Port in a storm - Great Yarmouth outer harbour boss says future is bright

Eddie Freeman, the chief executive of Eastport UK, is a man with a clear message – 'the outer harbour is not a white elephant'.

But despite being a salesman in arguably one of the toughest businesses there is, he is having trouble selling that to the public particularly in Great Yarmouth.

And it has been a stormy ride.

The company, which took on the running of the harbour in 2007, got off to a rocky start when it sacked a group of dock workers as it moved to create a privately run 24/7 operation.

The first piece of goodwill was expended, yet the story it never told but which is clear in the accounts of Great Yarmouth Port Authority was that in 2005 the Stevedoring Company was losing nearly �25,000 a year, while 12 months previously the port authority itself had posted a pre-tax loss of �204,479, though this then recovered to a �672,197 pre-tax profit.

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More goodwill was lost when it emerged that Eastport had acquired land including the popular car park at Gorleston Pier, which was then shut off – because, the firm says, it is a safety hazard.

The vision which arose, behind the barbed wire fences (another source of resentment) was not of a ferry terminal but of a container port, and things really came to a head last year when the firm revealed that the �7m cranes were being shipped out before they had even been used.

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When the news broke, the firm went into its default mode of not commenting on commercial issues, but with the story picked up by Lloyds List, it soon became clear that something had to change.

Backed by Global Infrastructure Partnerships, the venture capitalists which own Gatwick Airport, and waste management firm Biffa, Eastport UK is a serious player, supported by serious investors. But even that fact counts against it among its critics, who believe the profits are being milked away by foreign investors.

Eastport has struggled to deal with the expectations it inherited from the public backers of the scheme, which were all wrapped up in the delivery of a roll-on/roll-off ferry operator.

Critics accuse them of reneging on a promise for delivering a joint venture between the port authority and a private firm. Yet it was Great Yarmouth Port Authority and its board which decided in the late 1990s that it would abandon a dream to go it alone to build an outer harbour paving the way in 2000 for the public sector to pursue a wholly different course and that option was never the preferred course.

You have to wonder how damaging the failure to spell that out more clearly at the time has been.

The challenge for Eddie Freeman was setting up a port operation from scratch in what is a fiercely competitive environment. Even with the recession, Eastport UK posted a pre-tax profit of just over �1m in its last accounts, deals continue to be signed and the firm says that more than 200 ships were attracted to the outer harbour last year.

Yet it continually struggles to rise above stormy headlines of doom and gloom, recent news that it is redesigning the port entrance provoking fresh accusations that it got the port design wrong.

How you wonder, will Eastport overcome all of that? The answer, according to Mr Freeman, is simple – trade. He also cites October's visit of HMS Dauntless to Yarmouth as proof that the firm does want to welcome the community.

But what is the vision?

Essentially Eastport UK provides the harbour space and runs the port, but it is the firms it attracts that will determine the activities which take place.

And that's a vision which could see the harbour constantly evolving. Its main competitors are not Lowestoft, King's Lynn, but Immingham and Tilbury.

'If I didn't believe it would work, I wouldn't be here,' Mr Freeman said. 'I am three years in and still incredibly optimistic. That's based on several things.

'We have a model that allows us to respond flexibly to the market we find ourselves in. At the moment our markets are still very offshore oil and gas and the renewables industry, the agricultural sector is also crucial. Gleadell has invested �5.5m, and if it hadn't been for the outer harbour, they wouldn't be here.'

But it has received criticisms that its fees are too high, which is driving trade away.

His answer, which is complicated to explain is that location is key and while prices can look higher than competitors such as Aberdeen, once you factor in the extra shipping distances and the costs, the picture actually changes, making Yarmouth an more attractive option.

'Last year we had a record level of trade at the river port all the majors in the offshore industry are represented here,' he added. 'The river is crucial to what we want to achieve and we would never lose sight of that.'

But what of the false starts such as the cranes and the deal with Singapore-based container firm PSA?

'I think the PSA situation was unfortunate, but they were decisions taken at a time before the recession,' he said.

'It's the old adage, when one door closes, another opens. That's how it works. But containers aren't ruled out, if we get a situation in five years time, where there is someone wanting to look at it again, we will. We haven't given up on roll-on/foll off ferries either.

'It's about having faith. I think Great Yarmouth has got great support now. We have got a 24/7 culture and a great hardworking team.

'I feel a little bit hard done by for the team because they know the work that is going on.

'It saddens me because the guys who work for us do a great job, and they are pretty fed up with the negative headlines. We have been through a difficult climate, but everyone has pulled together

'We have brought in new business against stiff competition, and I'm pretty sure there are more to come.

'The inward investment is starting to unlock opportunities and that's going to affect the landscape of what we do in the rest of the year – in fact 2011 is going to be very uplifting.'

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