The Man in Seattle's Hot Seat

The Man in Seattle's Hot Seat

By Steven Butler


Because effective management of big public corporations is vital for everyone, and it doesn’t always happen.

By Steven Butler

Dave Freiboth remembers the frustrating hours he spent negotiating Seattle’s minimum wage initiative as head of the King County Labor Council. Across the table were small businesses that had no experience with collective bargaining and just didn’t get the process. So when Freiboth heard a year and a half ago that industrialist Ted Fick was coming to run the Port of Seattle — a sprawling public agency that manages the airport, the maritime port and a big real estate portfolio — he figured, “At least we got an industrial guy who knows how to deal with labor.”

Now, the longtime labor activist jokes, “I’ve gone to the gray side.” Freiboth joined the Port staff last year and works for Fick as director of labor relations, including running a semiannual meeting between Fick and all the unions. Bringing labor inside the tent is just one of the many surprising moves that Fick has made in his efforts to bring transparency and private company smarts to an important public corporation. “I actually like a lot of complexity,” Fick tells OZY, who left a lucrative private-sector CEO career to run an agency that’s sometimes at the center of a political maelstrom, boasting 17 unions — his previous job had two — and a wide remit, from spurring economic development to protecting the environment, and answerable, ultimately, to the voters of King County, which includes Seattle.

Seattle is booming. Downtown is a construction zone, boasting Amazon’s huge new headquarters and, soon, a Google outpost. People embark on sea cruises to Alaska or leave town through Sea-Tac, the fastest-growing airport in the nation. It’s not always great for passengers crowding the arrival and departure areas or navigating 40-year-old terminals. “After a 14-hour flight, you have the privilege of sitting on that airplane for 30 to 45 minutes because I have nowhere to put you,” Fick says to me, with that reel-you-in charm. “How frustrating is that?” Waiting is not for him. Indeed, he’s taken the Port’s 25-year plan and put a 10-year deadline on it. And he’s rallied people to make it happen. “Mr. Fick recognizes the importance of both labor and working with labor,” says Vince O’Halloran, the Seattle representative of the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific.

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Ted Fick outside his office overlooking the Port of Seattle.

Source Alex Washburn / OZY

An hour spent with Fick, in his comfortable office at the end of a renovated canning factory, with an expansive view of the Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains in the distance, convinced me that he loves the wonk of the job. The 56-year-old blond hails from nearby Tacoma, his wife from Bellevue; when the invitation to return home came after 15 years of running companies elsewhere, he chose impact over money. (Though his $360,500 salary is hardly chump change.) He says he wouldn’t have been interested if another port had called.

Kit Oldham, who co-authored a history of the Port of Seattle, says the port, with its unusual combination of public mission with profit-making enterprises, has frequently been at the center of controversy since its founding in 1911, and often accused of being behind the times. So far, though, Fick is winning plaudits for shaking up a crusty organization. While his efforts will take years to bear fruit, he has moved with lightning speed in what Seattle Business Magazine dubbed a “radical” departure from the past. For starters, Fick smooshed the three independent business units — airport, maritime port and real estate — into one, a move that allowed him to centralize economic development and jobs training. And he’s chopped out layers of management, going from four direct reports to 14. Fick says that’s too many, but adds, “I did learn a lot about what happens,” whether it’s the legal counsel, the police chief, public affairs, labor or the business managers.

He brought in Dave Caplan, his old colleague from nearby truck-maker Paccar, to run strategic initiatives, which involves, among other things, applying lean management techniques to running airport maintenance, repositioning tools to reduce travel time. The result? Higher productivity and 35 positions rendered redundant, with workers to be reassigned. “So far, the teams have loved it,” says Caplan, who adds that low productivity was rarely the fault of workers.

Next on Fick’s list: figuring out how to speed up a glacially slow procurement process. “It can’t take six months to issue a purchase order on a major contract,” he says. Of course, it does.

His aggressive approach to cutting deals hasn’t always panned out. Remember the fleet of protesters in kayaks that greeted Royal Dutch Shell’s Polar Pioneer drilling rig last year, as it was towed into Seattle’s Elliott Bay? Fick had signed the lease agreement with Shell. “I really underestimated the blowback,” he says, and admits he should have done more to sound out the community. “Everything is in a fishbowl and on the front page of the paper,” he says, not complaining so much as explaining the learning experience. Indeed, Fick is facing DUI charges filed last month by King County prosecutors. (In a statement, Fick says he “regretted the embarrassment and inconvenience” caused to the Port and his family, while his lawyer says the statement is not an admission of guilt or a claim or innocence.)

Aside from speed, he’s into endurance, as in 15 marathons, 35 half marathons and an Ironman competition in 2012 (“a real bucket list item for me”). He’s trying to enlist port staff to train for Seattle’s Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in June … for the “fun” of it. He complains that without the Ironman training, he’s put on a few pounds. Hard to tell.