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NW Seaport Alliance CEO John Wolfe ’87 discusses his career in maritime leadership

NW Seaport Alliance CEO John Wolfe ’87 discusses his career in maritime leadership

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John Wolfe wearing a dress shirt and blazer. He is smiling with his hand on a metal rail and the Port of Tacoma behind him.

Image: John Wolfe ’87 is the CEO of the Northwest Seaport Alliance, a marine cargo operating partnership of the Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma. (Photo by John Froschauer/PLU)

November 3, 2022
By Zach Powers ’10
PLU Marketing & Communications

Shortly after John Wolfe ’87 graduated from PLU he went to work for a Seattle-based company called SeaLand Shipping Line. In the years that followed he worked in sales, marketing, and operations for a variety of marine cargo companies and agencies. Eventually, he was appointed executive director of the Port of Olympia and later served as CEO of the Port of Tacoma. Since 2015, Wolfe has been the CEO of the Northwest Seaport Alliance, a marine cargo operating partnership of the Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma.

We met with him recently to discuss his career in the maritime sector, his approach to international relations, and how his experience on the PLU Football team helped shape his approach to business leadership.

How would you summarize the work of the Northwest Seaport Alliance?

Our mission is built around creating economic wealth and opportunity for people throughout the state. We do that through the management of our properties and partnering with private sector businesses to create jobs and economic activity here in this region and throughout the state of Washington. There is a lot of detailed work that drives us to that outcome, and that is really our focus.

A logo for PLU's Lute Powered story series. Lute Powered is hand written in black below a hand-drawn half sun

What about your personality, skillset, or just the way you like to work makes you a good fit for this sector and your current position?

To start, I have a strong passion for business. What is unique about the ports and the Seaport Alliance is that although we are public enterprises, we have a strong focus on business activities – different from a city or county government. That emphasis is attractive to me. I really enjoy working with our customer base to help them increase their business and strategize on how we can position the region for growth.

I also didn’t realize this early on. I have a passion for serving the community and the state. We do this by helping create jobs in our region. These are incredibly attractive jobs that are well paying, fully benefited, and widely accessible. Whether you are a high school graduate, you have some experience in the trades, or have a bachelor’s or master’s degree – we are creating jobs that are a fit for all these levels of experience and education. That has tremendous benefits for our community. 

The ships we see in the ports are coming from and going to – I imagine – a wide variety of international destinations. What is your role in developing international partnerships?

A big part of the role at the NW Seaport Alliance is building strong relationships with our customers. The large shipping lines that call our gateway are typically foreign-owned carriers, most of the freight originates in Asia or is going to Asia from U.S. exporters, and the carriers are all foreign-owned businesses in Europe or Asia. So, our leadership team travels to both Asia and Europe to visit the many different headquarters of our customers.

A unique part of this work that I really enjoy is that we get the opportunity to introduce Seattle and Tacoma to the world. Of course, many people in other parts of the world know about our region because of their connection with Boeing, Microsoft or now Amazon. However, others know about Seattle/Tacoma because of our port gateway, and they are dependent upon our gateway as a part of a global network for trade and getting their goods to market.

I can imagine this may get more complicated when geopolitical tensions rise. 

It can, yet one thing I enjoy about meeting leaders from other parts of the world is that, amidst the tension that exists with certain countries and geopolitical relationships, we realize we are more alike than we are different. In fact, we are all remarkably similar and share many values. I can talk to our customers who want to seek understanding about what is going on in the U.S. They can learn from us, and we are able to learn from them.

This work has allowed our leadership team to travel to Europe and Asia and build tremendous relationships around the world. Many of our customers have become valued friends with our team. Truthfully, I would not stretch myself the way I have to travel the world if this was not the case.

What sort of initiatives is your team currently working on?

Our team is working on some exciting initiatives and opportunities to expand our gateway. We are one of the largest gateways for trade in North America. That is profound because our population is so much smaller than that of other large gateways like California, New York, or New Jersey. We are in the major leagues as a port gateway, and it is an extremely competitive environment. That is why we are working on some critical initiatives to expand our infrastructure – so that we can handle more cargo and create more jobs for the people of our state.

John Wolfe stands on a maritime star printed on a sidewalk at the Port of Tacoma. He's looking directly up at the photographer above him.

“One thing I enjoy about meeting leaders from other parts of the world is that, amidst the tension that exists with certain countries and geopolitical relationships, we realize we are more alike than we are different. In fact, we are all remarkably similar and share many values.” – John Wolfe ’87

What are a couple of project examples?

We are in the process of a $400M terminal redevelopment project in Seattle to handle larger vessels that call our gateway. In Tacoma, we are working with two of our existing tenants to significantly expand their terminal capacity so that they can handle more container cargo. We are also working on major deepening projects in both harbors. The larger vessels now calling our gateway have deeper draft requirements and these projects will create some of the deepest waterways in North America.

Let’s close with a PLU question. When you think back to your days as a Lute, is there an experience or mentor relationship that was especially meaningful or formative?

Absolutely, that’s an easy one for me. Beyond receiving a great education, I had the opportunity to be part of the PLU football team. Frosty Westering was the coach during my time there. He was a one-of-a-kind leader and a real mentor for me. I learned from him that a combination of strength of character, humility, drive, and competitiveness – all packaged together – is powerful. He was a significant role model. I have always tried to transfer the lessons I learned from him and the program to the working world and in my life.

Lute Powered is a project highlighting PLU alumni at some of the most well-known organizations across the Puget Sound region. John Wolfe and previously Mark Miller ’88 are the first two Lutes we’ve featured from the Port of Tacoma and Northwest Seaport Alliance. Previous Lute Powered series highlighted PLU alumni at Amazon,  MultiCare Health System, and the City of Tacoma.