Cardinal Cadence Spring/Summer 2013

New authority

Panama Canal Authority CEO Jorge QuijanoAs civil engineering projects go, the $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal is far from the largest underway today, but, in terms of impact, the world is taking note. Completion of the project will result in changes in shipping world-wide, creating new opportunities for ports in the U.S. and elsewhere that are preparing to handle the larger post-Panamax class of ships that will be able to use the new locks.

Lamar University alumnus and CEO of the Panama Canal Authority, Jorge Quijano ’73, ’74, is at the helm of the expansion program.

Considered by many the eighth wonder of the world, the canal cuts through 50 miles of jungle and solid rock, providing a 10-hour shortcut from the Pacific to the Atlantic instead of a two-week passage around South America. The marvel of engineering begun and abandoned by the French, then resumed and completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has been in operation since 1914. Ships are lifted by a series of locks 85 feet to the level of man-made Gatún Lake, then lowered to sea level through a second series of locks. When the canal was opened, it set the standard for ship builders worldwide. In the decades that passed, a new class of super cargo ships emerged, carrying up to three times the cargo and threatening to relegate the canal to the dustbin of history.

When the U.S. began passing control of the canal to the people of Panama in 1979, a process of restoration of the existing locks and canal began, and the vision of expanding its capacity through a new series of locks to maintain the country’s position as a leading player in international commerce was born.

The project will double the Panama Canal’s capacity when it begins operation in 2015, allowing more and larger ships to transit. The new locks increase the maximum vessel size from 4,400 TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit used to measure capacity on the standard 20-foot shipping container) to 14,000 TEU. The project creates a new lane of traffic along the canal by construction of two new lock complexes, one each on the Atlantic and Pacific sides, each with three chambers and three water-saving basins, along with excavation of new access channels, widening and deepening of the navigation channels, and raising the elevation of Gatún Lake’s maximum operating level.

Quijano and his wife, Marcia, were in Beaumont in February when he attended meetings of the Civil Engineering Advisory Council and presented a program on the canal expansion to Lamar faculty and students as well as to members of the community, including representatives from the ports of Houston, Beaumont and Port Arthur. During the visit, Quijano received the Texas Industrial Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his work and dedication to the industrial engineering profession, and was named an Honorary Citizen of Texas by Texas Senate resolution.

During his visit, Quijano highlighted the impact of the Panama Canal expansion on the U.S. Gulf of Mexico ports, focusing on those located in Texas.

“An important number of the vessels of various segments that transit the canal today have as port of origin or destination the U.S. Gulf of Mexico ports. Furthermore, once the Panama Canal expansion is concluded, there is also a great potential for exports of shale gas from this specific area that could use our waterway to markets in the Pacific,” Quijano said.

A native of Panama City, Republic of Panama, Quijano did not find English challenging when he came to Lamar in 1971. His father served in the consular corps for Panama, so Jorge had attended English-speaking schools in Japan and Malaysia where he graduated high school.

Choosing Lamar was partly a question of finances, Quijano said. “My father wanted to send me to the States and said, ‘This is your budget.”’ So, I had to look for a college supported by the state,” he said. He applied to and was accepted by Texas Tech, UT-Arlington and UT-El Paso, but it was the curriculum that attracted him to Lamar.

“College was the experience of leaving home and being on your own on a tight budget,” he said. Given one check to cover the entire semester, he knew he would have to make it stretch until time to fly home. That meant living frugally—lots of window shopping and traveling by bus rather than his ’65 GTO (at the height of the Arab oil embargo) to visit his girlfriend and future wife in Denton, where she was attending Texas Woman’s University.

He first considered majoring in electrical engineering, but several of his cousins who were civil engineers thought opportunities would be better for him in Panama if he earned an industrial engineering degree.

“Industrial engineering requires learning a lot about all the other disciplines,” Quijano said. “At Lamar, we had great hands-on teachers that came out of industry. And I had the opportunity to work a little bit in the industry that helped me put all the things together, the academics with the actual work in the field.” Quijano worked part time for Rucker-Shaffer on blowout preventers in a student assistant job his department chair helped arrange.

His cousin’s advice proved sound. Within 15 days of graduating from Lamar, Quijano had two job interviews and was soon working at the Texaco refinery in Panama. That first job exposed him to many aspects of chemical and process engineering. He also served as the plant’s cargo manager, scheduling just-in-time pickup of excess product that was shipped to the U.S.

He started his career with the Panama Canal in 1975, holding positions of increasing responsibility in the organization, and, in 1999, he became director of maritime operations, the largest department at the canal, the leading interoceanic waterway that serves worldwide maritime commerce.

In 2006, he was designated to manage the Panama Canal’s $5.25 billion expansion program and was appointed executive vice president of the Engineering and Programs Management Department in 2007. In September 2012, he was named CEO of the Panama Canal Authority.

The increase in the size of the new locks over the old was limited not only by the considerable cost of construction but also by the availability of water. Because fresh water that accumulates in Gatún Lake in central Panama is used to move the ships through the locks, it limits the ultimate number of transits that can be made. Thanks to an ingenious water-saving design, the new, larger locks use a third less water per transit than the old locks. The existing locks will continue to operate alongside the new locks.

“You can manage machines rather well, do linear programming very well and all you need is one guy to make a mess of things,” Quijano said. “So as soon as you become a supervisor of more than three people, you have to invest in updating yourself with the managing of human resources.” He is a graduate of executive management courses at the Federal Executive Institute, Charlottesville, Va., and Northwestern University, Chicago, Ill.

Working with thousands of professionals of 36 nationalities and many unions requires thoughtful leadership. “It takes time to build a relationship of trust and construct over that a win-win situation,” Quijano said. “If there’s not trust, you don’t get anywhere. That’s something you don’t get from engineering school.”

Jorge and Marcia’s son earned a degree in Wales and has been practicing maritime law in Panama for more than a decade. Their daughter also works in Panama.

Marcia earned a degree in physical therapy and biology and began working in Panama in bio-tech but later changed career paths, earning an MBA and then a master’s degree in human resources. “The opportunity to help people really enthused me,” Marcia said of her work helping the more than 10,000 employees of the Canal Authority during her 36-year career. She resigned from her position the day before Jorge’s appointment as CEO, and the couple now makes their home in a newly refurbished 1906 plantation home that was the governor’s home overseeing the Culebra Cut through the Continental Divide. The location includes gardens that Marcia looks forward to bringing to life and is a three-minute walk from Jorge’s office.

Completion of the canal expansion has huge implications for Panama’s 3.5 million people, but the transit of cargo is only part of the picture. Panama’s ports on both sides of the country are expanding operations as part of continued growth of the country’s logistics centers, or “Hub of the Americas as we want to call it,” Quijano said. Increasingly, Panama’s ports are used for distribution of cargo from Asia throughout North and South America.

The challenges are tremendous, but the rewards make the effort worthwhile. “I have enjoyed every minute, if not second, of it,” Quijano said of his nearly four decades with the Panama Canal. When the new super cargo ships begin to transit the Isthmus of Panama in 2015, the nation will ensure its place as a leading player in international commerce with the capacity to change the very way we do business around the world for decades to come.

by Brian Sattler