The man who oversaw billions of dollars in investment in Mobile’s port and brought a container terminal online when many didn’t think it was possible is retiring from the Alabama State Port Authority.
Port Director and CEO Jimmy Lyons is retiring at the end of 2020, after more than two decades leading port operations through significant transitions.
“I’ve been thinking about it for some time,” he said of retirement. “I’m past 70 and this is a good time for me to do it.”
Lyons has been at the port since January 1998. It has been a huge part of his more-than-50-year career.
“I’ve worked a number of different places in my career,” he said. “Almost half of it has been at the port. We have a great team and I feel I’m leaving it in good shape.”
During his tenure, Lyons has overseen $1.3 billion in new infrastructure at the port. He is also responsible for bringing in APM Terminals as a concessionaire for a container port when it was mostly known for timber and coal.
“Colleagues in the industry told me I was out of my mind,” he said. “It has been very successful.”
The terminal port has already seen two expansions and a third will be completed by February of next year, Lyons said. The terminal has been vital to economic development in the area, including the addition of jobs as part of deals for the Amazon sortation center and Walmart distribution center.
The port itself employs 530 people and operates a Class III railroad with eight locomotives, 75 miles of track and 100 employees, Lyons said.
“I wear a lot of different hats in one job,” he said.
Lyons helmed the port during a period of expansion that saw facilities created for SSAB, what is now AM/NS Calvert and Airbus. The port has also created a roll-on, roll-off facility for automobiles during Lyons tenure.
Lyons ability to build strong working relationships was key to the port’s success, Page & Jones President Mike Lee said. Lyons was able to use public-private partnerships to leverage state money for the better. For example, Lee said, the container port is successful because Lyons was able to have APM Terminals buy in as a concessionaire and invest.
“Jimmy did a great job leveraging assets through public-private partnerships,” Lee said. “Some of the things he was able to do — you have to do more with less.”
While relationship building was important, Lyons was able to do something no previous director could do and that was to look more than eight years in the future, Lee said. During the administration of Gov. Don Siegelman, the state made changes to the way the port was operated. Instead of having a political appointee run the port as director, a board was appointed who then hired a long-term director.
“One of the most important things at the port was the adoption of a board and a general manager position,” Lee said. “Before that, the port director was appointed by the governor and didn’t come from the industry.”
This change allowed Lyons to look at long-term goals without fear of being replaced when a new administration took over, Lee said.
“Jimmy came on board with transportation knowledge and immediately started on long-term plans,” he said.
David Cooper, vice chairman of Cooper/T. Smith and former port board member, said Lyons was able to earn the respect of those in the maritime industry, both nationally and internationally.
“He hit the ground running and made a huge difference,” Cooper said. “He really did a good job from day one.”
Cooper said Lyons “deserves a lot of credit” for his work to grow the port.
As for Lyons’ retirement, Lee said he “hates to see it.”
“I had been expecting it,” he said. “He’s been talking about it for a while.”
While Cooper said it’s “always hard to replace someone who has been very successful” like Lyons, he believes the port will continue to prosper, even after Lyons’ tenure is up.
Lyons has been around the port much of his life. He started as a teenager, working on a tugboat and, before being hired by the port’s board, worked for a container company based in Mobile and New Orleans.
He and his wife, Beth Marietta Lyons, moved to Dauphin Island full-time in 2017, he said, which is what triggered his first thoughts about retirement.
The port has hired a national search firm to look for a replacement, Lyons said. They hope to have someone hired near the first of next year so it gives them almost a year to train.
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