FOX Front to Black: Orlando Ashford, President of Holland America Line

orlando ashford

“It’s a combination of bringing a unique skill set to a job and knowing what you are good at, but [also] being equally comfortable with the fact there’s a lot that you don’t know.” Orlando Ashford, Holland America Line President

Orlando Ashford has always been a man that embraces challenges.

When Ashford was appointed President of the Holland America Line (NYSE:CCL) in December 2014, he didn’t have any experience in the cruise industry.

“I’ve always been attracted to jobs that challenged me - jobs where I could learn both personally and professionally,” says Ashford.

Prior to joining Holland America, Ashford was President of the Talent Business Segment for Mercer, a unit of the Marsh & McLennan Companies (NYSE: MMC). He also worked in human resource executive roles at Marsh & McLennan, Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO) and Motorola.

And believe it or not, he had never been on a cruise.

“I come to this job as a mid-40’s African American male, who grew up in the Northeast and had never cruised before taking this job,” says Ashford. “How do we make the cruise industry attractive to people that didn’t cruise before? I have that perspective.”

Not only did Ashford have a lot to learn about the cruise industry, but the Holland America Line staff had a lot to learn about him.

“When I first started, people were a little nervous,” says Ashford. “They didn’t know what type of person I was. So people were literally afraid to get on the elevator with me.”

The former human resource executive knew exactly what he needed to do to engage personnel.  Ashford joked about the elevator encounters at his first town hall meeting. He held an open house in his office in an effort to demystify the executive floor.  He ate lunch with random employees in the cafeteria. He scheduled meetings with small groups of employees to answer questions.  He held contests to encourage the staff to share ideas and win prizes.

“There’s no magic bullet,” says Ashford. “It’s just articulating the type of engagement we wanted to have.”

After more than a year on the job, Ashford says changes can be seen throughout the Holland America Line.

“One of my philosophies for management is what I call collective intelligence. How do you leverage the energy, the intellect and the ideas of a broader group? I believe a group will always outperform an individual, no matter how smart an individual is. In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve definitely seen an opening up of the culture and more ideas being generated.”

As President, Ashford is involved in everything related to Holland America Line’s fleet. Holland’s 13 ships offer more than 500 cruises to more than 400 ports in 98 countries, territories or dependencies around the world. In the past year, the cruise line has announced partnerships with BBC Earth, Billboard and Lincoln Center. Holland’s newest ship – the Koningsdam – sets sail in April.

“It’s a whirlwind of activity,” says Ashford. “Everything from this is what’s going on with our ships – to here are some new drinks we might want to put on the ship. Shore excursions, retail and spa.  At some point in the day, week and month - I touch all of those things.”

Ashford says while his job is demanding, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This is a challenge taking over the second oldest cruise line in the world with a rich 142-plus year history. Being the custodian of this great brand and doing things to make it greater - it’s a challenge, but that definitely motivates me. I’m having a real good time right now.”