Adam Schlicht

The Interview

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:08 pm

Adam Schlicht

Port director

Port Milwaukee

Employees: 19

Adam Schlicht planned for his career to focus on international children’s welfare issues until he got the opportunity to work at the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. A position in IT management and security led to work in emergency response coordination and ultimately, leading regional efforts for the seaway. The Oak Creek native got the chance to return home this summer when Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett named him director of Port Milwaukee. BizTimes reporter Arthur Thomas talked with Schlicht recently about his vision for the port.

What was it that attracted you to this job?

“There’s a professional reason and a personal reason and I don’t mind sharing both. Professionally, I wanted to come home. In my work on the Great Lakes before I came to the port, Milwaukee has some of the best professionals. The dedicated team here and the tenants here are some of the best that I’ve seen on the Great Lakes. The commitment, the customer service approach that is consistently delivered by the port staff and its tenants, it’s not hard to want to be a part of an operation that truly cares, that is working to make an economic difference, that is talented and passionate. The opportunity to lead that, it was too good.

“The previous port director, Paul Vornholt, who is now chief of staff to the mayor, I think he left the port with an incredible foundation. The work that he did, working with the tenants, reviewing contracts, making sure that the port really had an excellent foundation to give back to the city’s general fund, I think his work and the foundation that he laid was really quite excellent. I think that freed me up as a younger port director to really try to innovate in the marketing space and the business development space because the port is on such an excellent foundation.

“I’ll share, on personal note, and I haven’t been hesitant to share this, my nephew Theo passed away at six months earlier this year. He was born with a rare heart condition at Children’s Hospital in late 2017. He never left Children’s Hospital. He had three open-heart surgeries before his six months and unfortunately he passed away of complications of his genetic disorders. During that time, during late 2017 and up to here, my family, my brother, his wife who is a professor at Marquette, the amount of community support we received and interest and the love and all of the concern that the greater Milwaukee area showed for baby Theo was overwhelming. Then to have this offer to join the port and to be an economic catalyst as I can as port director, I find it on a personal level, my way of saying ‘thank you’ and hopefully giving back to the community, as well, through public service.”

What do you see as the biggest challenge the port is facing?

“We need to continue looking for new opportunities. What’s excellent about the port is there are business models that continue to thrive that have made the port so successful. The adage that steel can come in to the port, Wisconsin agribusiness can leave the port, and that model has existed since the port became available to international traffic in the 1950s – that model, by and large, continues with great success today.

“The seaway system, meaning the lock system, today operates at 50 percent capacity. The heyday of shipping through the locks was the 1960s and 1970s. … Just at an anecdotal level, we’re saying that those locks can handle twice as much international traffic coming in to Great Lakes ports. If Port Milwaukee can tap into even a piece of that puzzle, that’s really robust international import and export activity coming through our port. I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge, I would say it’s a motivation.”

What are the chances of getting intermodal service to come back?

“We’re optimistic. One of the things that we do here is making sure that we have world-class transportation options and alternatives available to people that want to do business in the port of Milwaukee. I can tell you just in my first week on the job I see that our staff has been thoroughly engaged on all intermodal possibilities, inclusive and exclusive of Foxconn (Technology Group). I think the intermodal reality is possible and I can tell you what I’ve seen is we’re working with our city partners, our state partners to make that a reality.”

What do you see as the opportunity with Foxconn?

“Again, the import/export opportunity. From what I’ve learned about the Foxconn project, the vision is robust about what it can do and what it can accomplish for this part of the state and for the state overall. For those customers that are working to support Foxconn, its work, its development, the port of Milwaukee provides one of the largest and most immediate or nearby accessible options to get those pieces to Foxconn that it needs. Once things are up and running, I think through the foreign trade zone, Foxconn will be able to do even more. I’ve been really excited to see the port was on the front end working with Foxconn through the FTZ (free-trade zone) right at the onset.”

What do you think the impact of continued harbor area development activity could be on the port?

“The port’s partnership with folks in the city and around the state that are trying to maximize the city’s inland waterways and its water access, the port is a major player in that discussion and must be. As a port director, do I care about how water can be utilized from a recreational perspective, an entertainment perspective, as an environmental resource? Those are all things that are critically important.

“For me as port director, I do also remember that we have tenants here, that their commercial interests are really something that is a motivator for me, making sure that their business continues to grow. I guess the short answer is the port is a partner in that process, in that discussion. To make sure that residents of Milwaukee and residents of southeastern Wisconsin not only get to enjoy the waterway and get to enjoy what our rivers and our lakefront offer them in its multitude of uses, but also benefit from the economic activity that’s directly created by those that utilize the port of Milwaukee.”

There have been concerns about crude oil or ethanol at the port. How do you reassure people that things are going to be handled safely?

