It’s called a Dracaena fragrans ‘Massangeana’—more colloquially, a “corn plant”—the kind of floppy-leafed, wannabe palm tree that you see collecting dust in the waiting room at your dentist’s office. This particular specimen is sitting in the cramped and unimposing boardroom at Seaspan Marine Corp. in North Vancouver, offering no resistance while Seaspan’s executive chairman Kyle Washington pinches off dead leaves.
Washington doesn’t look the least like a closet horticulturalist—and he would surely outrage his tailor by reaching through the foliage in that bespoke suit. But this diversion into indoor gardening is typical and revealing—in two ways. First, Kyle Washington doesn’t sit still. He’s all restless energy, at once attentive to the task at hand and impatient to move on to whatever might come up next. Second, he is entirely without the tender ego that we’ve come to expect of execs from the front office. Washington has no qualms whatsoever about performing what is essentially a custodial task and, perhaps more telling, his most senior managers don’t even seem to notice that the boss is fussing in the corner.
Mind you, for their part, Seaspan CEO Jonathan Whitworth and his shipyard deputies Brian Carter and John Shaw are all feeling pretty chuffed, having just nailed down the largest federal shipbuilding contract—an $8-billion chunk of the federal government’s National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy—that a West Coast yard has seen since the Second World War. Only a year ago, Seaspan’s shipbuilding empire was deep into what Whitworth says could fairly be described as a death spiral. “This was a make-it or break-it moment,” he says of the contract. And having made it, Whitworth is not going to get twitchy if the boss wants to dust houseplants.
As for Washington, there is another explanation for why the expansive 42-year-old doesn’t behave like your typical aggressive executive, driven to prove, over and over again, that he deserves the top job. Kyle Washington moves with the easy assurance of someone who knows he has a job for life—because, well, he owns the place: the docks in the water, the sheds and equipment on land, the BC Ferries Fast Cat model that’s sitting on the boardroom credenza—even the wilted Massangeana. It’s his—it’s all his—and he couldn’t be more delighted.
Given that such unabashed enjoyment of personal good fortune is more commonly an American trait, it’s no surprise that Washington hails, originally, from south of the border. He is the eldest son of Montana industrialist Dennis Washington, whose $5-billion fortune puts him at No. 60 on the Forbes 400. And, between father and son, they could well be credited with saving the B.C. shipbuilding industry.
If “industrialist” seems like an indistinct job title, Kyle Washington has a more precise description of his family’s approach to business. He says: “We buy things that rust.” Indrustrialist, then. Dennis Washington made his first fortune from a heavy construction business and his second from a Butte, Montana, copper and molybdenum mine. He branched out to railroads, aircraft supply and heavy equipment, buying companies that were down on their luck and then turning them around. Along the way, he also bought a summer place on Stuart Island, a little piece of West Coast heaven just north of Desolation Sound, making him an honorary, summertime Canadian.
In 1992, Washington Sr. made his first major Canadian business purchase, scooping up C.H. Cates & Sons, the Vancouver-based tug and barge operator that was being sold off (Washington thought for cheap) by a tired, third generation of family owners. Over the next few years, Washington found a series of other sellers who were losing interest in their marine holdings. He bought Norsk Pacific Steamship from the pulp giant Fletcher Challenge in 1995 and Kingcome Navigation from the fading lumber barons at MacMillan Bloedel in 1997. In between, he purchased Seaspan, another huge tug and barge operator that itself had consolidated ownership of Vancouver Shipyards, Victoria Shipyards and Vancouver Drydock. In 1998, Washington added Canadian Pacific’s coastal ferry fleet (now Seaspan Ferries Corp.), by which time he owned, in aggregate, the largest ocean-going fleet of any kind on Canada’s west coast.
Kyle Washington more or less stumbled into this burgeoning enterprise—“I was shipped up here in 1994”—having just completed what he describes as an unspectacular college career that culminated in a business degree from the University of Montana. He started out at Cates, living in a basement suite at the home of Cates’s then-president (now Seaspan’s vice-president of marketing) Doug Towill. Arriving at age 24, Kyle quickly got a reputation as a playboy bon vivant: Even now, he seems to approach life like someone who has won a huge lottery and can’t quite believe his luck. He loves sports (he was a pro ski jumper) and toys (he’s just had his newest truck tricked up to pump out 800 horsepower). “And, right from the start, I loved Vancouver.”