Pamela Conover - Taking Control of the Seas
Benjamin S. B. Lyons
very mention of the name Cunard Line conjures up a host of black
and white images: of the four-funneled liner Mauretania steaming
at full speed, of the famous Queen Mary and Queen
Elizabeth crossing the Atlantic, or of white gloved staff
serving afternoon tea in proper British fashion. Today, a woman
who took a most unconventional route to the top leads Cunard
as it returns to embracing its traditions and roots that stretch
back over 160 years.
Pamela Conover's career, she has chosen her own unique path,
working her way up from the very bottom of a bank to her current
position as today's only female president of a major cruise
line. While she holds no college degree, she is widely regarded
as one of the most intelligent and perceptive executives in
the cruise industry and is tasked with developing and building
what is the biggest new cruiseship project in decades. With
her enthusiasm and drive, she plans on remaining at Cunard for
many more years, ensuring her personal stamp on Cunard Line
and cruising will be felt for years to come.
most of her youth 35 miles outside of London, she was mostly
unexposed to the shipping scene or the grand ocean liners still
in service then. Despite being accepted to the University of
London to study geography and anthropology, Conover decided
she couldn't "face it at that time — [university] just
didn't seem like a particularly viable or interesting option.
So I took a one-year postponement to work." Starting as
a cashier, or as she describes, "the lowest of the low,"
at Wells Fargo bank she slowly started working her way up the
the end of the year, Conover realized she "was enjoying
it too much and was quite sure that geography was not in my
future," and so she decided to continue to work her way
up the financial ladder in London for five years. She credits
this time with starting to develop her work ethic that would
contribute to her career.
"I think initially [being a woman]
certainly helped — it forced me to work harder and prove myself
more, and all of that has held me in good stead. It means now
I have perhaps more drive and determination than I might have
1979, she was transferred to the New York office, where she
found "the business environment in New York was a lot easier
and more dynamic for me as a woman," but soon left Wells
Fargo in 1981 to become assistant treasurer for United States
Line, a venerable American steamship company.
for much of the cash management during a time of expansion for
the company, she worked on financing a couple of billion dollars
for all the containers, infrastructure, chassis and cranes.
This is also where Conover says she first became fascinated
with ships, explaining, "The thing about ships are that
they are very tangible, very real. You can see them, feel them,
kick them. They are also vital links in world commerce."
1985, with the expansion over and work drying up, Conover left
United States Lines to join Citicorp in their ship financing
division. The timing was most opportune — US Lines would shortly
go bankrupt and the cruise industry was just starting to boom.
loved the cruise industry right from the start, explaining,
"Cruising simply captured me the most — it was such a fabulous
industry and it was growing so much."
Conover's biggest client during this time was Carnival Corporation,
and as she facilitated the company's ravenous growth to become
the largest cruiseline in the world, she also rose to become
managing director of Citibank's North American ship financing
recognized her talents and in 1994, she was asked to become
president of a joint venture between Carnival and a family owned
Greek line, Epirotiki cruises. Describing it as simply as "too
good an opportunity to pass up," she left Citicorp to manage
the new cruiseline.
soon understood that ships are complex machines, full of variables
that are never experienced on more stable, shoreside operations
and not apparent to those on the outside looking in.
"I think I had suddenly realized what a complex logistical
business it is. You coordinated not only marine and technical
but also hotel elements in combination with sales and marketing,"
she said. "There were very varied components that go into
running a company. Put it this way — I was very enthusiastic
and so I was determined to learn as much as I could very quickly.
But clearly there was a learning curve."
one year, due to differences in management philosophy between
the profit-driven entrepreneurial Carnival and the family owned
Greek line, the companies went their separate ways. Conover
said, "I learned that it was very difficult to have
two cultures that think and act very differently about things
held on to Conover, however, and she became head of strategic
planning for Carnival Corporation. During her tenure, Carnival
continued its dizzying expansion by acquiring more cruiselines
and building new ships. In 1998, Carnival Corporation, originally
known for its party oriented "Fun Ships," acquired
Cunard Line, the most famous name in shipping.
very much enjoyed my time doing the acquisition of Cunard, but
I really missed the day-to-day operational management of the
ships which I had been doing in Epirotiki," she said. "I
really wanted to go back to that."
saw a prime opportunity with Cunard. "Given its British
heritage, it was a natural affinity for me. I wanted to be involved."
then "put [her] name forward" and in 1998 became Chief
Operating Officer of Cunard Line Ltd, an expanded company controlling
both Cunard and Seabourn Cruise Line.
further admits mistakes during her first two years as Carnival
tried to rebuild Cunard Line from a fleet of disparate mostly
older ships without much strategy into the money making company
that Carnival demanded.
