The Port of Morrow has been the primary engine driving the Morrow County economy for decades. Its impact cannot be overstated.
Part of the success has been purely logistical — a port with river, interstate and rail access, plus plenty of room to grow.
But part, and we’d argue a big part, has been Gary Neal’s leadership as general manager. He’s customer service oriented, always finding ways to say “yes” to new development and new ideas. The port has flourished under his guidance, and the surrounding area has been the beneficiary.
So Neal’s impending retirement has been a matter of great interest. Finding someone with the combination of vision and acumen to take the helm is no easy task.
A four-month search ended with the job being offered to Gary Neal’s son, Ryan Neal, who has worked under his father at the port (though not reporting directly to him) for the last four years.
Family succession is commonplace in the business world. It’s only natural that someone raised in the family business would be an obvious choice to take it over.
But the Port of Morrow is no family business. It’s a public entity, funded by taxpayers and directed by five elected port commissioners. The role of general manager is comparable to a city manager. This kind of succession certainly warrants deeper scrutiny.
For starters, Ryan Neal is no slouch. His résumé, even with the last name removed, would rightfully catch the eye of a search committee. His history at large trucking companies, and his internal promotions while there, indicate that his success wasn’t some ploy of his father.
But there’s still the tricky issue of nepotism, or even its appearance. The timing of his arrival back in Boardman, and his quick rise to a leadership post at the port, is worthy of a raised eyebrow.
The port commission seemingly did its due diligence, expanding the search in June when it didn’t feel it had enough qualified candidates and putting four finalists in front of a panel to help find the pros and cons of each.
One of those finalists was tossed, another dropped out, and the decision came down to Neal and Stephanie Seamans, a CPA and economic development director in the Tri-Cities and previously at the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
According to Rick Stokoe, a port commissioner, Seamans had plenty of qualifications but was lacking a big one — experience at a port. It’s a reasonable drawback to consider.
There’s no overwhelming evidence that the last name made the difference. But there’s also no completely convincing answer that it didn’t.
The fact that Ryan Neal grew up in the community, has personal connections to the commissioners and stakeholders and has the current general manager on speed dial (and at Thanksgiving dinner) can be seen two ways. To the commissioners, he looks like a natural fit. To onlookers, he’s an unfair shoo-in.
Ultimately, its the port commission’s choice to make. Their positions will come up for election, and voters will have the option to change course if they disagree.
All five believe Neal 2.0 was the best option. Don Russell, a former commissioner with the port and now for Morrow County, said he thinks Ryan’s work will speak for itself and within two years we’ll “forget who his father is.”
For Ryan’s sake — and the port’s — we hope that’s the case. It’s an awfully large shadow to come out from under, and a job with big implications in Eastern Oregon life.