John Newton retired from the Royal Canadian Navy in 2018, after a 35-year career that saw him undertake leadership roles in command of ships, operations, naval bases, the Naval Training System, and Maritime Forces Atlantic. During his departure speech from Maritime Forces Atlantic, where he led for five years, John held a large mechanic’s spanner in his hand, a sign of his appreciation for the tireless work behind the scenes by the engineering community. It was his salute to the system and the military and civilian workforce that kept Canada’s naval fleet at sea and on duty. Having worked closely with the Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy on the transformation of the navy to meet the challenge of the fleet modernization and recapitalization efforts, its people-first focus, and burgeoning operational demands, it was a natural transition for John to join an industry partner that has over 35 years of experience helping sustain a viable and vibrant navy.

Fleetway is an all-Canadian, naval engineering and technical services company with four offices across Canada. As a former operational commander, John brings to Fleetway a fresh perspective of the company’s proud legacy providing in-service support to the Halifax Class frigates, Integrated Logistics Support and training to the Arctic Offshore Support Ship project, and Supportability support to the Canadian Surface Combatant project. Most recently, John joins all Fleetway employees in signaling their commitment to provide project management, policy and standards development, engineering and logistics services for the design, acquisition and sustainment of marine vessels and equipment under the recently awarded ELMS II contract. As the teamed partner with BMT Canada on the ELMS II contract, John is extremely proud to continue this important work in support of Canada’s naval fleets.

John Newton was selected as a Vanguard Game Changer for the August/September 2019 issue. Here is the full interview with him.

What is your role in your organization today?

I am Managing Director of Fleetway Incorporated and Oceanic Consulting Corporation. With roughly 250 employees in offices in Halifax, St John’s, Ottawa, and Victoria, my thrust is to grow Fleetway’s and Oceanic’s reputations and service offerings to our main clients in DND, the Royal Canadian Navy, and Canadian Coast Guard. The opportunity at hand is the National Shipbuilding Strategy and the commitment of Government to recapitalize the federal fleets.

What was your most challenging moment?

My most challenging moment in the Royal Canadian Navy was getting the modernized Halifax-class frigates, upgraded Victoria-class submarines, and Kingston-class patrol vessels into meaningful service and sustained operations globally. Canada and its allies were demanding RCN re-engagement in operations after a low-water mark that coincided with both the overdue and inelegant retirement of Iroquois and Protecteur Class ships and also the five-year absence of the Halifax-class during its mid-life modernization. It was a privilege to lead and command in operations during this period. The engineering communities of the navy and industry collaborated, the learning system of the navy started its transformation, and alliance relationships were reaffirmed. Canada’s frigates returned to service with a vengeance, submarines were deployed operationally to European and Asia-Pacific waters, while Kingston-class ships were dispatched on increasingly successful counterdrug missions in the south and capacity building in Africa. A new Cyclone helicopter was introduced, and the sailors of the navy were prepared for a new era of operations in the Arctic.

In my mind, this resurgence signaled the readiness of the Royal Canadian Navy for the major recapitalization effort now making headway, and the essentiality of the government-industry collaboration necessary to bring a nation’s sovereign capabilities to bear at sea. In my private sector leadership role today, I very much feel the impetus to capitalize on the hard gains made so that the National Shipbuilding Strategy delivers on the great promise envisaged of mobilizing government and industry in shared endeavor.

What was your “aha” moment or epiphany that you think will resonate with most with our readers? Tell us that story.

As a young officer, I used to take note of the fortunes of others and lament my own missed opportunities. There was a moment though, while investigating the death of sailor aboard a relatively new frigate, when I learned that I was the architect of my own development and career. I noted that when I dug into a problem, determinably worked on reasonable options, put in the hours, learned new skills, created the networks of enabling forces, and faced critical dissenting opinions, that reward and career fulfilment would follow the hard work. Henceforth, I made every new tasking the best assignment that I had ever been given and made it bigger and more vibrant than the label that others had given it. Most importantly, I stopped blaming others, I took ownership of my navy at my level, and I started thinking about what inspired the decisions of my superiors and how to bring those factors down to my level so that I could contribute to organizational success.

