John Sullivan – The Role Of A CEO Is To Empower People To Innovate And Make Decisions

Jo Caruana - 20th February 2019

Sullivan Shipping’s CEO and Chairman John Sullivan leads a dynamic team with a unique blend of respect for the past, and innovation for the future.

With more than 50 years of experience, John Sullivan has dedicated a lifetime to working in the Maltese maritime industry.

“I started my career on 1 April 1964, when I was appointed as a Junior Executive for Malta Tug & Lighter Services Ltd, which operated the barges and its associated company Midmed Towage Company Ltd, operating ship towage services in the harbours,” John explains. “Following the commercialisation of the dockyard in the early 1960s the company branched out into other companies, where I eventually became General Manager and then Managing Director. When the towage industry was nationalised, however, I ended up without a job – so I decided to join Sullivan Shipping Agencies, as it was called in those days.”

By joining the family company, John was thereby adding his name to the Sullivan family legacy that has been active in Malta’s maritime industry since 1888. “The Sullivan dynasty has been a major stakeholder in the sector for over a century, with experience that spans the steam ship era of the 1800s to today’s global trade of large ocean liners, carriers and highly specialised vessels,” he continues. “To be able to develop the family business today as CEO and Chairman of Sullivan Shipping, with the next generation now learning the ropes to move it forward as I once did, makes me immensely proud.”

However, John points out that a standardised approach in how the company operates is still essential, to ensure it remains compliant.

It is this drive for innovation coupled with a respect for tradition that has been the cornerstone for John’s career thus far, which also included executive roles at the Malta Chamber of Commerce, the Malta Employers Association and Gozo Channel Co Ltd, among those at numerous other prominent organisations including Tug Malta Ltd of which he remains Chairman to this date.

He encourages his forward-thinking approach in the younger generation of Sullivans currently working in the company. “I still recall how, when I joined Sullivan Shipping, my first battle was to persuade the company directors to invest in a fax machine, which was the height of technology and very expensive at the time. Today, technology has of course progressed, but I hope the next generation will also suggest innovative changes within the company as I once did, to continue to drive Sullivan Shipping forward and provide the holistic service for which we have always been renowned.”

This philosophy has likewise moulded John’s approach to being CEO. “In my younger days, a CEO had a very different role to the CEO of today. Now, with the growth of companies and constantly-advancing technology, the role of a CEO is not to micro-manage and tell everyone what to do, but to provide an overview and empower people to innovate and make decisions.”

However, John points out that a standardised approach in how the company operates is still essential, to ensure it remains compliant with all regulatory requirements. “A major part of the CEO’s job is to make sure that things are being done properly, maintaining standards of quality both in documentation and checks, and ensuring that we are fully compliant with all regulations,” he explains. “This is of particular importance in the shipping industry today, wherein 50 or 60 people might be involved in the shipment of a single box. Without the use of modern technology this would be almost impossible but, by maintaining a standardised structure of communication, it becomes possible, thus safeguarding the industry process.”

In fact, staying on top of the paperwork is just one of the challenges faced by John and the team at Sullivan Shipping.

However, John points out that a standardised approach in how the company operates is still essential, to ensure it remains compliant.

“The shipping business is constantly changing and we need to adapt. These days, clients have multiple suppliers and numerous small items that they need to receive at top speed, so we must work quickly and efficiently. We must acclimatise to the modern world but keep to the traditions at the core of the business.”

Furthermore, leading a family-owned company also presents both challenges and opportunities. “Our development as a family-owned company gives our work a different dynamic. We have not only my generation and the next to consider, but we must also respect the wisdom and progress of family members no longer physically here. Sullivan was started by my great-grandfather, who had four sons including my grandfather, and they all had several children each, so the family grew exponentially, with most working under the Sullivan banner in various branches of the company. Leading a family business upon which so many related families now rely is a big responsibility.”

As he looks to the future of Sullivan Shipping, John nevertheless hopes that it continues to grow and upholds his open-minded yet focused approach to the business. “Sullivan Shipping has developed tremendously over the years, and I hope that it will keep developing long after I’ve retired and gone! I would like to be remembered as being fair, open and innovative, and for being someone who grew and strengthened the Sullivan Shipping and maritime legacy in Malta.” is proud to be serialising MaltaCEOs 2019, a high-profile publication consisting of 50 in-depth interviews with leading CEOs in Malta. Celebrating the most influential business minds in the country, two different interviews will be featured on this business news portal week by week. MaltaCEOs was created by Content House Group in collaboration with the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise & Industry.

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