Master and Commander: an interview with Carnival Australia's Ann Sherry

One woman’s “mad” ambitions have transformed the Australian cruise industry, writes Helen Anderson. She spoke to Carnival Australia boss Ann Sherry about 10 years at the top.

Ann Sherry on P&O's Pacific Jewel
Few details evade the scrutiny of Ann Sherry. She remembers the names of crew as we board P&O's Pacific Jewel, and where the captain spent his last holiday. She chose the teacups from which we drink our morning brew - she's a stickler for design that's as functional as it is beautiful - and she jokes about her quest to find the perfect cushions for P&O's newly refurbished ships. She reads all the passenger letters received by the seven cruise lines she heads, and replies in writing or calls people to chat.
"I always think delighting people is what a great customer experience is about," Sherry says, "and it's always something little. It's a note, a small gesture… it's reading someone's letter and doing something about it."
Ann Sherry with singer-songwriter Jessica Mauboy.
Yet no one could accuse the executive chair of Carnival Australia, the nation's largest cruise operator and the Australasian arm of the world's biggest cruise company, of failing to focus on the big picture. In 10 years she has transformed her company, the industry and the cruise experience for millions of Australians. "Now everyone is talking about cruise tourism," she says with satisfaction. "You can use your frequent-flyer points to buy a cruise - things that would have been inconceivable a decade ago are now just the way we are. Cruising is a really integral part of Australia's tourism story. We weren't there 10 years ago; we were invisible really."
When she joined Carnival Australia in 2007, about 250,000 Australians had cruised that year. Soon afterwards she announced her prediction that a million Australians would be cruising by 2020, based on the untapped potential she saw. "People thought I'd gone mad," she recalls, yet passenger numbers jumped by 20 per cent in the next year and there's been double-digit growth ever since. Sherry's one-million milestone was reached six years ahead of her prediction, and Australia remains the most buoyant cruising market in the world by any measure. "It's quite nice to reflect back on 10 years and say [this growth] was always there for the taking, just that nobody else could really see the potential at the time."
Pacific Eden in Honiara.
The prediction was also a call to action. "You've got to say stuff that makes people think differently, otherwise incrementally we wouldn't have got there," Sherry says. "[That goal] required a very different mix of brands, tonnage, capability, ambition, places to go. And that drove us to open up so much more of the Pacific and ports around Australia."
People thought Sherry was mad, too, when she left a distinguished 12-year career at Westpac, where she was head of its New Zealand operations at the time, to join Carnival Australia when its reputation was in tatters. The first report of a coronial inquest into the death of Dianne Brimble on a P&O ship in 2002 was handed down on Sherry's third day on the job. She moved swiftly and decisively, implementing new standards of security, reporting and behaviour on ships - "a fundamental turning point for us", she says.
Then the rebuilding began. No aspect of the cruise experience remained unscrutinised: markets for each line were defined with a renewed focus on families, shorter and special-event cruises were introduced, and the fleets were progressively upgraded. More ships from sister lines abroad started visiting in summer, and an ambitious program of expansion in the Pacific and regional Australia has added more than 20 new ports domestically and 14 new ports in the Pacific to Carnival itineraries in the past decade.
Sherry with Luke Mangan.
A particular passion of Sherry's was "democratising great wine and food" on her ships. In one of the first high-profile chef signings at sea, P&O Cruises Australia teamed with Sydney-based chef-restaurateur Luke Mangan in 2009, and his Salt Grill restaurants and bars are drawcards on the line's five ships.
Carnival has nine ships based full-time in Australia, part of a flotilla of 21 from its global fleet, making a record 598 calls to 35 Australian ports this summer - from Darwin to Port Arthur, Norfolk Island to Broome, and making Cairns a home port for the first time. "With scale comes amazing impact," says Sherry, and she continues to lobby vigorously for better infrastructure, particularly in Sydney where there are too few berths, and for recognition of the industry's economic impact in Australia - a record $4.58 billion in 2015-16.
Sherry is particularly proud of Carnival's work in the Pacific, where its ships deliver tens of thousands of travellers to ports in Vanuatu and New Caledonia, and where newer destinations include Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. "We're in this for the long term," she says of the intensive planning and negotiation required. "We want communities to want us to come and we want them to feel the benefit of us arriving on their doorstep and sharing their home with us."
Carnival is now a major employer in Vanuatu - "that changes outcomes for entire communities where previously people couldn't find work and had to leave" - and the effects are felt in even the most remote communities. The arrival of thousands of potential shoppers, for example, prompted a project to revive traditional women's artisan skills in Vanuatu and New Caledonia, and it's been extended to communities in Papua New Guinea. "Understanding that there's value in traditional skills and handicrafts probably is a legacy of our work in the Pacific, started about eight years ago," says Sherry.
Sherry with Alotau locals in Papua New Guinea.
Born in Gympie and educated in Brisbane, Sherry has worked as a radiographer, a prison social worker, and in state and federal public policy, developing programs in after-school care, employment for people with disabilities and women's rights. During the Keating years, she did a stint as First Assistant Secretary of the Office of the Status of Women. In senior roles at Westpac she pushed for the introduction of paid maternity leave and flexible work practices, and was instrumental in creating the non-profit Jarwun project, connecting skilled corporate volunteers with indigenous organisations.
She sees her role at Carnival as the continuation of a lifetime of public activism. "When you're in business you've got lots of influence points. If you can find ways of marrying your commercial interests with the opportunity to create change it's an absolute sweet spot for business," she says. "I don't think enough people do it. We're constantly looking for those opportunities."
A case in point is a partnership announced late last year between P&O and a social enterprise called the Good Beer Company, based in Queensland. Half the profit from on-board sales of the Good Beer Company's Great Barrier Beer goes to the Australian Marine Conservation Society. "It's a story about growing that enterprise and the value of that being reinvested in the reef, which has a much longer-term impact than a donation."
P&O Cruises fleet off the coast from Sydney.
Looking ahead, Sherry predicts more growth and more ports - "the only constraint is infrastructure, particularly in Sydney". And she stands by her revised prediction of two million Australians cruising by 2020. "You don't stand still," says the 63-year-old. "I think the secret of our success is we've never been complacent." Among the challenges in the relentless quest to build the best cruise, she says, is "balancing scale with great experiences that feel personal".
While she's steering a billion-dollar company, does the weight of all the detail exhaust her? "Oh no!" she hoots with laughter. "I love it! I'm sure it makes me a nightmare to be around, constantly listening and looking and picking stuff up, [but] seeing I care means everyone cares."