Seaspan captain maps out $15 billion opportunity: CEO Series

Apr 04, 2013
Jonathan Whitworth, CEO of Seaspan being interviewed at the Beedie School of Business by CKNW host Bill Good.

Jonathan Whitworth, CEO of Seaspan being interviewed at the Beedie School of Business by CKNW host Bill Good.

The spring series of CKNW 980’s “The Chief Executives” continued with Jonathan Whitworth, CEO of marine services organization Seaspan, describing his remarkable career path to CKNW host Bill Good, as well as offering his opinion on BC’s promising economy in front of a live audience at the Segal Graduate School.

The event was part of an ongoing partnership between the Beedie School of Business and prominent Vancouver radio station CKNW News Talk 980 to bring leadership and business insights from some of Canada’s top executives to SFU’s downtown Vancouver campus.

The interview opened with an intriguing revelation, as Whitworth explained that he knew from a young age that he was destined to go into the nautical industry.

He described how his father, who also worked in the industry, put him on a ship to South America at the age of 11, in order to find out whether he was suited to a life on the seas. When it became apparent that he had discovered a passion for it, Whitworth followed up the initial voyage with two further trips south over the next three years.

“My dad took a gamble to see if the sea and the shipping industry interested me, and luckily it paid off as I fell in love with it,” said Whitworth. “I was always an average student in school, but when I started at a maritime academy I excelled at my studies because I had found a program that I loved. Life takes off when u find something u want to do and I was very lucky to find that at 11.”

The topic of conversation inevitably then moved on to the 2011 award of an eight billion dollar shipbuilding contract to Seaspan from the Canadian federal government. Whitworth described the challenges both Seaspan and BC as a whole faced as a result of this contract, but also stressed that these challenges would result in net benefits for the province.

“I have worked around the world, with the exception of China, and BC currently has the most opportunity I have ever seen,” he insisted.

With the shipbuilding industry having been largely non-existent in BC for the past 30 years, there currently exists a distinct lack of professional talent for Seaspan to hire from within the province. Whitworth explained that while they will look further afield for talent initially, they intend to work with universities across BC to nurture talent to fulfill the contract in future.

“This is an opportunity for people currently in high school to build a lifelong career in shipbuilding in BC,” said Whitworth. “Until now we have been living in a boom or bust industry. We would get a contract to build two ferries but would then have to lay everyone off after three years when the job was complete. To have the federal government backing is great – we are now not providing jobs, we’re providing careers.”

Whitworth also explained the strategy the company will take in attracting business to the revived shipbuilding industry in BC when competitors may have an existing competitive advantage.

He revealed that Seaspan would stick to what it does best and not look to take on established ship builders in Korea and China in building many varieties of ships. With companies such as BC Ferries in the process of renewing their existing fleet of vessels, Seaspan will concentrate on customers like this who are looking for products they have a history of successfully providing.

Asked about his leadership style, Whitworth revealed the three things that keep him up at night: execution, execution, execution. “I believe that you have to have a balance between strategic and tactical,” he said. “You have to figure out where the company is going, but you also have to be able to execute that plan. People say to me that with the new contract I must sleep soundly, but the minute you stop worrying about the future is the minute things start to go wrong.”

Over the course of a fascinating interview Whitworth also discussed his belief in respecting others regardless of their lot in life; the fact that despite working in the nautical industry for his entire life he does not own his own boat; Seaspan’s plans for quadrupling their workforce in certain sectors of their business over the next few years; and his work/life balance – which he admitted he does not do a great job with, as his job is very much his hobby.

As Good closed the interview with his customary Vanity Fair question – which four people, alive or dead, would the interviewee choose to have dinner with – Whitworth ended reminiscing about his father. “My father passed away in a shipping accident when I was 14,” he said. “He put me on a ship at a stupid age and it was the starting point of my career. He didn’t get to see what happened, but it is because of him that I am here today.”

To see all the CEO interviews from the 2013 CKNW Chief Executives Series, visit http://beedie.sfu.ca/events/2013-cknw-ceo-series/

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