CentrePort is maligned by some as a blot on Wellington's landscape, occupying prime waterfront land and sucking the life out of the central city.
But behind the wall of logs beats a heart that pumps nearly $2 billion a year through the region's economy. What actually goes on at the country's third largest port is a mystery to most.
A constant stream of trucks and trains delivers cargo from the region's exporters.
Gangly straddle carriers scurry around shuffling containers to feed huge cranes that load the ships, Cook Strait ferries come and go like the tide and, inside specialist warehouses, goods are processed.
And the last cruise ship of another record season called earlier this month.
CentrePort boss Blair O'Keeffe says Wellington has the best natural harbour in the country, with huge potential.
"It is deep, it's wide, it's sheltered, not withstanding that we get a bit of wind in Wellington. [And] it doesn't need maintenance dredging."
The main port covers 46 hectares, extending from the undeveloped Kaiwharawhara land reclamation north of the Interislander ferry terminal around to Waterloo Wharf, opposite New Zealand Post's head office.
Across the other side of the harbour, CentrePort's 23ha Seaview site houses one of the largest oil import hubs in the country, as well as the overflow for logs.
Other wharves along the waterfront, including Queens Wharf, are rented from Wellington Waterfront Development as required.
Port detractors point to the vast area of prime waterfront land the port occupies that could be better put to public use.
The latest proposal is for a 12,000-seat concert venue on land used to store logs.
This goes to the heart of the lack of understanding of how a port functions, O'Keeffe says.
"A lot of people look at our business and just see land and they don't see the economic role necessary for the business.
"Because, over time, the size of the land attached to the business has compressed, I think some people think that the port itself has shrunk in terms of its relevance, but it is quite the opposite.
"We are doing more than ever before on a small piece of land through technology and changes in the way things work."
Just 10 per cent of a port's land consists of wharves; the rest is used to store and marshal cargo. The port uses this land to "breathe", O'Keeffe says.
The port should be seen as an "economic muscle rather than a land mass".
Port turnover has grown more than 40 per cent in the last four years to $71 million and underlying profit is up 43 per cent to nearly $15m over that time.Ad Feedback
Last year, a dividend of $4m flowed back to ratepayers via the port's two owners, the Greater Wellington regional council and Horizons Regional Council.
BEFORE taking up the helm at CentrePort three years ago, O'Keeffe spent 16 years with BP in a variety of senior roles around the world.
The 41-year-old joined the energy conglomerate as a graduate and left as vice-president of marketing for North America Gas and Power.
In between, he built the AA Rewards loyalty programme in which BP is a key partner, sold BP's LPG and commercial gas company in New Zealand, and was involved in the takeover of oil company Castrol.
At 32 he was sent to Europe to head Castrol Commercial in Britain and Ireland.
"That was a fundamental experience for me, being a young leader of a fairly mature business in a different country."
A stint on the European leadership team for Castrol followed, overseeing a portfolio of 42 countries and a brief to find US$100m (NZ$122m) in benefits for the company through better pricing and cost-cutting within a year.
Family, and a desire to apply his skills in a different, albeit smaller organisation, drew O'Keeffe and his wife, Kate, home from his final United States posting.
"One of the things that I have discovered through my career is that the scale of the numbers doesn't matter that much. It is actually about what you are doing and the business itself.
"This is the best job I have ever had. There is just so much going on at any given point in time with it. We are literally plugged into nearly every part of the economy in one form or another."
The last year has been one of records for the key trading parts of the port, including the number of containers moved, logs exported and cruise ship visits.
About 100,000 containers crossed the wharf last year, accounting for about a third of the port's revenue.
The container terminal is one of the most productive in Australasia, something O'Keeffe puts down to the use of technology and a flexible workforce.
Container terminal staff are employed by CentrePort on a guaranteed number of hours. A callup system means staff work when work is there to be done. "That is a vital part of running a successful port," O'Keeffe says.
Casual labour pools can be called on to cope with peak demand. Labour for all non-containerised cargo is contracted out to third parties.
Ship diversions during the Ports of Auckland industrial dispute proved that the port could handle the equivalent of 260,000 containers a year using existing facilities, he says.
With more master planning and adding new technology, the container terminal could handle up to 400,000 containers a year.
That capacity to grow may be needed if the use of irrigation is expanded in the Wairarapa and the Manawatu to convert more land to dairying, and a strategy to develop a national distribution hub at the port succeeds.
The log trade is experiencing a "bit of a perfect storm" due to huge demand from China and plenty of supply from lower North Island forestry firms, he says.
Log volumes have grown threefold in recent years to 600,000 tonnes a year and are expected to "keep chunking up".
Last month, the first logging train arrived from the Wairarapa, after years of planning. Eventually about a fifth of all logs will be delivered by rail.
It is hoped to develop a similar service from the Manawatu.
By far the most spectacular success story of the last five years has been the five-fold growth in visits by cruise ships.
About 180,000 passengers and crew passed through the port this season, spending $30m. That could be boosted by up to another 20,000 people next year, with 91 cruise ship visits already confirmed, O'Keeffe says.
The public perception is one of valuable cruise tourists being forced to disembark on a wind-swept wharf surrounded by logs, cars and containers, rather than at one of the inner-city wharves.
But O'Keeffe says there is not enough room to manoeuvre the big ships safely in strong wind close to the city, and at an average length of 250 metres, they are too long even for the Overseas Passenger Terminal wharf.
"By next year we will have over 20 per cent of the cruise ships calling being over 300 metres long, and the next generation is going to be 340 metres long. They are floating cities, basically."
SIMILARLY, both inter-island ferry operators will eventually move to Kaiwharawhara, where much-needed space can be developed to cater for the growing Cook Strait freight demand and bigger ferries.
O'Keeffe wants to take advantage of Wellington's strategic position in the centre of the country to develop a domestic distribution hub, competing with Auckland and Christchurch.
"When you look at the international and domestic demands, the freight task in New Zealand is expected to double over the next 20 years," he says.
"Wherever anyone goes in New Zealand, we are on the way. So I think we are really well situated to have a highly relevant role in both the domestic and international supply-chain solutions for the future.
"We are in the middle of the country. We are probably one of the most blessed ports in the country in terms of intermodal access. We have got the national rail, the national road system that docks across the road or on our property."
In 2006, CentrePort also became a commercial property developer, with the 6ha Harbour Quays project fronting Waterloo Quay.
The project features three top-grade office buildings leased to the Bank of New Zealand, Customs and Statistics New Zealand. ACC has bought a 50 per cent stake in those buildings.
The NZ Rugby Union and TelstraClear have also taken up residence in refurbished buildings.
The development is expected to take 20 years to complete, at a total cost of about $500m, with the area's population growing from about 3500 now to about 6000.
But rival property developers and retailers say the development will draw the life out of the city centre.
"Our view is that we are meeting the needs of the market," O'Keeffe says. "Fundamentally, people want large, new, close-to-the-waterfront offices where they can consolidate into one location."
He sees the precinct as an extension to the city's waterfront by adding back public spaces.
A new master plan for the port, looking out 50 years and including land and infrastructure development requirements, is due to be completed later this year.