Conviction, Clarity, Compassion
Bob Sappio starts his workday at 4:30 a.m. and sends LinkedIn messages to his team on Saturday night. He’s committed, passionate, and a straight shooter–and gives his all to SeaCube’s technological and cultural transformation.
“I wound up going to Wagner College on Staten Island because they gave me a little money to play football,” Sappio says. At least that college afforded a view of ships sailing in and out of New York Harbor. After graduation, with the sea still on his mind, Sappio crossed the water to Manhattan for an entry-level job with American President Lines (APL). “I stayed with that company for 30 years,” he says.
Three decades with a major container carrier gave Sappio the perfect background for his latest role, chief executive officer at SeaCube Container Leasing. Sappio told us what it’s like to lead the fifth-largest container leasing company in the world and the leading lessor of refrigerated containers.
IL: Tell us about an early work experience that helped shape you as a leader.
APL’s New York location was the company’s largest regional office in North America. When executives visited from our Oakland headquarters, I paid particular attention to the preparations for their visits. I also observed how the executives comported themselves and how they interacted with the team. When a leader held an office meeting or a town hall meeting, I’d ask myself, “How would I want to be treated by that person?” I learned as much from the people who weren’t good leaders as from those who were.
IL: What’s at the top of your agenda at SeaCube these days?
Transformation, change, and getting the culture right have been at the top of my list since I became CEO three years ago. For example, we’re emphasizing transparent sharing of information. People need to share information to meet shared objectives. I actually had a plastic card made and gave it to every person in the company. It says, “What do I know? Who else needs to know? Have I told them yet?”
We’re also spending a lot of time on technology. Everybody today who ships anything wants an Amazon-like experience. It’s no different with containers, especially when it comes to refrigerated equipment for perishable shipments. Shippers want to know where their containers are, and they want to know the temperature and humidity. We spend a lot of time talking with technology vendors about how to help our customers—the carriers—provide that information to shippers. We’re also interested in all the data we can collect through the Internet of Things and how we can use that data to support better decisions.
IL: If we followed you around for one week at work, what would we find you doing?
If I were spending that week at our New Jersey office, you’d find me at my desk between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. I spend at least the first hour or two on email and phone calls with our offices in Asia and Europe. For the balance of the day, you’d see me interacting with our management team. I consider myself to be hands-on, although not suffocating. I’d also be on the phone with customers, lenders, investors, and board members.
IL: When you get up in the morning, what are the first two things about the business that you check?
When I get up, usually between 4:30 a.m. and 5 a.m., I grab my phone or iPad to see what has happened overnight in Asia and what’s happening in the morning in Europe. I also check on the cost of money and the cost of equipment, two things that are important to a leasing company.
IL: Which personal qualities are most important in a leader?
Conviction that what you’re doing is right, clarity of direction, and competence to do the job are all important. Good leaders have the humility to know when they need to ask for help. If I’m the smartest guy in the room, I’m in the wrong room! I like to surround myself with smart people who have diverse opinions. Compassion and caring are also important. Communicate with people; bring them into the tent. If somebody makes a mistake, hug them a little more and try to show them what’s right. You can be a tough and demanding boss and still be good and kind to people.
IL: How would your direct reports describe your leadership style?
They’d tell you I’m committed and passionate—maybe wound a little too tight because sometimes I send them LinkedIn messages on Saturday nights. They’d say I’m fair, tough-minded, and inclusive. I care about continuous improvement and I’m committed to the company building a rock-solid balance sheet. I care about our employees: I know their names and the names of most of their spouses and kids.
On the negative side, they might tell you I can be a little too intense. They tell me I have too many meetings, so maybe I take the inclusivity thing a little too far. But I think they’d tell you they enjoy working with me, and there’s never a question about where they stand, because I’m the type of leader who tells you exactly what I’m thinking. We’ve got a great team of people at SeaCube; I’m thrilled to be working with them.
IL: How do you like to spend your time outside of work?
I like spending time with my family. I’ve been married for 35 years to a wonderful woman I met in college. My oldest son is an officer in the Navy, so unfortunately we don’t see him often. My younger son lives and works in New York City, in supply chain. I love anything I can do that’s near the ocean. We have a beach house on the Jersey Shore and a boat. I’m also a voracious reader. My wife tells me my two vices are buying too much wine and too many books.
IL: What have you read lately that you’d recommend?
I’m reading Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations by Admiral William H. McRaven and I just finished Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis. He says something in that book that I love: If you’re not reading hundreds of books, you’re functionally illiterate because your own life experience isn’t broad enough to teach you what you have to know.
Despite his long career in shipping and his affinity for all things watery, Bob Sappio has yet to cross the ocean. “I’m a sailor, I’m a fisherman, I have a boat—but I’ve never been to sea,” he says.
If Sappio could change jobs with another person for one day, there’s no question what he would do. “I’d be a ship’s master or a first officer—something that would get me on a ship—to sail under the Verrazzano Bridge in New York and out to sea. Just once, I would love to be able to do that.”