Catching up with Vice Adm. William Burke (Ret.)

by Joseph Keefe

Maritime Logistics Professional

Chief Maritime Officer and EVP, Carnival Corporation & PLC

When Vice Admiral (ret) Burke joined Carnival Corporation & plc in December of 2013 as Executive Vice President and Chief Maritime Officer of Corporate Maritime Operations, it is likely that the way cruise ship lines do business may have changed forever. That’s because the newly created position, where Burke is responsible for driving the company’s commitment to safety, has its focus – in Burke’s own words – “driven solely by the commitment to safety and not necessarily influenced by other things.”
Burke graduated from the United States Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering and has since completed his MBA and numerous other higher education honors. The oldest of nine children, Burke went to the U.S. Naval Academy thinking he could get a good education on the cheap and give his brothers and sisters other opportunities. Interestingly, his next two brothers attended the school, as well.
During a long and distinguished naval career, Burke served on five submarines including command of USS Toledo (SSN 769) and his Washington, DC assignments include tours in the Navy Office of Legislative Affairs, Joint Chiefs of Staff directorate for Combating Terrorism, Navy Warfighting Assessments Branch, and as the Executive Assistant to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations. Burke’s flag assignments have taken him just about everywhere else, including command of the Logistics Group Western Pacific in Singapore.
Perhaps most important to his fit for the current billet, Burke became a submarine commodore where he had as many as six submarines in his squadron. “I spent a good bit of my time riding those submarines helping them try to get better and improve training, both from a deck and a technical perspective. I think one of the reasons Carnival wanted to hire me is that from the standpoint of a nuclear submariner, I understand both the deck and technical sides of the equation, which as you know, is quite different from the cruise and merchant side of the equation. And, my other billets tended to be focused more on logistics and the broader navy.” Burke is clearly right at home in his new role, adding, “I was fortunate enough to find a job which was exactly what I was looking for. It’s a place I can make a difference, I don’t have throw out everything I’ve learned before and at the same time, there is much more for me learn.”

A Job like Nothing Else
Chief Maritime Officer is a position like no other in the commercial maritime world. But Carnival, already with an arguably enviable safety record over time, nevertheless was looking to step up its environmental, safety and operating efficiency footprint up another notch. Burke told MarPro in February, “This is something that has been brewing for a while, and it was the board’s wish that we have someone whose focus is driven solely by the commitment to safety and not necessarily influenced by other things.” That sounds simple enough, but as Burke explained further, there are a lot of pieces to that effort. “Certainly, there was safety, security, environmental, health, but there’s also the right kind of maintenance at the right time; it’s about building ships that incorporate lessons learned and it is about how we train our people.” The role is more operational than administrative and Burke has already spent time with the Executive Vice Presidents of each of the operating lines, outlining plans to improve performance in the broader safety, health, security and maintenance areas. And, he’s spent time at sea, watching the bridge teams interact with one another and with the pilot. “The job is very operational and I love getting to be able to get back to sea again,” says Burke.

On the Job: Job ONE
Burke today reports to Carnival COO Alan Buckelew. In the new role, his performance will be benchmarked against several measurable criteria. And, Burke hit the ground running in December. “We’re trying to make sure we don’t have major fires. We’re working hard on getting the right prevention and suppression systems in place. Part of that is training: teaching the crew how to use their gear, when to use it and not to be afraid to use it. Carnival instituted formal bridge resource management procedures a couple of years ago and from what I’ve seen, it is working very well. Part of that is getting away from the master who is autocratic and dictatorial and where his subordinates are unwilling to question what he does. The bridge officers need to work as a team and I see progress on that.  Clearly, the company is focused on health, safety and the environmental issues – otherwise, they wouldn’t have hired me for this position.”

