Shipping Season Starts at the Port of Thunder Bay
by Scott A. Sumner
I sat down March 20th with Chris Heikkinen, Director of Business Development & Terminal Operations at the Port of Thunder Bay to talk about the upcoming season and what to expect. Chris graduated into this position in December 2022 and has been with the Port for 13 years now. He graduated from the commerce program in 2009.Chris is a CPA, obtained by working at the Port when his role had an accounting focus for a number of years. It took several years to go through the CPA program working under two CPA’s that work there Tim Heney and Mel Parker.You need a direct supervisor and mentor as well for the CPA designation. Chris’s dad, Doug Heikkinen, was also a CPA well known in the city.
This is an exciting time as we very close to the opening of the Port for the 2023 season.
“ The ice breaker should be here any day to open the routes right into the elevators. The weather was beneficial as the winter wasn’t as relentlessly cold as they often are so less ice development. It should be a fairly smooth start to the shipping season in that regard. The lake itself is almost wide open with really just the bays and overall>under 5% coverage.We have had a 2 month shut down since last season so it will be about a 10 months season.The ocean going vessels have a slightly shorter season based on the locks.”
How many grain elevators are operational in Thunder Bay?
“ Right now 6 are actively shipping. G3 and Superior Elevator on the Kam River and in what we call the Intercity part of the harbour there are two Viterra- A and B and that is also where Canada Malting is which doesn’t do shipping anymore. On the north part of the harbour are the two Richardson's terminals.”
What does the Port of Thunder Bay do before the shipping season begins?
“ We are in communication a lot with the ice breaking group. Also we are disseminating information out to the facilities in town that are gearing up for the season. At Keefer Terminal there are two lake vessels that were tied up for the winter, undergoing maintenance and repair work so we are readying for those vessels to depart. The winter is mostly planning for the season ahead- business planning, strategizing and marketing to get the highest tonnage level. The way we like to describe it is we use the Port assets to the benefit of the community. We try to get as much business from outside of our community flowing through the Port which provides financial benefits through jobs and spending here.”
“ The Port itself, in terms of direct jobs, has about 1000 workers. The economic contribution is about $ 370 million annually.”
“ Keefer Terminals a hub for other local organizations for warehousing and transportation assets that aren’t necessarily found elsewhere, like
the rail assets. We have 600,000 square feet of warehouse space- the largest between Winnipeg and Southern Ontario.”
“ We make most of our revenue through Keefer Terminal along with harbour dues to work on infrastructure etc. Our harbour dues haven’t been raised since 1989 to be competitive and they were actually reduced in 2001.”
You have a pretty good concept of what to expect this season at the Port before the season starts?
“ At the end of last season the shipments were moving quite quickly. The grain shipments last season started off slowly but picked up in the last few months. We anticipate the grain shipping will be strong at the start of the season because the crop was the 3rd highest on record. Last year we shipped 6.2million tons of grain through the elevators. The average is closer to 8 million tons. The average ship can hold 25,000 tons of grain. We don’t know how the crop will be this seasonyet.”
“ Potash was a big story last year at 1.2million tons which was a 30 year high.We may not hit that level again but 1 million is possible.”
“ At Keefer Terminal we are gearing up for a very busy season.We see higher wind farm products- tower components. Steel from Europe has been strong -steel rail, structural steel and pipe. It generally goes to customers who further manufacture the steel.”
The Port is an important asset for Thunder Bay?
“ It can be easy to forget about the Port or understate it but are lucky as a city to have it.”
Anything new happening at the Port this season?
“We are looking at some rail replacement and reconfiguration to strengthen our rail capacity and the amount of rail car spaces. It will make for a more flexible laydown area on either side of the rail.”
How do you like working at the Port Chris?
“ I really enjoy it. I find the range of activities, tasks and products is very broad and that appeals to me. New things are happening all the time and you are always learning. The industry has a steep learning
curve which bodes well for a long career. As we are a Port our target
market is not close, but farther away. We work with our Western partners.There are many supply chains. Also Europe is important for us
to be in close contact.”