When news broke of a mysterious coronavirus spreading through China, Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka turned to some surprisingly relevant experience.
"I lived and worked on the ground in China during the SARS epidemic," Seroka said in an interview. "So I had a particular viewpoint as to what a viral epidemic may look like."
The port was quick to take steps to address what was then an epidemic, now the COVID-19 pandemic. It stopped all internal travel for its employees in December and all domestic travel, except for bereavement, in February.
The largest port in the country then set about ensuring operations would continue to run smoothly. It is because of this work that Supply Chain Dive is recognizing Seroka as the Executive of the Year.
"We immediately launched a leadership team here that was going to respond to COVID-19," Seroka said.
The leadership team was made up of volunteers, some of which were still going to the office every day, while others connected by video or phone calls.
"First and foremost was the caring for family and friends," Seroka said. "But at the same time, those who volunteered to do this work hit the ground running. And their goals were just that: Make sure that we had all of those things lined up to help give us a chance of success as we went through these uncharted waters."
The early days of the pandemic were full of confusion. The shipping industry looked to the Port of Los Angeles for clarity after California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued its emergency orders on March 4 and later limited the number of people at non-essential gatherings. Stakeholders were specifically wondering what was defined as essential work.
"If the port was going to be considered essential, then we needed to make sure that those who participated on the ground from a workforce standpoint were also classified that way," he said. The port worked with federal and state agencies to get this clarification and provide it to the rest of the industry.
And Seroka wasn't just providing guidance behind closed doors. On March 4, he spoke before the Los Angeles City Council.
"The issue today is that empty containers, perishable commodities and agricultural products are stacking up at our ports because of those vessel sailing cancelations," Seroka told the council after walking them through the slate of canceled sailings and the port's steps to downsize its labor force. The port began paying dock workers to stay home as less cargo flowed through the gateway, meaning less work for longshoremen.
At that meeting, Seroka said Maersk had already planned a visit from one of the largest ships to ever call on the western hemisphere to help evacuate the containers.
Later that same month, Seroka began a press conference habit that has become a monthly check-in for the state of the nation's supply chains — of course on Zoom.
Seroka wore a suit and tie with a pocket square that matched the color of his shirt. "The Port of Los Angeles is open for business," he said on the same day the U.S. seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases crossed 10,000 for the first time. "All of our marine terminal operators are functioning and operable. We have 12 ships in port today alone."
Chief logistics officer
As the pandemic twisted supply chains in knots, Seroka shouldered even more responsibility.
"I've appointed the Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka to act as our city's chief logistics officer," Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti said in a May press conference.
Seroka's job was to use the state's purchasing power to secure personal protective equipment and other healthcare supplies the state needed in its fight against the coronavirus.
Seroka said there was a quick conversation between Garcetti and Seroka on how to get needed equipment to frontline medical workers.
The logistics office then worked toward expediting the needed goods to the city and the Los Angeles International Airport, and it started looking for direct manufacturer relationships. This resulted in a relationship with N95 manufacturer, Honeywell, which delivered 24 million N95s.
"By putting Gene in this role," Garcetti said at the March press conference, "he will save lives."