In his more than 10 years as director of the Port of Galveston, Steven Cernak grew the Texas port’s cruise business, worked out an agreement with a federal agency to deepen the Galveston Channel and led recovery efforts after Hurricane Ike caused serious damage in 2008.
He’ll need all that experience for his job at Port Everglades, where he started as director and chief executive in March. The Fort Lauderdale port is the second-busiest for cruise passengers in Florida after PortMiami, with about 3.5 million expected in 2012.
Cernak, who replaced former director Phillip C. Allen after he retired earlier this year, is overseeing a $54 million renovation of four cruise terminals that’s already underway. Port Everglades is seeking its own dredging project to widen and deepen the channel to 50 feet.
As for hurricanes, he hopes he doesn’t have to put his experience in that area to use here.
We talked with Cernak in his Fort Lauderdale office about the future of the port, regional cooperation and friendly competition.Q: What about your time in Galveston prepared you for South Florida specifically, and what about South Florida is brand new to you?
In a lot of ways, Galveston operates like Port Everglades does. It’s an enterprise. There’s no direct tax support and we earn our own keep and we look to make money so that we can reinvest in the facilities and continue to develop the operation.
Galveston was a smaller scale than Port Everglades, so there were a lot more challenges because the funding opportunities were limited. That challenge forced me to think creatively out of the box. And it allowed me to develop, as one example, a relationship with Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean in developing the cruise operations as part of a public-private partnership.
I think that there’s several experiences in Galveston that would help me here in the future. Hopefully, I never have to use the skill set, for example, of having to recover from Hurricane Ike. I was able to get the cargo operations up and running within seven days and I had the cruise business restored 50 days after the storm hit.
The Cruise terminals themselves took on about four feet of water. That underscores what I said originally, that I hope I never have to use that experience again because my theory is: “Once in any person’s career is enough.”
What is different about South Florida? Having been born and raised in New York City, what surprised me was coming to South Florida was that I was coming back to New York.Q. What’s your proudest accomplishment so far?
The challenges initially were I came here and while they were already scheduled, there was a whole series of key retirements. So really the focus of where I had to go immediately was to fill some key positions. So we’ve just completed that and now I’m starting to look at improving customer relations, understanding the customers’ businesses, looking to see how I can help existing businesses grow at the port as well as look at what other opportunities may be out there for us to supplement what we do here to make the operation stronger. Q. What needs to happen at Port Everglades for the port to stay as competitive and as successful as it’s been?
We need to proactively plan for the future. Port Everglades, by nature of the petroleum line of business that’s here, is a strategic port for South Florida. So we also have other lines of business, but in order to be sustainable for the future, we have to look at things like water depth.