SAINT JOHN – Two years ago the federal government asked three ports on the west coast to talk about an idea that had been kicking around for 50 years: amalgamation.

Officials from the Vancouver Port Authority, North Fraser Port Authority and the Fraser River Port Authority – all located near the lower mainland – agreed to a meeting. The ensuing discussions led to the formation of one amalgamated port on Jan. 1 of this year as the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, recently renamed as the Port Metro Vancouver.

As the largest port in Canada and the fourth largest in North America, Port Metro Vancouver is poised to make its mark as the Pacific gateway into and out of North America, said Gordon Houston, president and chief executive officer of the port.

By 2012, the port hopes to handle 144 million tonnes of cargo a year, a substantial increase from the 135 million tonnes a year the port currently handles.

Speaking at a conference of port authorities at the Saint John Trade and Convention Centre in Saint John, Houston’s presentation outlined the process through which the west coast port overcame barriers to amalgamation in order to find themselves where they are now, expecting another period of sustainable growth.

“People had been hearing about amalgamation for 50 years. It’s just that nobody did it. The timing wasn’t right. But with the growth in the business, amalgamation just took care of itself,” said Houston.

As traffic to the three original ports grew, Houston said amalgamation had to happen in order for the ports to increase capacity, grow business – and reduce the “triplication” of services and costs that was occurring.

It was easy to find reasons why amalgamation was a good idea. The benefits included better land use and co-ordination, more effective marketing of the port, improved operational efficiencies, enhanced financial resources, greater influence, increased human resources and expertise and a streamlined user interface.

Of course there were challenges along the way, said Houston.

Changes to the governance structure were made easier when every board member for each board voluntarily resigned, then reapplied with letters listing competencies. The new port’s board was formed from these candidates.

It turned out that communication became a major issue, said Houston. His advice: get everyone in one room and share one message. That will ensure everybody remains on the same page.

What kept everyone focused during amalgamation was a shared vision, a list of ideals to reach for that were set down on a piece of paper under the heading ‘Imagine.’

“Imagine a port chosen by its customers because of its reputation for reliability and stability. Imagine a port that is envied worldwide for balancing economic growth with social and environmental responsibility. This is what we set our sights to do,” said Houston.

Into the future, it is supply chain logistics which concern the success of the port, he said. Key are improvements to the connecting rail systems.

“Our goal is to develop the most reliable and consistent supply chain in North America,” said Houston.