TowneBank CEO named to port board

Published 11:01 pm Thursday, April 17, 2014

The CEO of Suffolk-based TowneBank, G. Robert Aston Jr., is one of five new commissioners on the Virginia Port Authority board, after a shakeup by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

With 49 years’ experience as a professional banker, Aston founded TowneBank, based in Harbour View, in 1998.

Prior to that, he had been president and CEO of BB&T of Virginia from January 1995 to June 1998, and president and CEO of Commerce Bank from April 1985 to January 1995.

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“I got a call, I guess it’s a couple of weeks ago, from the governor’s office, asking me if I would be willing to serve,” Aston said.

Aston has also served on the board of port operator Virginia International Terminals (VIT) “for many years.”

“I have been around that business, (and) I guess that’s what he was looking for: folks that had at least some experience in either the port authority, VIT or the maritime industry,” he said.

McAuliffe’s other appointees are: Alan Diamonstein of Newport News, who represented the Peninsula in the House of Delegates for more than 30 years; Gary T. McCollum of Virginia Beach, senior vice president and general manager for Cox Communications; Val McWhorter of Fairfax, a founding member of Tysons Corner law firm Smith Patcher McWhorter; and John G. Milliken of Arlington, a founding partner of law firm Venable LLP.

McAuliffe removed from the board five appointees of former Gov. Bob McDonnell: James Boyd, whose term was to expire in 2016; Jeffrey Wassmer, reappointed by McDonnell through 2017; Scott Bergeron, reappointed by McDonnell through 2017; Craig Coy, whose term was to expire in 2017, and Robert Stanton, reappointed by McDonnell through 2017.

A Suffolk connection also exists among the outgoing commissioners: Robert “Bob” Stanton was involved in the early days of developing Harbour View, and also Bennett’s Creek Crossing.

Incoming commissioners will serve the unexpired terms of the five departing members. McAuliffe has asked them to “act swiftly to improve the port’s fiscal management and return it to profitability,” according to his office.

The governor signaled a board shakeup was coming when, earlier this month, he announced that the port has been losing more money than port officials reported.

He also took issue with an offer APM had made to sell the state its APM Terminals Virginia, which McAuliffe deemed too high and subsequently jettisoned, as well as with the terms of the 20-year lease for the facility.

McAuliffe stated in Thursday’s news release, “Improving its (the Port of Virginia’s) performance is one of my top priorities. This team of Virginia leaders has the right experience and vision to strengthen the port financially and put it on the path toward long-term, sustainable growth.”

Aston began his career with Citizens Trust Company in 1964, rising through the ranks to serve as president and CEO from 1981 to 1985.

Asked if he agreed with the governor on the port’s recent checkered history, Aston said, “Decisions made in one era, sometimes when you look back at them from another era, don’t look so good.”

The port has a good customer base and strong leadership under port authority Executive Director and CEO John Reinhart, he said.

“I don’t think there’s anything there that we can’t make some adjustments to and fix,” Aston said, adding that the governor and the board want to make the port Virginia’s chief economic driver and jobs creator — “the jewel of the commonwealth.”

He said it was important to realize that “things started slipping for the port” back in 2008 and 2009, when the recession hit ports across the country as well as the economy generally.

“It’s been (in) recovery mode, really, for the last several years,” he said.

Working with Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne and Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney, McAuliffe evaluated “a number of candidates,” according to Rachel Thomas, his traveling press secretary.

“The governor is hopeful that with these new appointments, the Virginia Port Authority board, in conjunction with Secretary Layne and Executive Director John Reinhart, will work to ensure that the port is a sound investment for Virginia taxpayers and will usher in a new era of economic growth for Hampton Roads and the commonwealth,” she stated in an email.