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Sunday, January 7, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Shipping out

Seattle Times business reporter

Mic Dinsmore


Age: 61.

Position: Hired for Port of Seattle's top management post in 1992.

Pay package: $339,841 in annual compensation, following a 6 percent raise Port commissioners approved in October.

Hometown: Butte, Mont.

Education: Montana School of Mines, 1963-4; MBA from University of Washington's executive MBA program, 1999.

Source: Port of Seattle

Port of Seattle


Operations Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, cruise and cargo terminals, Fishermen's Terminal, public marinas, conference center.

Revenue $416.5 million in 2005.

Employees Approx. 1,700.

Total assets $5.5 billion.

Total debt $3.2 billion.

Taxes paid by King County residents: $62.7 million in 2006.

Source: Port documents

The Puget Sound landscape is laden with monuments to Mic Dinsmore.

As chief executive of the Port of Seattle for 15 years, Dinsmore has led more infrastructure projects than any developer or elected official.

He revitalized Seattle's waterfront with the luxurious Bell Harbor Center, brought cruise ships and new cargo cranes to the harbor, added glitzy new terminals to the airport and prevailed in a decade-long battle to build a $1.1 billion third runway.

In a city known for eternal planning and endless "process," Dinsmore's parade of projects shows his extraordinary ability to get things done.

But ask Dinsmore, who steps down early this year, what brings him the greatest pride, and he doesn't point to this physical legacy.

"What I'm most proud of is the organization," he says of the 1,700-member Port staff.

It's a surprising answer. Many critics see the Port as an insular institution that taxes heavily, spends lavishly and doesn't always watch where taxpayer money goes.

Dinsmore, 61, says the Port's image has improved since he took the helm in 1992. He was the Port's seaport manager in the late 1980s, a time when many saw the Port commission as a rubber stamp, controlled by business and deaf to the broader community.

The commission, which hired Dinsmore, asked him to change the culture. Today, Dinsmore says, "We're substantially less bureaucratic, more customer-focused, more employee-focused, more community-engaged. There's a whole lot more focus on results."

Critics say that financially, Dinsmore's focus on results has paid scant dividends.

They argue that building big projects is easy if you have billions to spend, as the Port does, thanks in part to King County taxpayer funding of $62.7 million a year.

And few Port facilities earn back the cost of construction. Not the cruise terminals, the cargo yards, Bell Harbor or the World Trade Center.

"There are things you can say about Dinsmore's tenure that are positive," said Christopher Cain, a three-time candidate for Port commissioner and publisher of The Port Observer newspaper in Seattle.

"But the capital investments they've made really haven't paid off in comparison to the amount of debt they've incurred," Cain said.

While the Port's revenue has more than doubled on Dinsmore's watch to $417 million, its debt has jumped sixfold to $3.2 billion.

Cain says the Port under Dinsmore has used too much taxpayer money to build seaport projects, rather than requiring that Port customers — cargo handlers, cruise lines and others — pay enough to cover the cost of those facilities.

Cost overruns

Meanwhile, cost overruns and accounting problems have raised concerns not only among taxpayers but also at the state auditor's office, which has cited the Port for shortcomings in its bookkeeping and for making contributions to community and private organizations.

Dinsmore's supporters say he opened up the Port's decision-making process, pushed needed projects and is doing better at making its new facilities pay.

"We are making more return on most of our investments," said commission President Patricia Davis.

She noted that revenue has climbed faster than expenses, and that in any case Port spending aids the broader economy in ways not obvious in the financial ledgers.

"We do make a return, but it's long term, unlike Wall Street," she said.

Dinsmore said critics still miss the big picture, and that's why he thinks the top job of his successor is public relations, not public construction.

Biggest value

As he prepares to hand the reins to a new chief executive, Tay Yoshitani, Dinsmore says his successor needs to keep telling taxpayers why the Port matters: It preserves good-paying jobs.

"In a multitude of priorities, [we need to] make sure that the message of what we are, what we do, who we are continues to be delivered, not only to the folks that understand who we are but more important to the ones who don't, including our critics," Dinsmore says.

The son of a Butte, Mont., miner, Mickey R. Dinsmore has risen far from his roots. His annual pay, $339,841, tops every other seaport-airport chief in the country and is more than double the $150,000 Gov. Christine Gregoire earns.

Dinsmore, whose tufted hair and bristly moustache have whitened through the years, has become an icon in the business community, with a power base of his own.

