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Pamela Conover - Taking Control of the Seas
by Benjamin S. B. Lyons

The 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.

During 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.

Spending 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 financial world.

At 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 had."

In 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.

Responsible 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."

In 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.

She 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 division.

Carnival 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.

Conover 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."

After 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 work together."

Carnival 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.

"I 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."

Conover saw a prime opportunity with Cunard. "Given its British heritage, it was a natural affinity for me. I wanted to be involved."

She 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.

Conover 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."

Finally, 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.

Today, 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 the world."

With 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.

Pamela 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).

"If 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."

"Everything 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.

After 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!"

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… It's a great feeling to be involved with really allowing people to be able to spend time by themselves."

Conover 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.

Conover 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."

Conover 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."

While 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."

Conover's 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."

Modesty, 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."

Despite 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 essentials.