"I can't not take responsibility for some of what were
not the correct decisions then. In retrospect, [merging Cunard
and Seabourn operations] was not the right thing. By not having
separate brand teams we lost the focus and identification. We
took a very nice Seabourn brand and tried to squeeze round pegs
into a square hole and confused everybody."
however, Conover and then President Larry Pimentel decided upon
a strategy where Cunard and Seabourn were both going to return
to their roots. Cunard would focus on a traditional cruise experience
onboard classic British vessels while Seabourn would return
to operating its original three luxury mega-yachts. In 2001,
Pimentel left Cunard for personal reasons, promoting Conover
to President. Soon thereafter, Debbie Natansohn, who was the
first woman ever to run a cruiseline when she headed Orient
Lines, was appointed as Senior VP of Sales and Marketing.
both companies are solidly back on top and Cunard Line is building
the Queen Mary 2, the first transatlantic
liner since the QE2 in 1969. When completed in 2004,
QM2 will be the largest passenger ship ever and is already
attracting enormous publicity. Conover, who has worked extensively
on the project since its inception, modestly predicts the
QM2 will be, "one of if not the most famous ship in
Cunard focusing more on the growing British market, Conover
splits her time between Cunard's Miami and Southampton offices.
No matter where she is, her days are long.
Conover at the Keel Laying Ceremony for Queen Mary 2.
For the coin ceremony, a £5 Golden Jubilee coin and
a silver 100 French Franc were placed into the keel of QM2
by Conover and Patrick Boissier (Chantiers de l'Atlantique).
I'm in the States, I'm at work by 6:45 and work till 7 at night.
If I'm in Southampton, I'm at the office at 7:30 and stay till
9 at night since Miami is still open," she explains. "I
spend a lot of the day in meetings — I really only tend to catch
up on reading on airplanes. At the moment, there are also meetings
for the development of QM2
and design meetings
for the new Cunarder we are building in Italy."
from day-to-day review of how many phone calls we got and how
many bookings we made, this is just daily routine. I am always
getting briefed by each operational area with what's going on
and I try to balance day-to-day operations with longer term
strategic plans." Conover also receives shipboard department
voyage reports from each ship, with topics ranging from passenger
satisfaction surveys to mechanical or safety regulation issues.
running a cruiseline from two sides of the Atlantic, she still
manages to squeeze in time with her family. "I wake up
at 4:45 a.m. when in Florida to run with my dogs, which is sort
of crazy. I try and spend a little time with my husband - but
between him and the pets and the work and travel, it's all I
have time for!"
Conover, the best part about the job is "being in the business
of providing extraordinary experiences for people — fulfilling
their dreams and creating vacations of a lifetime
a great feeling to be involved with really allowing people to
be able to spend time by themselves."
also spends time checking on the fleet, visiting the ships when
they are docked in Southampton and Miami. She sails one full
cruise on one of the three Seabourn vessels every year, traveling
to the Mediterranean and the Norwegian Fjords in the last two
years. She also tries to make a short part of a voyage on every
ship in the fleet, and she always makes at least one Atlantic
crossing every year on the QE2. "My favorites are
the Transatlantic crossings because I love not having to get
off the ship and to just spend six days at sea," she adds.
is particularly responsive when asked about being the most prominent
woman in the cruise industry. "I'm not sure if its really
helped me or not, but statistically, it's the woman who makes
the holiday determination and purchase decision in a household.
Certainly this is a business where there has been and still
are successful women in sales and marketing and clearly on the
travel agent side. So there is some benefit from that perspective."
is perfectly candor when she furthers, "I think one benefit
I have is that people remember me. They say, 'Isn't she that
woman that runs Cunard?' I wouldn't be so memorable - or it
wouldn't be the same — if I were a male."
Conover is definite that the workplace is much more accepting
to woman now than only 20 years ago, she feels particularly
glad to have worked for Carnival — known in the industry as
cutthroat in its quest for profits and then even more profits.
"The trick is certainly working for Carnival Corporation,
which is a very results-driven organization. What matters is
results rather than gender, and that's refreshing."
advice to young women breaking into a male arena is straightforward.
"Be prepared to work hard. And persevere- that's the first
thing. Have confidence in yourself and find your own abilities,"
she advises. "Lots of women are not as confident as they
could be, and they should push themselves to learn new things.
Try things they may not feel totally comfortable with as they
expand their experience and knowledge."
however, wins out when in self-reflection, as she claims she
is "a pretty average person who worked hard but was lucky
and at the right place and right time in an industry she loves."
her claims, Conover's success, work load and knowledge testify
to her own perseverance and confidence, essential traits that
serve Cunard well as she brings the company back to its own