2016 BC CEO Awards: Jonathan Whitworth

Giving berth to excellence

Jonathan Whitworth, CEO, Seaspan ULC, fell in love with the ocean at a young age | Photo: Chung Chow

To understand the enterprising nature of Jonathan Whitworth, CEO of Seaspan ULC, picture him as a fresh-faced 11-year-old standing on the windswept bridge wing of a 50,000-tonne, 1,000-foot cargo ship, bleached white pilothouse over his shoulder and the Gulf of Mexico before him.

“My father was a ship’s captain,” said Whitworth. “When I was 11 my father decided that it was time for me to go to sea. Alone. Believe it or not, he sent me on a six-week voyage from Houston, Texas, to South America on a cargo ship where I didn’t know anybody, and where the only person who spoke English was the captain.”

For the son of a seaman, passage through the Panama Canal proved a fitting rite, one that revealed to Whitworth the depth of his character and the strength of his instincts. It also gave him a head start on growing up.

“It was an injection of adulthood,” he said. “I learned how to be resourceful, how to think on my feet. I learned street smarts.”

More than that, the experience ignited what would become his career passion. “I loved being out at sea. Being out on the water, seeing the vastness of the ocean and knowing that I was on a very large piece of steel, I just felt that was cool.”

Following high school he kept his feet dry long enough to earn a business degree at Texas A&M University at Galveston’s ocean sciences campus. But like a receding tide his need for adventure once again drew him back out to sea.

He spent six years working his way up the seafarer ranks while sailing the globe. When he wasn’t swabbing the deck he was hitting the books, working his way toward an MBA in finance with a focus on marine business.

In the early 1990s, Exxon was taking on water in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster. It brought Whitworth on board to quietly dump its shipping line overboard. For five hard-fought years he worked to dismantle the company’s ocean transport business, all the while wishing he were building one instead. He realized that dream at Teekay, where he was made president of one of its global shipping divisions.

Publicly traded MariTrans had noticed his work, and brought him over to be that company’s CEO. During the ensuing four years Whitworth raised the company’s share value from $13 to $27. The sharks started circling, and the company sold for $37.50 a share.

Retained by the purchaser to run it as a subsidiary, Whitworth felt the acquisition had taken the wind out of the company’s sails. “It was never really the same,” he said, adding that he counted the experience as an object lesson in the value of company culture.

By then, someone had passed his name to the Washington family, owner of Seaspan Marine Corp., and the tide began to turn once more. In 2009, he was named CEO.

Nancy McKenzie, CFO at Seaspan, remembers how Whitworth first approached the rest of the team.

“Before he started Day 1 he arranged to have a meeting with the executive team off-site, just to get to know everyone and tell his life’s story,” McKenzie said. Since joining Seaspan, Whitworth has nurtured the company’s growth from 1,200 employees in 2009 to twice that today. It’s a vivid contrast to the company’s bleak outlook just a few years ago.

In 2009 Seaspan laid off 50% of its shipyard workers. “In 2010, we were sucking wind,” Whitworth said. But that same year, the federal government announced its was accepting bids from shipbuilders for more than 15 ships for the Canadian Coast Guard and navy.

“When we saw that, wow – talk about energized,” he said.

Winning the $8 billion contract marked a turning point for the company. It also affirmed the decision to place Whitworth at the wheel.

“He’s a very resilient person, very clever, a strategic thinker, inquisitive, and he has a deep passion for the ocean,” McKenzie said. “All that comes through in his leadership.” 

Join us to celebrate this year’s honourees at the 2016 BC CEO Awards November 1, 2016, hosted at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. For tickets and event info, visit www.biv.com/ceo.