I bring this same foundation to Fleetway. I have much to learn on the commercial aspects of naval engineering. I must think up to the business requirements of profit and loss, workforce management, return on investment, risk management, quality assurance and partner obligations. This hard work aside, I remain committed to finding options, creating networks, and learning from critical feedback as I lead Fleetway to serve its contractual obligations and responds to the aspirations of the client during this era of profound change opportunity.

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

I am very much in a new phase of learning. For 35 years, my whole identity was shaped by the naval uniform I wore, and the stories of an institution forged in conflict. As my leadership matured, I increasingly understood and appreciated the relevance of naval engineering to delivering and sustaining the readiness of sailors, fleets and infrastructure. What has me the most fired up today is learning and participating in Canada’s private sector as an equally important partner to this complex readiness equation. Canada’s military, its capacity and readiness, depends on a collaborative and trusted partnership with industry. Considering that the military is the ultimate expression of a nation’s sovereign endeavor at home and abroad, industry partners and their many thousands of civilian employees are very much a part of this national team. Canadians should be very proud of those that work every day to deliver quality products and services to the ships and sailors that head into the world’s oceans to do their Government’s bidding. It is an honour and privilege to serve in an all-Canadian company, full of youthful and innovative talent, backed by a strong cadre of experienced engineers who have seen and done much to keep Canada’s fleets operationally relevant and operationally ready over the years. This relationship of industry talent to the status of our navy, and my company’s role in it, has me really fired up.

What is the best advice you received?

At a particularly difficult point in my naval career, a critical voice asked me to explain what I stood for. It was a cutting challenge. In retrospect, I learned that it is very easy to give off signals that you are critical of everything and believe in nothing. It is much harder to espouse ideas, lay down potential courses of action, detail plans, and envision transformation strategies. But these are the substance of being able to change to meet the times, to innovate to solve new problems, to truly develop an efficiency to save costs, and to learn from failure. On hearing new ideas, I learned to listen, to say yes instead of no, and to look for suggestions to help make an idea succeed before condemning it as unworkable. I also learned to effectively communicate and express myself, and through written words, to stand for something, a position that could be assailed by my community if I personally did not live up to those expressions.

What is the habit that contributes to your success?

I embrace change and blame only myself for the failures of my actions and initiatives, and the failings of those reporting to me. While I do not relish failure, I accept that learning only comes from laying out the shortcomings of a matter, reflecting on my own limited field of view and poor judgment, while working to refine the system that envelops our workplaces, functions and assignments. Change will only arise when all the attendant elements of the system, including the culture of the organization and its participants, are evolved.

What people or organizations do you believe best embody the innovation mindset?

It should come as no surprise that I believe that the Royal Canadian Navy best embodies the innovation mindset. The modernization of the Halifax-class, introduction of Cyclone helicopters, sensor upgrades to Victoria-class submarines, imminent delivery of Harry DeWolf Class AOPVs and the unprecedented access to the Arctic created a moment in time to require innovation in maintenance and operations. The denoting of HMCS Montreal as X-Ship (X for experimentation and innovation) is but one initiative. The use of data analytics to administer the RCN, and wide-reaching initiatives to unlock the flow of data related to engineering and maintenance, human resource administration, and fleet combat readiness speaks to the innovation drive. The project evolution of the Canadian Surface Combatant and other fleets of the National Shipbuilding Strategy affords the moment to significantly transform the naval training system and Project Storm speaks to this innovative thinking. Personnel who have grown up in an era enriched by smartphones, constant access and unlimited information can be better served in training and workplace supports though ready WiFi access at sea and alongside.  Considerable innovation focus has been placed on the “People First, Mission Always” motto. This innovation spirit calls upon industry to help solve the needs of the navy – a collaboration that offers the promise to drive cost-effective solutions, increased fleet readiness and improved fighting effectiveness through the whole life of a ship. The call to innovation speaks clearly to the public-private partnership that I believe is the true strength of our Navy and Coast Guard fleets.

What is your parting piece of advice?

There is a considerable body of youthful talent from colleges and universities now entering the Canadian marine engineering workforce and participating in a concentrated period of fleet design, construction, integrated logistics support, and in-service support. My advice is that, as leaders, we must celebrate their role in the sovereign business of the Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Coast Guard, in as much as we celebrate the service of the sailors that have made a career choice to serve at sea. Canada’s commercial marine and naval engineering base is the industry partner essential to the success of a ready and enabled navy and Coast Guard, a joint public-private partnership in sovereign endeavor.