Cross Training & New Opportunities
Burke’s value to his new employer runs far deeper than simple experience and/or skill sets. That’s because the U.S. Navy and the global merchant fleets do things differently. Burke sees opportunities for his deck and engine crews to learn lessons from his military counterparts and, he says, there are more than a few things that the Navy could learn from the commercial sector. He explains, “Today, there’s a far greater reliance on technology than you and I may have seen years ago. In both places, there are people who are reluctant to go to electronic chart system, but that’s changing. One of the things the Navy does better than the cruise industry is train – in simulators, putting mariners in situations where they can learn about things without putting the ship in danger. They also train routinely on the ships. Navy personnel are usually very comfortable with high intensity, casualty situations on board navy ships.” Conversely, he says, that can’t be done on a cruise ship because you don’t want to disturb the passengers, adding, “In the cruise industry, it will important that we rely on simulation. And we at Carnival have a pretty good program going in that regard. We recently made the decision that we would go to annual, reoccurring training for our bridge and technical officers. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is – to be able to put people in situations that are not real but seem real. That’s important training and I’m pleased to see that we are on that track here at Carnival. One of the things the Navy could do better is that – looking at the cruise industry – they don’t have people walking all over each other. So, there’s opportunity to learn from sides of the equation.”
Drilling down even further, Burke says that the differences between the cruise line business model and that of the tanker and bulk sectors are, in some cases, even starker. Operating from the premise that ‘mariners are mariners,’ no matter what their role or sector, Burke insists that there are common skill sets that each of these professionals must have, in order to be successful. “We do not operate in a benign environment. So, we must keep the necessary precautions to keep our ship safe. Both navy and merchant ships operate complex equipment in a challenging environment. Things sometimes break and sometimes they break catastrophically. We need to stay ahead of that, we need to do the proper maintenance and we need to stand a proper watch. When bad things happen, we need to investigate, learn the root causes, fix them and get better. That’s standard across all mariner missions – I think all mariners should feel the same way about that.”  Across the many fleet brands under the larger Carnival corporate structure, Burke reports that deck officers are comprised chiefly of European mariners; Dutch, UK, and Italian nationals. He clearly thinks a lot of the professionals at Carnival, but didn’t rule out changes to that mix, saying, “I’ve been approached by some of the U.S. maritime academies and I think there is a good opportunity to get Americans into these roles. It’s a great idea, and I hope we succeed in that effort.”

Navigating the Regulatory Environment
As 2013 came to a close, the U.S. Coast Guard had nearly 70 regulatory efforts in play, with the IMO and numerous local U.S. states brewing up their own additions to the mix. Looming large for Carnival in terms of compliance issues, stack emissions are high on the list. To that end, Burke says, “We’re working pretty hard on scrubber technology installations. If we get it right, it will allow us to operate around the world. Secondly, we’re concerned about overboard discharges. We need to well in this area; if not, we’re going to hinder our ability to operate in areas where we want to be. I will say that in military, we regulated ourselves very tightly so that no one could question what we did.” And, he adds, Carnival will do the exact same thing.
Part of the Carnival environmental and safety strategy, going forward, include remote monitoring. Burke admits, “We’re not doing much now, but we are looking into it. We want to see if the ships are doing the things they should be doing, and we’re looking to create a culture that reduces the chance of untoward incidents.” He says that doing ‘the right amount of maintenance at the right time,’ is also a key part of that journey, adding, “By monitoring those parameters and we are at the very beginning of that journey, we can achieve those goals.”
Burke says that he has always been a champion of doing the right maintenance at the right time.  “It’s more important to take care of the ships we have because we’re going to have them for a long, long time. There’s a big cost in buying those ships and a large cost in owning them. If you want them to get to their expected life, you need to take care of them. And what we found in the navy is that 75 percent of what you spend on a ship, you need to spend whether you put it to sleep or not. You don’t have to do too much maintenance, but you have to do it at the right time.” Beyond the technology that is certainly coming, you get the distinct impress that Burke will monitor that situation closely, as well.
From a safety perspective, Burke says that the greater Carnival brand and its many fleets do have a good record. To that end, he says, “We’re working hard to improve it. People assume that ships are going to be safe – that’s a fair assumption. My goal in the near term would be to have (as much) installation complete on the fire prevention, suppression and detection equipment as we possibly can across the fleet.”

Smart Thinking, Global Savvy
For Carnival and Bill Burke, the gleaming outward appearance of their collective, international fleets is meaningless without the back office resolve to commit every possible resource towards the safest, most efficient organization possible. At the heart of all of that, perhaps, is CSMART, the Center for Simulator Maritime Training, a facility located in Almere, Netherlands. A service mark of Carnival plc, CSMART operates as the Dutch branch of Carnival plc, which is part of the Carnival Corporation & plc group. There, the journey to the best possible Carnival Corporation has already begun. Burke says, “We’ve just made the decision to go to annual reoccurring training, which will require us to expand our facility.” When that happens, says Burke, every single officer in the fleet will see simulation training, every year, preparing for every possible outcome at sea.
Training should, according to Burke, go far beyond simple simulation exercises. “One size does not fit all. There’s a great opportunity for the ‘commodore chief’ to train those folks and recognize the differences. My time spent in Singapore was also quite valuable in that I participated in quite a few exercises with people from many nationalities that exposed me to different cultures that I worked with. That helps me a great deal with my work here at Carnival where, to a large extent, there many cultures because we are a large, multi-national corporation. We operate different lines, all over the world.”
The multi-cultural, multi-faceted and diverse fleets of the Carnival Corporation now have a multi-talented, globally savvy and pressure-tested Chief Maritime Officer. By doing so, Carnival has redefined the business model of the modern cruise industry. What comes next might just surprise you. But as you get to know William Burke, it shouldn’t.