by Kelly Brooks
As a scrawny eighth-grader at St. Augustine High School, Arnold Donald carried two book bags. One was his purple and gold St. Augustine bag. The other was a larger, plain knapsack. He used that one to hide the St. Augustine backpack.
He wasn’t ashamed of being a Purple Knight. He knew his parents had sacrificed, “scraping up the money” to send him to St. Philip the Apostle school and later to St. Augustine. He was the youngest of five reared by parents who only had eighth-grade educations, but who made sure that Donald and all four of his siblings went to college. Still, back when he was a young teen, he simply wanted to avoid razzing from the bigger boys in the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood he called home as he traveled to and from the famed 7th Ward school. If he didn’t hide the St. Aug bag, Donald was sure “I was going get my butt kicked. They were going beat the crap out of me.”
And he had good reason to fear that some of the kids in his hood back then would give him a hard time, says the Fortune 500 CEO. As a young boy, Donald used to deliver Louisiana Weekly newspapers. “It was the end of my first week. I waited all week to get paid,” he says. “I get paid, and they jacked me.”
Donald recollects all of this with levity, without the slightest hint of ill will in his tone, counting it has par for the course—more or less—as he came of age when and where he did. But as he grew older, wiser and a little bigger he worried less about what bullies in his neighborhood thought about or might do to him and focused more on what his teachers and mentors and St. Augustine had to say.
“At St. Augustine, we were told three times a day ‘gentlemen, prepare yourselves because one day you are going to run the world.’ ”
Today, the world that Donald runs is Carnival Corporation & PLC, the world’s largest leisure travel company, where he has served as president & CEO since July 2013. The company’s portfolio contains 10 leading global brands based in four continents and include Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Seabourn, AIDA Cruises, Costa Cruises, Cunard, P&O Cruises UK, P&O Cruises Australia and Fathom. Traded on both the New York and London stock exchanges, Carnival Corporation brands maintain a fleet of more than 100 ships and serve more than 11.5 million customers each year in 700 ports in 144 countries around the world.
In a recent telephone interview with The New Orleans Tribune, Donald was candid about some of the challenges he faced five years ago when he took the helm at Carnival.
Financially, the corporation had fallen from its peak, with low single-digit returns and stock values that had steadily decreased over eight years. All of this was going on as the cruise industry, in general, battled a negative media image.
And other challenges Donald faced had to do with his being appointed to the job altogether.
He served on Carnival’s board before being named its CEO. “There were some (executive-level employees) that loved me as a board member,” he says, “but I had just taken the job they wanted. So there were a number of dynamics there.”
Despite the challenges, Donald says he also found some pleasant surprises as he began to guide Carnival Corporation.
“I really didn’t understand the degree of passion and commitment from our employees until I became CEO. I observed it, but I didn’t grasp it.”
It was a reality that Donald decided to use to his advantage, embarking on a listening tour five years ago, where he not only reached out to members of Carnival’s leadership team, but to employees at all levels and to guests.
“I listened to everybody,” he says. “And I asked the right questions. The results have been fantastic.”
Carnival is back to double-digit earnings and has double investment return.
Donald is also proud of the diversity he has helped to engineer within the Carnival organization.
Today, Carnival Corporation (not including the brands) has 537 employees, of which 283 or about 53 percent are ethnic minorities. About 30 percent of Donald’s direct reports are women or minorities, including the general counsel and five of the leaders who oversee our cruise line brands. Carnival Corporation’s board of directors is also diverse, with women and minorities representing 40 percent of the board of directors.
“Our chief procurement officer is an African-American woman. The head of cybersecurity is an African-American man. Out of our 10 brands, we have four women leading, one African-American leading,” Donald says. “That didn’t exist before I came.”
As he marks his fifth year as CEO, Donald sees all of the accomplishments so far as just the beginning.
“We’re just getting started,” he says. “That’s the base. That’s what we build on.”
While running a fortune 500 company takes up a lot of the Ninth Ward native’s time, it doesn’t stop him from repping his city and returning whenever he can. He is a member of Rex and a diehard Saints and Purple Knight fan who was in Miami at the big game the night the Black & Gold won the Super Bowl in 2010. And when he had the opportunity to lay claim to some Leonard Fournette memorabilia, Donald made it clear that he didn’t care to have the LSU paraphernalia worn by fourth overall pick in the NFL’s 2017 draft. Instead, he wanted a St. Augustine football helmet signed by Fournette. He keeps it in his office with his Drew Brees jersey, of course.
“I love the city,” Donald says. (New Orleans) is an important part of my life and always will be.”