Arnold Donald on leaving the Carnival CEO role: Let's bring in the next generation

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At Seatrade (from left), BBC news anchor Lucy Hockings, Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald and Royal Caribbean Group EO Jason Liberty.
At Seatrade (from left), BBC news anchor Lucy Hockings, Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald and Royal Caribbean Group EO Jason Liberty. Photo Credit: Andrea Zelinski

When Arnold Donald took the helm as CEO of Carnival Corp. in 2013, he was only the third CEO in the line's 41-year history and the first not named Arison.

Nine years later, Donald is stepping down from a tenure that included (but is not limited to) sending the first cruise ship from the U.S. to Cuba in 50 years, introducing the revolutionary Ocean Medallion technology and keeping the company afloat through the pandemic-era ban on cruising. 

He is also widely acknowledged for having changed the culture at the world's largest cruise company for the better.  

Donald will be succeeded by Josh Weinstein, Carnival Corp.'s COO, and will become vice chair of the company's board.

The news broke less than 90 minutes before Donald sat on a panel at the 2022 Seatrade Cruise Global conference in Miami Beach.

"I'm sure you know that you are a hot topic of conversation, I think, for many people this morning," moderator and BBC news anchor Lucy Hockings said to Donald. 

He deflected, preferring to talk about the industry's rebound and sustainability efforts, but he recognized Weinstein, who was in the crowd. 

"I'm really excited for Josh and even more excited for me," he said.

Arnold Donald holding Princess Cruises' Ocean Medallion.
Arnold Donald holding Princess Cruises' Ocean Medallion.

Donald told the audience that his biggest challenge coming into the job was getting Carnival's nine independent brands to collaborate. He said the pandemic brought those brands closer together. 

When asked why he was stepping down, Donald said, "I think it's important to get the next generation in. Everything's coming back, and we can see where we're headed. I think things are set up great for somebody new to come in with a solid foundation and platform to build on." 

And, he added, about his nine-year tenure, "That's a long time for a CEO."

Jim Cramer called Donald a 'turnaround artist'

Donald would be forgiven for thinking his nine years were particularly long. When he took the helm in 2013, Carnival Corp. was reeling from the fallout of a fire that left the Carnival Triumph floating off Mexico without power for days, as well as the 2012 sinking of the Costa Concordia. The events led to a decline in both consumer and investor confidence. Travel advisors had become disenchanted with Carnival, which had a less-than-stellar reputation with the trade. 

Arnold was very approachable and a great spokesperson for the cruise industry.– Brad Tolkin, World Travel Holdings co-CEO

Chairman and then-CEO Micky Arison asked Donald, who had been on Carnival's board for more than a decade, to replace him after a 34-year run as chief. (Arison stayed on as chairman and will continue that role when Donald becomes vice chair.) 

Under Donald's leadership, the company achieved record profits and tripled its corporate earnings between 2013 and 2019. In 2017, after Carnival beat an earnings estimate, Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's "Mad Money," said that Donald was "the man who may be the best turnaround artist of our time."

Donald's first message to travel advisors in 2013 was that the nine brands had "some work to do" to rebuild credibility with them. Carnival Corp. brand leadership became more agent-friendly and more diverse under Donald, who is Black.

At Holland America Line, he appointed its first Black brand president, Orlando Ashford, and at its largest brand, Carnival Cruise Line, he appointed its first female president, Christine Duffy, a former corporate travel advisor. 

"Arnold was very approachable and a great spokesperson for the cruise industry," said Brad Tolkin, co-CEO of World Travel Holdings. "He made some bold leadership changes that were both good for the brands of Carnival Corp. and for the cruise industry's largest customer: the travel professional. He always preached that the professional travel counselor was the best way to put their client on the right product."

Michelle Fee, CEO of Cruise Planners, said that Donald made "incredible strides and innovations that helped bring more new-to-cruise clients into the industry." 

Environmental transgressions

Donald's tenure also had its blemishes. In 2016, Carnival Corp. received the Justice Department's largest fine on record for illegally dumping waste into the ocean in 2013 and falsifying ship records. Its nine brands were put on a five-year probation, which Carnival Corp. was subsequently fined for violating. At a hearing, Donald said, "I sincerely regret these mistakes. I do take responsibility for the problems we had." 

He also declared his commitment to being "best in class for compliance," and since 2016 Carnival has invested more than $350 million in energy-efficiency improvements and announced the goal of being net carbon-neutral by 2050. It was the first company to launch cruise ships powered by liquefied natural gas, which is considered more environmentally friendly than traditional bunker fuel.

Enter the Covid-19 pandemic

Donald's final two years were spent keeping Carnival Corp. afloat during the pandemic, during which the company raised $29 billion in new capital. It also embarked on an unprecedented fleet-reduction program, removing 19 of its oldest ships. 

"His leadership has been instrumental in helping the Carnival Corp. brands, those who work in the industry and especially travel advisors to stay afloat during the pandemic," said Fee. "We know in his new role ... he will continue to support travel advisors and their contributions to this great industry."

Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report from Miami Beach.

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