Blue Economy Convergence Conversation: Government Maritime Expert Joseph Wheatley
Joseph (Joe) Wheatley is an underwater acoustics and maritime systems expert. He is well-versed in everything encompassed by the government maritime category. His passion and experience were passed down to him by his father, a retired world-call underwater acoustician who earned success working with the Navy during the Cold War. In 1976 Joe’s father was recruited by then Mississippi Senator John Stennis to come to the Naval Oceanographic Office and the Naval Research Laboratory in Mississippi. Joe was raised in South Mississippi, about 40 miles from the coast and the Meteorology Oceanography Command headquarters. Proudly following in his father’s footsteps, Joe now owns a scientific and engineering consulting firm that works with the United States Department of Defense and DARPA. He also supports private industry and universities across the US and is a key member of a Mississippi task force that was instrumental in launching the state’s Blue Economy initiative.
In this Blue Economy Convergence Conversation, Joe and I discuss the similarities between Mississippi and Willmington and how lessons learned could possibly be applied to Wilmington’s Blue Economy efforts.
Deb: What is your definition of the Blue Economy?
Joe: The Blue Economy is an amalgamation of public and private entities that understand the natural resources, talents, and core capabilities in geographic locations to create a different type of economic development plan on the water. It could be in oil, gas, Department of Defense, Homeland Security, or marine resources fisheries. Together, they seek to build economic development around the ocean and waterways.
Deb: How was the Blue Economy concept used in Mississippi and how could that be helpful for Wilmington as it thinks about its future?
Joe: There is a tug of war between economic development and maintaining natural resources for the future. Mississippi has both of those interests in mind. From early on, Mississippi understood we have the Gulf Port, the Gulf Coast cities, and an amazing government resource in the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command. We also have universities with undergraduate and graduate degrees in hydrography, ocean engineering, acoustics, marine biology, and zoology. We had an idea to combine resources and leverage our assets to create this new evolving workforce.
I think the lessons learned could apply to Wilmington. They have so much talent in their universities. They have the port, fisheries, and defense and homeland security assets. There’s a huge cornucopia of capabilities and talent that needs to be harnessed and moved forward. In the same way, we had envisioned the Mississippi we wanted, and today, we’re seeing success and growth. We just recruited Ocean Aero, our first out-of-state medium-sized company to relocate (from San Diego) to build unmanned vessels in Mississippi. We had a vision that we wrapped in a package and leveraged to move forward to a very robust and growing economy.
Deb: Who are the “we”? Was it a small group or the government?
Joe: I had started my firm in Mississippi and then went to Washington DC to work. I told myself I would always remember where I came from and my father’s legacy. I wanted to bring resources to the Mississippi Gulf Coast from Washington DC — specifically defense funding. We had an opportunity to build a mass-surface, large unmanned surface vessel in Gulfport, Mississippi. A Mississippi company won the contract and it was the genesis of the idea to grow a Blue Economy in Mississippi.
There were definitely key people that made this happen — our Governor Phil Bryant, the Dean of Engineering at the University of Southern Mississippi, and a former technical director of the NATO undersea laboratory. We met to brainstorm ways to get started. We needed a workforce to get the Blue Economy going. We needed to train the future workforce. The governor stepped up to form a task force composed of university and community college presidents and deans to mature our ideas.
Deb: Sounds like the big contract that gave you needed resources and was pivotal in getting started.
Joe: If you were to mention Gulfport Mississippi to anybody, few would even know where it was on a map. The contract gave national exposure to the Gulf Coast. Prior to that, we were the largest banana importer in the world and we were known in the shrimping industry, but not for the Blue Economy.
So when you say Wilmington, North Carolina, do people know about it? Some type of event, organically, or promotionally may help to have people learn about Wilmington and what it is doing. The All Blue event is a great start.
Deb: When did you really start thinking big about what the possibility could be in Mississippi? What was that evolution and how did the momentum pick up?
