SAFETY4SEA: How did it come about that you joined shipping industry and your field of expertise specifically?

Catherine Spencer: I’d been working at icddr,b in Dhaka, Bangladesh for three and a half years. It’s a tough environment so I began to explore my options to return to the safe haven of the UK. I saw the role at Seafarers UK and the chance to join this fascinating sector was too good to miss. I’ve been a CEO of the British charity, Army Families Federation and more recently the Director of Communications and Change Management, with a long spell as acting COO at icddr,b during a period of extreme change.

S4S: What about your current job/role most excites you and why?

C.Sp.: As with all organisations, it is vital that we evolve to enable us to create tangible outcomes for seafarers - and so working with the organisation, our beneficiaries and across the sector to learn and understand more is exciting and hugely interesting. We will end up with a new strategy which I’m itching to implement.

S4S: When you think of the word successful who's the first person who comes to mind and why?

C.Sp.: Definitely my father. He attended a Welsh grammar school and was the first in his family to go to university before going onto do a PhD in Chemical Engineering. In fact in his first job at ICI he designed a new type of screw for a ship. Sensing change he headed for the City and went on to have a hugely successful career. Back in the 1970s and 1980s his colleagues were all from the likes of Eton and Harrow. He was the first non-independent school board member in his very traditional stockbroking firm.

S4S: Who is/was the most influential person/mentor to you & why?

C.Sp.: When I joined icddr,b, it was in severe crisis, subject to incredible demonstrations. Ingrid Renauld was the COO. I was impressed by her calm manner as she dealt with protesters and racism. She is a Haitian American, and being the female boss in Bangladesh meant she had to stay strong despite protesters carrying signs saying ‘COO go home’. She is probably the most impressive woman in industry I’ve met - but it’s good to see some inspiring females making their way in shipping too.

S4S: What is the best piece of advice you've ever been given and why?

C.Sp.: When I started working at the Army Families Federation, where my job was to liaise with families, Military Command and Government, my predecessor Bex Valentine told me ‘Never bullshit a General’. Great advice and a reminder to be well prepared or say you don’t know. I think of that often whenever I’m seeing a senior exec - mostly they’ll know if you’re bluffing.

S4S: What is the most worthwhile career investment (in energy, time, money) you’ve ever made?

C.Sp.: Working at the Army Families Federation as CEO. Normally 18 hour days, I ate slept and breathed it. The pay was truly appalling but the experience and network I gained were invaluable. My MBA was a big investment, but nothing compensates for rolling your sleeves up and getting on with it.

S4S: If you could give a piece of advice to your 18-year-old self, one thing, what would it be and why?

C.Sp.: The old favorite, ‘fake it ‘til you make it.’ (Everyone else is!)

S4S: In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your business life?

C.Sp.: When you go into a meeting with someone whom you have found problematic, don’t assume that the meeting will be difficult. Go in with a fresh approach. If you go in assuming problems you’ll see ghosts where there are none.

S4S: What would you like to change in the current maritime landscape and your area of expertise specifically and why?

C.Sp.: Seafarers UK is an organisation which ensures that the sector is delivering quality services to seafarers. We have a ‘cradle to grave’ approach covering the whole of the seafarers’ voyage. It would be great to see more maritime organisations working with us to allow us to continue our role of ensuring excellence. Encouraging Payroll Giving is top of my agenda.


Catherine Spencer is the new Chief Executive of Seafarers UK from July 2019. She has spent the last three years as Director of Communications and Change Management at icddrb, a complex international health research organisation based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Prior to this, Catherine spent seven years at the Army Families Federation in senior management positions. During her tenure at icddrb Catherine worked with key donors, technical experts, government departments and international organisations, whilst playing a pivotal role in developing and implementing the charity’s organisational strategy. Catherine was also a Trustee and council member of a wide range of grant-giving and advocacy organisations.