Watco Investing, Expanding At Port Of Pine Bluff, Ark.

Since it took over management of the Port of Pine Bluff (Ark.) from Kinder Morgan in 2015, Kansas-based Watco has steadily invested in expanding its capacity. That investment is paying off in new customers and cargoes.

In January 2015, Watco acquired the Pine Bluff facility, along with 31 other locations, from Kinder Morgan as the latter readjusted its business portfolio (WJ, January 31, 2015).

Tonnage at the Port of Pine Bluff was up last year, topping 100,000 tons for the first time in 10 years. That rise came despite a big drop in fertilizer tonnage, one of the facility’s mainstays. “Last year’s spring rains really hurt our fertilizer tonnage; volumes were way down. This year the rains are coming early, so we hope it won’t happen again,” said terminal manager Mike Murphy. Other cargoes include steel wire and vermiculite. Recent high water had kept six barges in place at Rosedale, Miss., but Murphy said they are moving again as the water recedes.
In August 2017, Watco’s lease was renewed for another 10 years by the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Port Authority when it beat out a rival bid by Five Rivers Distributing, an Arkansas-based company, by a 6-1 vote. Board members said Watco’s national reach was a deciding factor in their vote.
According to Murphy, the company has invested about $1.6 million in the terminal complex, which sits on 20 acres. “We acquired a new skid steer loader for $95,000, a new front-end loader for about $190,000, and two lift trucks to be delivered this week for about $123,000,” said Murphy.

In a recent meeting, the port authority approved a new sign for the terminal, reflecting Watco’s presence as operator. To help rustle up more new business, Watco has assigned a new sales manager, Joey Bitner, who has extensive experience in rail transportation.

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Watco’s national infrastructure and strong rail connections have helped the port diversify and gain new business. Murphy doesn’t want to name specific customers, but says the port is now unloading cereal grains for the dog-food business—wheat, barley and peas.

“We acquired that new business because of Watco’s strategic national partnerships,” said Murphy. “That is giving us access to markets we didn’t have before.”