Joe: After the contract was awarded, we needed to identify the talents and competencies the Gulf Coast had to support it. We found them in the universities and the Naval Oceanographic office. One thing to know is that Mississippi is very low on the gross domestic product scale and we have a lot of issues in Mississippi as far as economic development goes. So we were very passionate about helping our home state. It lit a fire that kept us going. Once we understood our core competencies, had a location, had the Meteorology Command on board, and the governor-supported task force, we knew we had something going. Dozens of people were on board. We had private companies, even energy companies like Mississippi Power and Coastal Electric, hosting our efforts and providing us office spaces for conference calls and meetings. They had no direct interest in this effort other than benefitting Mississippi. Universities sent their vice-chancellors of research to the meetings. Everybody came on board fast.
But then we plateaued.
Deb: When did things start to plateau?
Joe: I would say probably two to three years after the contract award. After our fast ramp-up of excitement and so many groups came on board, we moved into execution mode to get a Blue Economy incubator going. We were caught asking ourselves, what do we do next? How do we recruit more businesses? How do we sell Mississippi leadership to get the businesses we needed on board? In the ten years since then, we’ve changed leadership in the governor’s office and some of the other organizations we had on board. Efforts continue to mature our Blue Economy in Mississippi.
Deb: What do you see are the greatest challenges to success for Wilmington as it pursues its Blue Economy?
Joe: It’s a whole team effort; there are no individual pursuits. Just like in Mississippi, we had a common goal in mind. We knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. So whatever Wilmington tries to do as they recruit the political, industry, or education leaders, everybody has to be a team player. There can’t be egos that view education is better than industry, or industry as better than political leadership. Aspirations need to be everybody is on board and we have a common goal. If there isn’t a hundred percent buy-in from everybody for the one mission, it will not work. If there isn’t one mission, then one needs to be identified immediately.
Another important point, and I’ll quote one of my favorite authors, Mark Twain, “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s’ what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” The message is to know what you don’t know. Identify your weaknesses and how you can harness any energy to improve those weaknesses. Communicate to whomever you know what the mission is and what you’re trying to do. So you have strengths and weaknesses. Everybody knows their strengths. A lot of people don’t know or can’t identify their weaknesses. The point is for Wilmington to identify the weaknesses and what needs to be improved for the greater common good of the Blue Economy.
They should start now or should have already engaged their political leaders. This includes state leaders, the governor’s office, federal leaders, congressmen, senators, presidents of the universities, and even industry leaders. Start courting and building relationships to get everybody on board. It is key to success.
Deb: What is your greatest hope for the future?
Joe: I’m an eternal optimist, right. I’m very pragmatic too. I would love to be a part of training the scientists who devise ways to harvest energy from the ocean or prevent oil spills. Maybe they create medicine from their research of the ocean. I love innovation. If I could hope for the world, it would be to create and innovate to make this place better. We are only given a finite amount of resources on this planet and we need to take care of them. This includes taking care of people.
Joe reminds us that as technology breaks down boundaries, business decisions have a growing potential for global impact. For leaders, this reality means rethinking traditional decision-making models to balance people, planet, and profit. As they do, they can orient in one central truth — the only way to serve the complex needs of humanity is to put stakeholders at the center. John Kotter at Harvard Business School describes the process as see, feel, and change. Leaders must see our current organizational structures and systems are outdated and incapable of sustaining future success. They must feel the power of all the competing forces creating an imbalance in the environments in which they operate and realize that now is the time to transition to a human-centric perspective. And they must have the courage to speak up, understanding that they have the resources and capacity to make the necessary pivot and that doing so will increase the probability of a successful future.
Deborah Westphal is a leader in future-focused strategy. In her book Convergence, she leverages more than 30 years of experience helping the world’s most innovative business and government leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections. She delivers this rich insight with an empathetic and thought-provoking writing style to chart a path for readers. Throughout the book, personal stories and historical examples highlight convergences that span the globe, impacting everything from global supply chains to climate change, and reshaping the future of business, technology, and humanity everywhere.
Get your copy of Convergence here.