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Barbara Melvin reflects on her first year at the helm of South Caroilna Ports

Barbara Melvin reflects on her first year at the helm of South Caroilna Ports
July 2023

The CEO shares how SC Ports stacks up against competitors and what projects are on the horizon 

As a young gymnast, Barbara Melvin thrived on the beam. Years later, she still walks a fine line with determination and confidence. Only now, she’s balancing the role of SC Ports president and CEO, and she’s doing so in cheetah-print booties. The first woman to helm one of the top 10 container ports in the US, Melvin leads with a style that’s as solid and colorful as the 2.8 million containers her enterprise handles annually. 

The petite powerhouse, who rises every day at 3:30 a.m. to fit in a workout before heading to the terminals, attributes her fortitude to her parents, teachers, and mentors “who took the time to tell me I could do it.” Melvin has worked for SC Ports for 25 years, overseeing government and community relations before becoming the port’s chief operating officer in 2018 and making the move to chief exec last July. In a business run primarily by dark-suited men, Melvin shows up with plenty of tailored personality. “I think the industry was tired of looking at navy suits,” she jokes. “They needed some crazy shoes.”

CM: What successes and challenges has your first year as CEO held?
The greatest win has been a more cohesive maritime community. This year has also been a reminder that no matter how long you’ve been at a place, there is just stuff you don’t know. We’ve faced challenges like getting materials, having enough labor, and escalations in costs, but we’ve met those head on with ingenuity. For example, during the pandemic, we were experiencing congestion due to an increase in people ordering goods, so we put our heads down and threw a bunch of ideas against the wall. Our solutions included adding Sunday gate hours, buying [container] chassis, increased hiring, and changing berthing policies. Our port cleared up its congestion in five months, while others struggled for much longer.

CM: How does SC Ports stack up against nearby ports?
I always want to grow our market share–a port is nothing without volumes–but I don’t have to be in competition mode to do that. There is definitely room on the East Coast for multiple successful ports, because we operate as a network. We all have to invest in infrastructure and do our jobs well so customers want to do business here. I celebrate when Norfolk and Savannah are doing well. Of course, I celebrate more when we’re doing well.

CM: What projects are on the horizon?
Infrastructure investment isn’t for the faint of heart. We’re in a long-cycle business with significant revenue going into large-scale projects to support the state’s economic growth. When the Leatherman facility opened in 2021, it was the first new greenfield [previously undeveloped land] container port in the country in nearly a decade. Our biggest project now is the Navy Base Intermodal Facility, where we’re consolidating railroads into one hub. People don’t think about us being off the water, but the inland ports in Greer and Dillon have helped us expand our reach. We’re also constantly planning creative ways to move cargo, such as a barge service to transport rail cargo between Leatherman and Wando, without putting it on public roads.

CM: How does the Union Pier Terminal project fit in?
SC Ports is selling the property to help fund its capital plan and future infrastructure, and we’re working with the community to guarantee certain public benefits ahead of the sale. The current plan proposes a mixed-use neighborhood with 18 acres of park space and a walking path connecting Waterfront Park to the International African American Museum.

Born: In Fort Valley, Georgia
Lives: In Mount Pleasant with her husband, Michael, and their two dogs 
Works: As the president and CEO of South Carolina Ports
Volunteers: With Charleston Promise Neighborhood, American Heart Association, Governor’s School for Science and Math, and Trident United Way; mentors female supply chain students; helped launch SC Ports’ Community Giving Program
Honors: College of Charleston School of Business Woman of Courage Award (2022), South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance Woman of the Year (2021), Riley Institute Diversity Leaders Initiative graduate (2015), Liberty Fellowship (2014)