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HAL's Orlando Ashford: ‘They took a risk with me’

The cruise line president tells Tom Parry how being ‘new to cruise’ has helped him push his company to grow

Ashford: ‘Difference and inclusion makes companies better’
Ashford: ‘Difference and inclusion makes companies better’

Encounters in the workplace lift can be awkward, even for the boss of a major cruise line.


Just a fortnight after taking the helm of Holland America Line in December 2014 – his first job in the cruise industry – Orlando Ashford experienced such an episode.


“I was riding in the elevator, the doors swung open and there were two young ladies getting in. They saw me and their eyes got really big. One of them whispered: ‘Oh, my God, it’s him.’ They just froze and the doors slowly closed in front of me, without them getting in,” recalls Ashford when we meet at Carnival UK’s Southampton headquarters.


A seasoned HR specialist, having held vice-president roles for the likes of Coca-Cola and Motorola, back then, Ashford was new to the company, the sector and the industry and eager to get off on the right foot – and floor – with his employees.


The chance meeting got under his skin.


“In that moment I thought, Wow. If my team are too scared to get in the elevator with me, just because I’m ‘the boss’, we’re not going to have the culture we need.”


He began addressing the problem simply, by challenging staff to “face their fears” and join him in the lift. He grins at the memory.


“When the doors opened on their floor I’d say ‘so, how did that go’, they’d say ‘good’ and I’d shout down the corridor (he cups his hands to his mouth jokingly), ‘OK then, make sure you tell everyone’. We all found it funny, but it was really important to me.”


It’s a light-hearted story, but one that seems to typify Ashford’s leadership style and speaks to a mantra he references throughout our conversation: “Difference and inclusion makes companies better – more innovative, more adaptable and more fun – simple as that.”

By his own admission Ashford was “an anomaly” when joining Holland America almost five years ago
By his own admission Ashford was “an anomaly” when joining Holland America almost five years ago

As someone who had never set foot onboard a cruise ship before joining Holland America, Ashford wasn’t afraid to delegate – wanting to empower his employees.


“That same first fortnight, one of our technical team was waiting for me to make a decision on something. There was this long pause in the conversation, and I knew he was waiting for my answer. I asked him how long he’d been with the company, which was 22 years, so I said: ‘I’ve been here two weeks – who’s in the best position to make this decision?’ Just because I was more senior it didn’t make sense [for me to call all the shots].”


Ashford has a habit of doing away with convention. Indeed his very appointment made him the cruise industry’s first African American brand president. He was undaunted by the lack of non-white representation in the sector, though, considering it to be “just human behaviour” when recruiting.


“You hire people you know, right – it’s not an elitist thing or a racist thing per se.” Although he believes challenging companies and management to broaden their horizons is integral to “cracking the code” on diversity.


“Who are your friends? Who do you know? Who do you hang out with? If your networks are very limited, then the chances of having someone you can turn to quickly to bring them into a new job or opportunity is going to be limited.”


But inclusion isn’t just about representation, Ashford stresses, believing it to be equally about creating a culture for everyone to “be confident and thrive” – hence the lift escapades.


“Inclusion is: ‘do I have a system in which people feel they can show up as their true, authentic self and deliver their full self at work?’ That’s the part we want to make sure we’re doing.”

Ashford with Nieuw Statendam godmother Oprah Winfrey at the ship’s naming ceremony
Ashford with Nieuw Statendam godmother Oprah Winfrey at the ship’s naming ceremony

By his own admission Ashford was “an anomaly” when joining Holland America almost five years ago. He came from HR, lived on the US East Coast and didn’t know cruise, unlike rival bosses who had “grown up in the industry”.


“Asking me to take on the second-oldest cruise line in the world was a big call,” he laughs.


“Arnold Donald [Carnival Corporation chief executive] and Stein Kruse [Holland America Group chief executive] deserve a lot of credit – they took a risk and went for something different.”


Betting on the outsider worked, as Ashford helped shape Holland America’s signature offering based around gourmet food and live music, and opened up a new audience through recent partnerships, including with US media mogul Oprah Winfrey – the godmother of Nieuw Statendam.


“If a company is trying to think about how to attract more new-to-cruise, then what better way than to have someone who is new-to-cruise as a part of your senior team? I probably had the strongest view in the room when I joined because I was the only one who was from outside the industry – it made for better innovation.”


With a degree in organisational leadership and a masters in industrial technology, Ashford is fascinated by how technology and people come together to deliver results.


You could argue he’s been building up to his current role his entire life.


“As a youngster I thought I was going to be an engineer – it just didn’t fit my personality though. I really like how engineering elements combine with people – the cruise industry is perfect for that, with crew interacting with guests.”


And similarly, even at a young age, staff wellbeing was a concern. He remembers pulling up “the boss’s boss” on a summer internship in his late teens.


“My boss was a really smart, relaxed, articulate guy, but when his boss spoke to him – in the manner he did – he would get flustered and lose confidence. I remember it really well.


“I told his boss: ‘You might want to think about that’ – I didn’t know what I was doing at the time but now I totally get it. Focusing on people, leadership style and dynamics, it really clicked with me.”


Under Ashford’s leadership Holland America feels ready for its next chapter, with more expansion on the way.


Ryndam – its third and final Pinnacle-class vessel – will launch in May 2021 and before that, Koningsdam will sail Alaska next year – a key destination for the line.

Koningsdam will sail Alaska next year for the first time
Koningsdam will sail Alaska next year for the first time

And what of Ashford himself as he nears his five-year anniversary with the company? Does he believe there is more to do around championing diversity in cruise?


“There have not been a lot of African-American executives in the cruise space, there have not been a lot of Asian technical leaders or captains from different ethnicities,” he considers.


“We should have more female captains. If we’re worried about not having enough captains for all the ships coming... you’ve got more than 50% of the population out there who can do it.


“Holland America doesn’t have one yet, but it’s something I really want to see. We have people who are on that path and if we can enable them to get the experiences they need we can make it happen.”


I suggest such an achievement would be a fitting legacy for a self-confessed “cruise outsider”.


“Legacy? Wow, that’s big word – I’m only 50, man,” he laughs before answering seriously.


“I think we’re on a path – when people might say, ‘what’s Orlando done here?’ I would like them to say I’ve created an environment where people feel more comfortable showing up as themselves, having their ideas listened to and having more opportunity created over time.


“So if I can get this culture moving in that direction, then that is legacy. Oh, and if people now ride the elevator with me, that’s great too.”

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