John McCarthy is one of our Game Changers for February/March 2024. His career took an unexpected turn during his undergraduate years when he shifted his focus from law to shipbuilding after encountering Bath Iron Works’ Management Development Program. Today, as CEO of Seaspan Shipyards, he oversees all new build construction for the Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Coast Guard. Additionally, he manages commercial and government repair businesses, ensuring the maintenance and modernization of vital naval assets. McCarthy’s leadership has solidified Seaspan’s position as a key player in Canada’s maritime industry, driving innovation and excellence in shipbuilding and repair. He has 38 years of defence and security industry experience to share.

How did you start out in this industry and how has it brought you to where you are today?

I was planning on heading to Law School but then Bath Iron Works held on-campus interviews for their Management Development Program, and I was instantly intrigued. The program had rotations through all major functioning departments and graduate level course work and my path changed instantly from law to shipbuilding. 

What is your role at your organization today?

I am the CEO of Seaspan Shipyards, Canada’s non-combat shipbuilder under the National Shipbuilding Strategy. I am responsible for overseeing all the newbuild construction done at Vancouver Shipyards for the Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Coast Guard. I also oversee our commercial and government repair businesses at Vancouver Drydock and Victoria Shipyards, which service a wide range of private and government clients, including repair work on the Halifax Class Frigates and Victoria Class submarines repair and modernization.

What was your most challenging moment?

My most challenging moment in my career was when I decided to leave my first shipyard after 28 years. At the time, I had planned six months off work but found myself back in shipbuilding at Irving Shipyard in Halifax within six weeks. Ship design and construction is a tough business – it’s highly complex, highly competitive, and intertwined with government policies and funding challenges. But once it’s in your blood it becomes a passion.

What was your A-HA moment or epiphany that you think will resonate most with our reader, tell us that story.

My “a-ha” moment in my career also relates to leaving my first shipyard after 28 years and starting fresh at a new yard. It became abundantly clear to me very early that the deep experience and knowledge of the shipbuilding process that I possessed could impart a new wave of shipbuilding in Canada. I truly did not understand my value until I decided to leave my first company. There are no “new” problems in ship design or construction – or very few. Having faced these problems many times through the years gave me the experience and confidence to tackle the most difficult operational and strategic challenges in a shipyard.

What is the one thing that has you most fired up today?

I am tremendously excited about the huge amount of potential in our workforce at Seaspan and the next generations of Canadian leaders. We have relatively quickly developed some of the best and brightest leaders in shipbuilding here at Seaspan and they are well prepared to handle the challenge of managing four first of class programs concurrently.

What is the best advice you received?

“Work hard and the results will come.”

“Know your audience.”

“Spend as much time on the deck plates as possible – you don’t build ships, your people do.”

What is a habit that contributes to your success?

I try to connect with people I work with on a personal level. When I am out in the yard I ask people about their families and personal lives and get to know them beyond the business. To successfully lead an organization of 4,000 people, you need to have the trust of your team in you as a leader. You build this trust through making daily connections. 

What is your parting piece of advice?

For the NSS, it would be to stay the course. Canada and industry have invested heavily in building a tremendous sovereign shipbuilding capability from a largely moribund industry just 10 years ago. Both Seaspan and Irving are now delivering on the promise and investment from the NSS and have created tens of thousands of jobs across Canada for the shipyards and the pan-Canadian supply chain.

Questions regarding the ORGANIZATION

How is your organization changing the game within your industry sector?

Through the NSS, we have been given the extraordinary opportunity to revitalize Canada’s shipbuilding. We are in the midst of harnessing the full economic and social potential of the shipbuilding program and creating tangible benefits for the marine sector across Canada. Through our NSS supply chain, more than 700 Canadian companies have now been involved in building ships for Canada, with nearly 500 being small and medium-sized businesses. This presents more than $2.4 Billion in contracts to Canadian companies which would not have existed without our work under the NSS. Seaspan has also developed the largest marine engineering and design capability in Canada with 300 engineering staff and 400 partners. Through these efforts, we have helped build a vibrant and thriving marine industry on Canada’s strategic west coast, which is important for our country’s security and sovereignty.

What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your industry sector?

The biggest impediment to innovation in the defence sector is the uncertainty of future programs due to the speed and complexity of the procurement processes. There have been many articles written about the state of defence procurement in Canada, so I won’t dive too deep into the topic here, but for organizations who are delivering on these programs, where the cost and stakes are tremendous, opportunities for exploring, developing, and implementing new capabilities or technologies are harder to come by.

How has innovation become engrained in your organization’s culture and how is it being optimized?

Technological investments combined with a more experienced workforce make Seaspan one of the most modern, efficient and capable shipyards in North America. In production, we have invested heavily in advanced manufacturing with robotic welding and cutting-edge fabrication equipment driven directly from a 3D CAD model (3-dimensional computer-aided design). In addition, we have a dedicated innovation team here at Vancouver Shipyards who are constantly exploring new and more efficient ways in which we can build ships for Canada. One such example is our new HoloShip platform, which we launched in 2022. The HoloShip platform is an immersive visualization system that allows designers, engineers, production teams, and our customers to virtually experience a fully detailed, three-dimensional, and accurate digital model of a vessel, using an integrated 5.6-metre-wide display wall and virtual reality headset. Digital twinning of vessels in shipbuilding offers huge potential for efficiency in both construction and maintenance through all phases of a ship’s lifecycle.

What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?

In the manufacturing sector, the topic on everyone’s minds at the moment is the lack of skilled trades workers. These ships don’t build themselves, so we are always on the hunt for more welders, steel workers, pipefitters, etc. Being able to attract and retain a workforce will be critical not only to our own success, but others in defense and general construction. In BC alone, there are expected to be 85,000 job openings in the skilled trades through 2031. We are trying to get ahead of that, through partnerships with programs like ACCESS Trades as well as providing funding for the Trades Foundation for Youth Program, which will see BCIT provide technical training at four high schools in the Vancouver area for in-demand skilled trades. But with nearly 80% of all upcoming construction and manufacturing job openings due to retirement of the existing workforce, it will be a constant challenge for the sector in Canada and across North America.