From Mailroom To Multi-Billionaire

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[This Avid Cruiser profile of Micky Arison was first published in 2005.]

Standing in the discotheque aboard Holland America Line’s new Zuiderdam, Micky Arison hardly seems like the cruise industry’s most powerful executive. Tanned, relaxed and smiling, his silk shirt unbuttoned three down and wife Madeleine on his arm, he could be mistaken for just another passenger enjoying a Caribbean cruise.

He chats with guests, responds politely to wait staff; he laughs easily. If he appears to be enjoying this cruise more than most, there’s good reason. He owns the ship—or at least his Carnival Corporation does—along with the many others in the company’s fleet.

By all measures, Carnival Corp. leads an industry that provides vacations for millions annually. The company has more ships, carries more passengers, generates more revenue and earns more profit than any other cruise line. Period.

Arison gets much of the credit for the company’s number one ranking. He built the company’s armada on the back of one ship that his father launched more than three decades ago. A transatlantic liner that had been laid up in Canada, the Mardi Gras—the flagship of Ted Arison’s new “Golden Fleet”—ran aground on its inaugural cruise. Clearly, there was no fleet and nothing golden about the operation.

The young company struggled to stay afloat, suffering all sorts of fiascoes and losing money at an alarming rate. That it survived to become the world’s largest and most profitable cruise company is a miracle. That Arison survived with it is an even greater one. You see, Micky Arison had no intention of following in his father’s footsteps. He cared nothing at all for the industry.

Or so he thought.

The Fun Ships
The story begins in 1967, when Ted Arison, an Israeli immigrant who had acquired wealth in the cargo and shipping business, joined Norwegian Knut Kloster to form Norwegian Caribbean Lines. Together, the two men operated America’s first packaged air and cruise combinations, thereby giving birth to the modern day cruise industry.

Micky refused his father’s overtures to join the business. Then only a teen, he let his hair grow to his shoulders, sported long sideburns, and dressed in bell-bottoms and shiny polyester shirts opened to his navel. He participated in peace demonstrations to protest the war in Vietnam. After two years at the University of Miami, he dropped out.

Adrift and rudderless, he took a staff job on a cruise ship. He helped with shore excursions, sold bingo cards and even worked in the lowly mailroom. Six months at sea changed him forever. He fell in love with the business.

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Ted and Knut’s partnership dissolved, and in March 1972, Ted launched the former Empress of Canada as the Mardi Gras. Micky was on the ship’s bridge when it ran aground on a sandbar outside the Port of Miami. Realizing it was sink or swim for the company, Micky went shoreside to work as a sales representative to promote the cruise line to Florida travel agents. “The hardest job I ever did,” he says.

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But the hard work paid off. In 1975, Carnival made $2 million and used that money to buy a second ship, the Carnivale. Three years later, the company made enough to purchase a third ship, launched as the Festivale.

Now that the company had its sea legs, Ted, who harbored hopes that his son would one day take over the company, surprised Micky one summer evening in 1979 by asking him to become company president. The next afternoon, Ted called Micky into his office and said, “That’s your desk. I’m moving out.”

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Ted’s promoting Micky raised eyebrows. Some questioned if the 30-year-old was capable. But by 1987, the year that Micky steered Carnival toward its initial public offering, all doubts were laid to rest. Carnival opened its books for the first time, stunning financial analysts and rivals. “We had come from nowhere,” Micky says.

In 1990, the company’s board appointed Micky to succeed his father as chairman. He used the company’s checkbook to purchase not only new ships but also entire cruise companies: Holland America Line, Costa Cruises, Cunard Line, Seabourn Cruise Line and Windstar Cruises (which he later sold)

In 2002, Carnival Corp. locked horns with Royal Caribbean International in a bid to acquire London-based P&O Princess Cruises. Carnival entered the fray after a surprise announcement that Princess and Royal Caribbean were on the verge of merging operations. The two companies were running trade ads as if it was a done deal when Carnival initiated its hostile takeover bid.

Characterized as a “hard-working, straight-talking executive who cuts to the bottom line,” he is unfazed by long odds. Arison knew it was a long shot, but one year later, Carnival was the victor in this high-stakes acquisition.

The Background Suits Him Just Fine
Foes consider Micky to be a steely negotiator. Friends know him as warm, compassionate and loyal. However he is viewed, the Miami cruise executive is a self-made man, a brilliant strategist who worked his way up the corporate ladder. Some would argue that Micky was handed his wealth on a silver spoon. While it’s true that Micky inherited Carnival from his father, Ted remarked in an interview in the years before his death in 1999: “Micky made me more money than I ever made for him.”

Despite the wealth he has amassed, Micky says he has changed little from the days when he was a longhaired maverick. He maintains there is no way he could spend his fortune anyway and that he does not live significantly different than he did 25 years ago, except that his Miami Beach apartment is bigger, and he now has a wife (of 20-plus years) and two college-aged kids. He also has a private jet and a rather large yacht that is docked in Miami when he isn’t sailing in Europe or the Caribbean.

What becomes clear as you get to know Micky is that money does not motivate him. Competition does. Competing, however, comes with a price, and that price for Micky, often described as a shy but approachable man, is fame.

Until 1995, Micky was relatively unknown in Miami. That year, he became majority owner of the Miami Heat NBA team. Standing in the arena after inking the deal, he told a colleague, “My life is about to change forever.” Owning the Heat meant heightened public visibility. Micky probably has achieved more fame by bringing division championships and a new arena to his hometown than for building a cruise powerhouse.

Being well known clearly is a burden for Micky. “I don’t want to live a life where I have to have bodyguards, and it’s starting to get to that point in certain countries,” he says. “I go to Genoa now, and people know who I am, which obviously wasn’t the case before we purchased Costa. Now in the U.K., people know me because of the negotiations with Princess. I’ve never had to deal with being recognized outside of Miami.”

Micky maintains there’s no reason for him to be known. “The reality is that it’s not about me,” he says. “It’s about a workforce of 53,000 people giving great service and being friendly to our guests and taking care of them.” He says his role simply is to fulfill a responsibility to the people “who look for this organization to grow and to feed their families.”

Just how meaningful Micky’s work is to him is illustrated by his reaction to a close call with death. Standing at a British Airways ticket counter in London in 1995, he began to feel queasy and walked to an emergency medical area where he passed out. He regained consciousness four days later. Surgeons had plumbed his blocked arteries. “Basically I died,” Micky says, “and they revived me.”

What is remarkable is what happened next: Confronting death did not change Micky. While many of us might have reassessed our lives, Micky says the only change in his life was that he now has to take daily medication. “I was doing what I wanted to do before,” he says, “and I’m doing what I want to do now. What I love to do is this business. I really do love it.”

Like father, like son—after all.

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