“I’ll answer that in two ways. The first is what I’ve seen, both in my previous position and since coming to the port, the amount of investment that’s gone into the liquid bulk pier and the collaboration with the common council, with our tenant (U.S. Venture) at the pier, has been really significant. I think that the amount of investment that’s gone in to establishing that pier as a safe and reliable tool for the port of Milwaukee and its customers is really high. I feel that our customer, the tenant that we’re working with there is committed to safety and security on a daily basis. I find that really reassuring on behalf of the citizens of Milwaukee and those that care about Lake Michigan.

“But from a leadership perspective and something that I can bring to the port as director, and this is a professional anecdote, but one of the hardest days of my career when I was at the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. – there was a cruise ship that ran aground in Eisenhower lock, which is near Massena, New York. During that time, I was working as emergency coordinator for the seaway. … My job was to make sure to do that oversight and coordination well between the boots on the ground people in Massena, at the lock, as well as those that were providing federal oversight and support to the situation from D.C.

“It was probably the most difficult few days of my career, but it’s also one of the most significant days of my career because I saw what it takes to have a robust emergency response plan, to exercise that plan when you’re faced with a crisis. I want to be clear, God willing that will never ever happen here. If it were to, I do feel already comfortable with the staff here and the emergency response exercises we’ve done at the port, the preparedness activities that we’ve done, our collaboration with our tenant (the U.S. Coast Guard), who is really, really prepared from a responsibility perspective, from a stewardship perspective, I’m seeing all those things at Port Milwaukee. Do I take those concerns heavily and do I treat them with care? Yes, absolutely. But I do believe the port and the investment that the city and state have made in that pier is well worth it and we’re going to see some economic activity coming through there that we haven’t seen in a long time and that’s a good place to be.”

Do you think people are aware of all that goes on at the port?

“Certainly not. I’m not ashamed to admit that a bias that I bring into the port is that we can do a better job of making sure that the everyday citizen knows why this is important. I’m sure that you saw (in early August) we were able to release the port of Milwaukee’s economic impact study and that showed some really startling facts – that well over 1,300 jobs depend on activity through Port Milwaukee, that over $100 million in business activity, economic activity took place because of what we do at Port Milwaukee in 2017. I think that economic impact can be lost on the everyday citizen and some of that might be geographic. We’re under the Hoan Bridge. Not a lot of people look under the Hoan Bridge and say, ‘What is that salt pile and why is that important?’ Part of what we can do here is make sure that our citizens know what’s occurring, what our tenants are doing, what businesses, locally-based businesses utilize the port, how they can better maximize the infrastructure and the supply chain solutions that we provide through the port, how that makes  a difference in their lives. I think what the citizens of Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin can look forward to is learning more about the port because that’s something I’m really excited about.”

What would be your vision for five to 10 years from now for the port?

“I have several ideas and ideally, we could see tonnage grow. As a result of tonnage growth, that means that the port is giving back even more money to the City of Milwaukee than it does each year. Over the last four years, the port of Milwaukee has given back about $2.7 million to the city and its taxpaying citizens. Ideally, we can grow tonnage, continue to work efficiently and safely in a way that allows us to give back even more to the city; that’s something that’s really important. I think offering an intermodal solution through Port Milwaukee is not only important for the work that we do in southeastern Wisconsin, but that will be a solution that is an opportunity for the entire state, and I’m idealistic and optimistic about what we can accomplish with an intermodal solution here at the port.

“This is sort of my seaway hat, but the third piece that we think is really exciting is deployment of what’s called hands-free mooring. Hands-free mooring is a new technology that will be fully implemented at all 15 seaway locks by 2019 and basically what it does is remove some of the unique restrictions that are required of vessels that are coming from countries abroad into the Great Lakes system for how they can fit into the lock. That will remove some of the economic burden of salties that come into the system. … We anticipate that several thousand more vessels that haven’t really utilized the Great Lakes in the past will be looking at the Great Lakes and not just Port Milwaukee, but all of the ports. I would really like us to leverage that opportunity that’s afforded by hands-free mooring technology being implemented by the U.S. and Canadian governments to identify new ships to come in to Port Milwaukee that maybe haven’t looked at us before.”

Is there anything else you want to add?

“The port is an important player and an important and critically significant economic driver and economic artery for this part of the world, for Milwaukee, for southeastern Wisconsin, for frankly, the entire region. I look forward to sharing that story, to being a proponent of that story, to working to grow that story and hopefully realizing even more economic productivity through our port. … I am really, really inspired about the opportunities that creating new business, looking for business opportunities with our tenants, be it cruise ships that haven’t looked at Milwaukee in some time, all the way down to folks that have used our port for decades, like Federal Marine Terminals, a trusted tenant, that we’ve utilized for a long time. Everyone from new to old and everywhere in between, hopefully we can utilize that basket of economic options, grow it and maximize it. If I can do that, then I’ve succeeded in my job as port director.”

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.