The search for a new Port of Morrow manager spanned several months and drew applicants from around the U.S., but the role will go to a homegrown candidate.

Ryan Neal, the current Port of Morrow Warehousing manager and son of longtime port manager Gary Neal, was selected on Aug. 7 from a pool of about 33 total applicants, after the port commission and several panels conducted interviews with Neal and three other finalists.

While the panels made suggestions, the five port commissioners unanimously made the final call to extend the job offer to Neal.

As Neal prepares to assume the job this fall, he said he plans to build on the rapid growth the port has seen, with both existing and new industries.

“We’re definitely an ag resource-based economy, but we’ll continue to diversify,” Neal said. “Obviously technology will continue to be a major part of it. But we’ll see — we seem to get leads all the time.”

Neal will step in at a time when the port has seen a boom in business, both from tenants and its own operations, in the last few years. He said his background in business, as well as his recent experience in Boardman, has given him skills he feels will serve the port.

“I think I have a lot of structure in my management style,” he said. “Working for companies that have corporate cultures, I understand the good and the bad that comes with that.”

He added that he’s developed an understanding of the interpersonal relationships with port clients and employees during his time with POM Warehousing.

“I think bridging those gaps in relationships is important to focus on, both at the state agency and at the business level,” he said.

A graduate of Riverside High School and Oregon State University, Neal started his career with Knight Transportation in Portland, where he worked for 10 years. After various roles in operations and business development, he moved to their corporate office in Phoenix.

He moved to Yakima in 2012 to become the director of operations at Haney Truck Line — a business he said had about 500 trucks and employees.

Looking to return to his hometown, Neal said he jumped at the opportunity to work at Port of Morrow Warehousing when the facility opened in 2015. The facility stores frozen vegetables before food processing companies ship the product to stores.

After working as the operations manager under director Jim Barnes, Neal took over the general manager position when Barnes retired in late 2016.

In that position, Neal said, he oversees about half of the Port of Morrow staff — about 61 people. He reports directly to his father.

“Our operating budget is approximately one-third of the port’s budget,” he said.

Board president Jerry Healy said the commissioners hired George Dunkel from the Special Districts Association of Oregon to recruit candidates. After the initial recruitment period, they asked Dunkel to expand the search to a wider geographic region, and ended up with 33 applicants.

Neal was selected after a search that started in late spring of this year, and ended with a day of interviews with three panels of community members and people from regional businesses and industries. Neal and the three other finalists went through the panel interviews. One was eliminated, another chose not to move forward, and Neal and finalist Stephanie Seamans were interviewed by the port commission.

Seamans is a Certified Public Accountant and the community and economic development manager for Benton-Franklin Council of Governments in the Tri-Cities. She worked for many years as a CPA and business development manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Seamans declined to comment for this story.

Port commission vice president Rick Stokoe said Seamans had many of the qualifications they wanted, but she did not have experience with ports.

Healy said Neal’s background, both with the port and at other businesses, made him a compelling candidate.

“He’s had a very successful marketing career,” Healy said. “He’s grown the businesses he’s worked with.”

Stokoe said the commission didn’t talk to the panels directly, but all the information was relayed to them through Dunkel.

“The panel didn’t make a recommendation to us — they told us their thoughts,” he said.

He said the commission asked the candidates an identical set of about 20 questions, including questions about their leadership style, and their willingness to move to Morrow County.

Though Neal will succeed his father in the position, both commissioners said the relationship ultimately had nothing to do with their decision.

“I was very concerned, as was SDAO, and Gary,” Healy said. “He’s been pretty walled-off from the process. He was not involved in any special meetings or phone calls regarding the hiring.”

Stokoe agreed.

“His relationship to Gary didn’t have anything to do with my decision,” he said. “We didn’t exclude anybody. We wanted input, we invited panelists from all over. If our sole intention was to hire Ryan, we didn’t have to open it up.”

Ryan Neal said he understands the scrutiny that comes with a public position, but didn’t feel the relationship had to do with his hiring, and said his father had no input or involvement in the process.

“I feel like my background in business development shows that I have the skills that align with what the executive director at the port needs,” he said. “I followed the process just like everybody else.”

Don Russell, a Morrow County commissioner and former Port of Morrow commissioner, has known Ryan Neal for many years, through his early career and time at the port.

“It seems like a bunch of guys from Morrow County ended up at Knight in Portland,” he said, noting that Neal was promoted quickly and rose through the ranks of the company.

He said the port works with the county regularly, including on the Enterprise Zone committee. That committee has two voting members each from the Port of Morrow, Morrow County and the city of Boardman. He said Neal will likely fill his father’s spot on that board.

Russell said he thinks Neal’s qualifications will speak for themselves.

“I believe in the next two years, Ryan Neal will make us all forget who his father is,” he said.

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Contact Jayati Ramakrishnan at 541-564-4534 or jramakrishnan@eastoregonian.com

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