Mark Cairns is prepared for the comparisons.

Stepping into the shoes of a chief executive as well respected as Jon Mayson can't be easy.

Mark Cairns is prepared for the comparisons.

"I realise I'm in big shoes, so there's big expectations," said Cairns. "My feet haven't stopped growing yet."

The Port of Tauranga's new leader doesn't downplay the challenges ahead - they are big and Napier-born Cairns knows it.

With the full impact of the global mergers of shipping lines yet to be known, the port industry is in flux, and conditions are difficult due to the high dollar and falling forestry exports.

Armed with a masters degree in corporate management, training in dispute resolution and a civil engineering degree, Cairns exudes a quiet confidence. A few weeks into the role and Cairns seems to be employing an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" strategy. He acknowledges that Mayson left him a solid business.

"The port is invested for the long term and it's really got to continue doing things it does well and not be silly over the next year," said Cairns.

Unlike many new chief executives, Cairns doesn't seem obsessed with putting a distinct mark on the company he now heads - not initially anyway.

"The port's vision and values don't need tinkering with. It's been a very successful port."

Under Mayson's watch Tauranga morphed into one of the fastest growing ports in the country, snatching business from its main rival the Ports of Auckland. Mayson diversified by building an inland port and facilities to handle coal and grain imports, increased its dairy market share to just under 50 per cent through lucrative export contracts with Fonterra and invested in upgrading the port's facilities.

Mayson's plan was to lessen the port's dependence on forestry, which is in a downturn that is predicted to continue for between two to five years. The forestry squeeze had acted like a triple hit for the port, draining profit from its 50 per cent stakes in both Toll Owens and Northport.

Like many ports Tauranga's growth - in terms of volume and financial performance - has plateaued because of the high New Zealand dollar reducing export volumes and the slowdown in the economy, which economists say is imminent.

It reported a flat annual net profit to June of $35 million on a 3 per cent increase in total cargo to 12.6 million tonnes. Its first quarter net profit to September fell nearly 10 per cent to $7.34 million, with overall trade 5.6 per cent lower.

Cairns called the present trading conditions "flat" and "difficult". But he said he had recently seen signs of increased export volumes.

Cairns said he remained focused on continued growth through efficiencies.

"Our focus needs to be on world-class productivity. There really can't afford to be any fat in the supply chains," he said. "New Zealand is so far from its export markets, every cent is really important."

To say the country's port industry is in transition would be an understatement. The full implications of the merger of the world's first and third largest shipping lines, Maersk Sealand and P&O Nedlloyd, are set to unfold in early 2006.

Mayson and Cairns agree that while the finer details of the consolidation of the shipping lines have not been forthcoming, the overall picture is clear - one or two major hub ports will control the majority of the country's container traffic. If that does occur, Cairns is confident Tauranga is ready to accommodate heavier loads and service larger vessels than it does now. With its container volume hovering at 438,000, the port is equipped to handle an additional 150,000 containers should it need to.

"We have invested in that infrastructure. So we are dressed up and ready for the party," Cairns said.

The tarting up included a $32 million coal-handing facility, a fourth container crane at Sulphur Point, the refurbishment of the port's three gantry cranes and the upgrade of its straddle carrier fleet.

Media attention often focuses on container traffic or the decision by Fonterra and the shipping lines over which port will handle the majority of dairy exports, but Cairns said the port's future depended on much more.

Such bulk cargo imports and exports as coal, grain, oil, cement, even steel now rank Tauranga as the largest port by cargo tonnage and second to Auckland when it comes to container traffic. Meanwhile, the company's inland Metro Port, which reported a 53 per cent spike in container volume last year, provides customers with a "seamless" transport route by the rail network operated by Toll NZ.

While Mayson officially handed over the keys on November 1, he didn't leave the building. His plan was to stay on until the end of December to assist in the transition, which meant Mayson accompanied Cairns to meet clients all over the world.

"We took 20 international flights in 13 days," said Cairns. The worst leg of the journey was undoubtedly the first. It took 41 hours to get from Tauranga to Marseilles, France, when a passenger died on a connecting flight and the plane had to make an emergency stop in Delhi, India.

Typically of his easy-going attitude, Cairns just shrugged it off with a laugh. "It was good to see those customers and find out where they want their plans to be and what their long-term objectives are and understanding whether the port can deliver on them," he said.

Cairns has been cutting his teeth in the port industry since 2002, when he became the chief executive of Owens Cargo, which operated at 11 ports.

When Owens Cargo was merged with Toll Logistics in late 2004, Cairns was appointed to head the new company, Toll Owens.

It was in these two positions that Cairns feels he really got a "head start" on his present role. Not only did he already have relationships with many of the staff he leads today, but he had time to get to know the same customers too.

The avid sailor and fishing fanatic says he feels most at home on the water and remembers "going nuts" while working inland in Rotorua and Palmerston North. With a view overlooking the port and the beautiful Mt Maunganui, Cairns is thrilled that this "flash piece of real estate" is also what he's deemed "the best office in town".


* Born: 1962

* Family: Married to Louise, two daughters, Gabrielle, 8, Elyse, 9

* Education: Bachelor of engineering (Civil) - University of Auckland, bachelor of business studies - Massey University, post-graduate diploma in Business & administration (dispute resolution) - Massey University, master of management - Massey University.

* Work: Branch manager of Works Civil Construction, regional construction manager of Works Civil Construction, regional manager of Transit New Zealand in Napier, general manager of Fulton Hogan, chief executive of Owens Cargo, chief executive of the Port of Tauranga, chief executive of Toll Owens.