Thirty-two years ago, Micky Arison was aboard Carnival Cruise Lines' first-ever voyage. The trip had a rocky start — the decade-old Mardi Gras got stuck on a sandbar...

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ABOARD THE QUEEN MARY 2 — Thirty-two years ago, Micky Arison was aboard Carnival Cruise Lines’ first-ever voyage. The trip had a rocky start — the decade-old Mardi Gras got stuck on a sandbar off Miami.

“That moment when she ran aground obviously was horrifying,” Arison recalled. To keep passengers happy, the crew doled out free drinks while the ship was refloated. “After that it was party time,” he said.

Carnival made its niche fostering that carefree atmosphere and grew from a struggling line with one 950-passenger ship into the world’s largest cruise company with 73 vessels across 12 brands.

It also made Arison rich. Carnival Corp.’s chairman and chief executive is Florida’s second-richest person and the 33rd wealthiest in America, with an estimated net worth of $5.9 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

His fierce determination to dominate and buy up rivals helped fuel the Miami-based company’s expansion over the past quarter of a century, including the recent launching of the $800 million Queen Mary 2, the most expensive cruise ship ever built.

Arison, 54, is known as “everything from Darth Vader to Mr. Rogers,” depending on whose side you’re on, said Rod McLeod, a retired industry executive who’s known Arison since the 1970s.

For the most part, Arison shuns the spotlight that comes with wealth and fame.

From the archive: Queen Mary 2

Travel editor Terry Tazioli visited Southhampton, England, to tour the Queen Mary 2 before its maiden voyage in January. Read about his adventures.

“I absolutely hate it. I try the best I can to minimize it,” he said. “I can’t get off the Forbes 400 because they don’t allow you to apply for delisting. But if I could get delisted, I would do it.

“I look at the Donald Trumps of this world … and, you know, I marvel. But that’s how they make a living, by promoting themselves. I try to do the exact opposite.”

Arison occasionally shows his drive publicly. As owner of the NBA’s Miami Heat franchise, he recently yelled at a referee over a missed call on an apparent foul. During Carnival’s bitter battle with Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. over who would buy P&O Princess Cruises, Arison openly criticized Royal Caribbean’s leadership and belittled their rival offer.

Many insiders attribute part of Carnival’s growth to Arison’s hands-off management style. Although he’s involved in setting goals, he said he likes to surround himself with people who know what they’re doing and let them figure out how to achieve those objectives day to day.

Tim Conder, an analyst with A.G. Edwards & Sons, said Arison “has helped instill that competitive, entrepreneurial spirit that’s pervasive throughout the company.” Arison’s employees, he said, are always pushing to improve costs and boost efficiency.

Micky Arison, chairman of Carnival Corp., is known for being cost-efficient and innovative.
Arison’s success could hardly have been predicted before he began working at father Ted Arison’s cruise ventures starting in the freewheeling 1960s.

“It was a pretty wild environment in those days. There were probably some pretty disastrous things I was doing from time to time. But I look back on them fondly,” he said without specifics and with a laugh.

Arison was born in Israel, and his family moved to New York City when he was a child. They settled in the Miami area when he was a teenager. He graduated in business administration from Miami-Dade Junior College in 1970 and later dropped out of the University of Miami to work with his father.

Ted Arison and a partner had started Norwegian Caribbean Cruise Line in 1967. After a falling out, he formed Carnival Cruise Lines in 1972 with another partner. The younger Arison worked at everything from running shore excursions and bingo games to making ticket reservations and delivering mail.

“When I first met him, he was not terribly sophisticated, but he knew the industry very well,” said Bob Dickinson, who has been with the company since the early days and is now president and chief executive of the Carnival Cruise Lines brand.

The company billed its ships as all-in-one vacations, instead of the traditional transport for the wealthy. Carnival’s vessels live up to the company slogan “Fun ships,” with their casinos, elaborate theater shows and nightclubs. That and lower prices lured younger, middle-class vacationers in droves.

As the company grew, Micky Arison got more involved in running Carnival and, in 1979 at age 30, he took over from his father. He led the company through its initial public stock offering in 1987, raising $400 million to start buying competitors. The latest move was last year’s $5.4 billion acquisition of P&O Princess, getting him the Princess Cruises of “Love Boat” fame.

Half the global cruise passengers each year now travel on a ship owned by the Carnival group, which had $6.7 billion in revenues last year.

Carnival now has about a dozen new ships being built, so Arison spends much of his time jetting from his family’s $2.5 million beachfront condo north of Miami to European shipyards to oversee construction.

Arison is not without detractors. He and other executives in the cruise industry have been vilified by environmental activists, who say the massive ships are major air and water polluters.

Carnival Corp. pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2002 and agreed to pay an $18 million fine for illegally discharging oily waste from the bilge tanks of six Carnival Cruise Lines ships and then lying about it. The company was placed on probation for five years and is subject to court monitoring.

But Arison said environmentalists’ criticism is unwarranted because cruise ships produce only a small fraction of ocean pollution.

Labor unions also criticize the industry because the largest companies, including Carnival, are incorporated in tax havens such as Panama, even though their headquarters are in the United States. That saves them from paying millions of dollars in U.S. corporate income tax each year and shields them from U.S. labor laws. Critics say that allows cruise companies to hire foreign workers for rock-bottom wages.

Arison countered that that if Carnival were incorporated in America, thousands of domestic and international jobs “wouldn’t exist because you couldn’t make the kind of returns to make these kind of investments” in ships.