estimated 1,500 new jobs since Katrina,” LaGrange says. “We believe our numbers will grow even greater in the future and new service will attract additional cargo on a north-south route. Our final growth figures for 2014 were up substantially in all categories, including general cargo.”
 

The headquarters of the Port of New Orleans is located on the banks of the Mississippi River.
 

 A dramatic bronze statue occupies the space between the Port of New Orleans headquarters and the Mississippi River.

Father Knows Best

Born in Franklin, La., and educated at Louisiana universities, LaGrange recalls his youth as growing up in “a ‘Leave It to Beaver’ atmosphere, where life was good and my family was always caring and encouraging me to excel.” He says he remembers his father preaching to him as a boy about the importance of getting a port facility to link Louisiana to the world.

“He was in the retail business and the president of the St. Mary Parish Jury,” LaGrange says. “He was always very active in improving life for the community, even though Franklin was a town with many wealthy families at the time. He wasn’t a person to rest on past laurels. Having a father in the retail business taught me a valuable trait I have never forgotten. He would always say, ‘Remember the customer is always right.’ I still believe that.”

LaGrange says he never planned a career in port management.

“I transferred from LSU to the University of Louisiana in Lafayette after my sophomore year and graduated with both a bachelor’s degree in geography and economics and a master’s degree with honors in urban planning.”

His first job after completing his master’s degree was serving as assistant city planning director for Lafayette. He later served as regional planning director for Acadiana Parish before coming home to accept the position of director of West St. Mary’s Port – the very port his father had envisioned.
“I’ve been at four ports in my 39-year career,” he says. “After my service at West St. Mary’s, I went on to other jobs as port director at Port of South Louisiana at LaPlace and Port of Gulfport, Mississippi, before coming to the Port of New Orleans.”

Rough Beginnings

Just a day after he began his current term as president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans in 2001, the nation was thrown into the turmoil of Sept. 11.

LaGrange immediately took action to make sure all systems were in place to protect the port. “It was truly a baptism in fire,” he adds.
Sept. 11 would be only the first crisis LaGrange would have to wade through.

“We were facing the serious embargo on imported steel that had been an important economic part of the Port’s success,” he recalls. “I knew we had to jump in quickly and find something to replace the revenue.”

It was then that LaGrange began the full-court press to increase cruise ship business.

“Today we are the 10th most active cruise ship port in the world,” he says with evident pride. “We also worked very hard to make the Port one of the world’s top 20 active destinations for large container shipping in North America. What we have done is diversify to keep the success of the Port intact.”

It’s not enough to maintain the status quo, however. LaGrange is always looking to the future, pointing out that the Port has invested over $100 million in capital improvement projects in the past two years, and has a master plan to continue expansion.

He is also working closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers while the Corps increases the depth of the Mississippi from its current 47 feet to 50 feet in an effort to ensure the Port is able to continue to accommodate the large container ships.

“There’s a bright future ahead for the Port of New Orleans,” LaGrange says. “We must stay abreast of the times and be ever mindful of ways to diversify. My goal is to increase our business with North, Central and South America, while also paying attention to growing our markets with our European customers.”
 

“The Helm” of the Port, LaGrange’s desk.
 

Among LaGrange’s cherished photos is one with Saints Quarterback Drew Brees.
 

Merritt C. Becker Jr. crafted the model boats and ships of historical significance on display in the Port of New Orleans headquarters.
 

A model of the Natchez by Merritt C. Becker Jr. sits in the front lobby.
 

Did You Know?

• The Port of New Orleans has maintained its role as America’s most intermodal port – with connections, via the interstate highway system, to major markets across the continent.

• It is still the only seaport in the United States served by all six Class 1 rail lines, 50 ocean carriers, 16 barge lines, and 75 truck lines.

• Cargo activities at the Port generate 160,000 direct and indirect jobs and $17 billion in annual spending statewide.
 

 

 

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