He chairs the Seattle Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. He co-chairs the National Center for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. He is on the Seattle Chamber of Commerce executive committee and the boards of local and international trade groups.

Yet Dinsmore never earned a bachelor's degree. He entered Montana School of Mines (now Montana Tech) in 1963 but dropped out the following year, the school said. He said he attended classes in Alaska, too.

It wasn't until 1999, when he was earning nearly $200,000 a year as Port CEO, that he received a degree from the University of Washington's executive MBA program.

He began his career driving trucks in Alaska, and within a few years was managing the Anchorage trucking operations of Sea-Land. He moved to Oakland, Calif., with Sea-Land, then jumped to competitor American President Line, a future Port customer.

He also worked for Burlington Northern railroad and Eagle Marine Services.

He joined the Port in 1985, left in 1988 and returned as the chief operating officer in 1990.

At the Port, Dinsmore will be remembered for his role in ending the epic battle over adding a third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

He cut through community rancor that remained after the Port built the second runway in the 1970s, former Highline School District Superintendent Joseph McGeehan recalled.

"There was a lot of bitterness," McGeehan said. "People were loaded for bear and trying to figure out how to stop any further development of the Port in that area."

Dinsmore quadrupled the settlement funds — $200 million instead of $50 million — used to insulate school buildings from runway noise, McGeehan said, with the Port, state, school district and the Federal Aviation Administration splitting the cost equally.

"I don't want to sugar-coat it," McGeehan said. "He was and is a strong and tough man and negotiator. But the fact is that Mic and the Port did step forward and propose a strong program. And they and he should be commended for that."

Dinsmore says he has cut costs, too. He laid off warehouse and crane-maintenance workers as the Port discarded those businesses.

While the Port's operating income has doubled since 1992, overall the Port staff has grown just 42 percent to about 1,700.

But many critics still believe the organization Dinsmore has built puts a positive gloss on things and sweeps problems under the rug.

In reporting financial results last year, for example, staffers said the Port was doing well financially, even though its profit was falling sharply.

"We're actually excited," the Port's corporate budget manager, Dwight Rives, told the commission in August. "There are no immediate red flags." He didn't mention Port profit fell 30 percent in the first half.

In October, the Port also released a critical report by its financial auditors, leaving out of the public record numerous accounting errors and discrepancies that were found.

Dinsmore defends his staffers fiercely. He backs them even over glaring mistakes, such as the $68 million cost overrun this year on a Sea-Tac baggage system that cost nearly $200 million.

The higher cost resulted from a construction contract signed in 2004 and a subcontractor that ceased working under a negotiated agreement and signed a deal not to discuss the issue publicly.

Dinsmore blamed the Sept. 11 attacks for the cost increase, despite the fact that the contract had been signed three years later.

And he said: "To get the project done and bring it in, even within that $60 million, I think will turn out to be more of a success by far than a failure."

Dinsmore's ability to get things done owes much to his radarlike focus. "Unwavering alignment," he often calls it. But his approach has rubbed some the wrong way.

He is deferential in public but usually frank behind closed doors, Davis said. That's why many were surprised when he publicly chastised two commissioners after they voted against his final raise in October.

In pursuit of the Port's interests, Dinsmore has taken stands that upset people.

"Mic's broken a few eggs," said Bob Drewel, executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council.

"But he does a remarkable job putting the egg together or at least putting himself back together, and moving on."

As Dinsmore moves on, former Port of Oakland executive director Yoshitani inherits the eggs, including the third-runway project, the proposed acquisition of Boeing Field from King County, and a controversial $120 million plan to tear down a cruise terminal and rebuild it farther north to make way for more cargo.

Davis had worried that filling Dinsmore's shoes would be difficult, since the job requires so many different skills.

"It's his leadership that has brought the Port to where it is today," she said.

But in choosing Yoshitani on Wednesday, the commission seems to have found someone to match Dinsmore.

"He's confident, courageous and has charisma," Davis said. "That is just what we were looking for."

Alwyn Scott: 206-464-3329 or ascott@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published January 7, 2007, was corrected January 28, 2007. A previous version of this story inaccurately summarized how a subcontractor ended its work on a Seattle-Tacoma International Airport baggage-handling system that ran over budget. Subcontractor G&T Conveyor did not "quit" the project; it ceased working under a negotiated agreement, and continued a job on a different conveyor system at the airport.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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