The one sentence that took Carnival's CEO from poverty to running a $48 billion company

Carnival Corporation's CEO and President Arnold Donald.
Justin Solomon | CNBC

Words have the power to transform your life. Just ask Arnold Donald, CEO of the world's largest leisure travel company, Carnival Corporation.

In junior high, Donald was recognized as an academically gifted student so his parents enrolled him at St. Augustine, an all-male, all-black Catholic high school in New Orleans.

Everyday, three times a day, the school blasted this message through its PA system: "Gentlemen prepare yourselves. You're going to run the world."

These nine words had a profound impact on a young Donald, who grew up in New Orleans' poverty-stricken, crime-ridden 9th Ward and attended high school during the civil rights movement.

At age 16, Donald decided that he was going to be a general manager at a Fortune 50 science-based global company and he began creating a career plan.

"I mapped it my junior year in high school and I kept mapping throughout college," the 63-year-old CEO tells CNBC Make It.

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His first step was determining which college degrees would help him achieve his goal. "I said well, 'I'm going to have to have an MBA, a business degree,'" recalls Donald. But not just any business school would do.

Donald wanted to gain acceptance into the top MBA program, which meant that he needed the best credentials in order to stand out from the competition. So he pivoted and focused on selecting the right undergraduate courses.

Since he wanted to work at a science-based company, Donald chose to major in engineering at Washington University. Still, that wasn't enough.

"[I knew that] if I got two undergraduate degrees then that would differentiate me from other people applying to business school," he says.

Donald figured that other applicants would take a similar STEM path, so he pursed an economics degree at Carleton College in Minnesota. "I had to do a bunch more credits and everything but it made me different," says Donald. "My goal was to always differentiate and at the same time be prepared."

With two degrees, Donald knew that when an opportunity arose he'd be well-prepared to take advantage of it. "It's all about maximizing profitability," the CEO explains. His plan worked.

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He received admission to the University Of Chicago Booth School of Business (voted the No. 1 business school in the country in 2018). While attending Booth, Donald revisiting his career outline after reaching out to "a gazillion" CEOs to find out how they got their positions.

"The takeaway I got was, make sure every job you have prepares you to excel in the next job," recalls Donald. The CEOs also advised the business student to focus on job content and responsibility, instead of title and money.

"So I mapped it out," he says. "I had a whole career plan and then I executed it."

Donald's decision to abide by his high school mantra of preparation served him well upon graduating from Booth. He received 20 job offers and accepted a position at Monsanto, the Missouri-based agricultural biotech company, where he quickly moved up in rank.

At the age of 32, Donald was named general manager at Monsanto and achieved the goal he had set half a lifetime ago.

After spending roughly two decades with the organization, Donald purchased Monsanto's Equal sugar substitute with a group of investors. Together, they created a new company called Merisant, with headquarters in Chicago. Donald led as CEO for three years before stepping down and remained as chairman for two more years before retiring at age 51.

The Carnival Breeze in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
Getty Images

In 2013, Carnival Corporation called him out of retirement. At the time, the Miami-based company was facing two public relations nightmares: In 2012, one of their ships had capsized off the coast of Italy, killing 32 people. Then in 2013, a ship suffered a power outage, which affected its sanitation system and left 4,200 passengers dealing with raw sewage and fecal matter.

Even though the economy was booming, Carnival's profits were stagnant and shareholders were getting agitated. In July 2013, Donald took over the company and almost five years later, the travel brand has experienced a remarkable turnaround.

For two consecutive years, the cruise line has boasted it's highest profits in the company's 45-year history and has nearly doubled its stock price from $34.85 in 2013 to $66.91 at the end of the first quarter of 2018, according to Carnival.

Donald's performance as CEO hasn't gone unnoticed either. In fact, CNBC's "Mad Money" host Jim Cramer called him "the man who may be the best turnaround artist of our time."

However, Donald says that his rise to the top of Carnival's $48 billion empire was simply a matter of internalizing St. Augustine's call nearly 50 years ago.

"If you prepare and [have] no excuses, you can pretty much do whatever you want," he says.

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