After 50 Years, Still Sailing Strong, Thanks to Lessons From Dad
Mid-Lakes Navigation, in Skaneateles, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, defying the odds—just a third of small businesses survive more than 10 years. And among family businesses, just 30 percent make it through the second generation.
Mid-Lakes, which offers daily cruises on Skaneateles Lake and canalboat rentals on the Erie Canal, is owned and operated by four second-generation members of the Wiles family (the fifth retired in 2015). In a recent interview, marketing director Sarah Wiles discussed the factors behind its success.
Luck. Dad (Peter Wiles Sr.) was not looking to start a tour boat business; he had a golf course and restaurant. But he loved boats, and opportunity came knocking. He was never afraid to try something new. I think the willingness to jump when fate offers a new path is key to beginning a new business. If the passion is there, it can really go far!
Imagination. An entrepreneur like Dad has the ability to understand potential, to think outside the box. The dinner cruise resulted from his wanting to fill the first boat with paying passengers and use it as more than a mailboat. (Wiles Sr. had secured the contract to deliver mail to shoreside homes, a service the company continues to provide to this day.) We think it was among the first dinner cruises offered. And it came from the imagination of a young colleague.
Work ethic. Building a business from scratch and keeping it healthy requires serious sweat investment. There’s no middle management in a new business. My dad worked constantly. When he wasn’t driving a boat, cleaning a boat or maintaining a boat, he was thinking about what should be done next. And he never asked staff to do any job that he didn’t do. His lesson on “How to Clean the Heads (Toilets)” was legendary among his crew. Traditionally, all Mid-Lakes captains have that responsibility.
Respect and fair treatment of customers. A successful business owner lives by the Golden Rule, and a couple of others too. Dad taught us the classic wisdom that it takes a lot of effort to win a first-time customer. Give great service. And be human.
Employees. Look for the best people to fill your positions. Although this is tricky for a seasonal business, try to hire people with qualities you can’t train for: the ability to look ahead and solve problems; a calm, responsible nature. Loyalty, too. Dad was always pleased when he heard a worker use the pronoun “our,” rather than “their,” when referring to the company.
Perspective. Keep in mind that while your business is your life, it is not the life of your employees. You can expect hard work and loyalty, and you should reward those. But don’t demand the kind of work and commitment that you put in. Your staff should receive your understanding and your total respect.
Pursuit of excellence in products and service. We recently partnered with the Sherwood Inn to bring the quality of our meals to another level. Over the years, we’ve upgraded everything from carpeting on the main deck of the Judge Ben Wiles to the PA (public address) system. We’ve decreased capacity to increase passenger comfort and added staff to improve service. Even when the improvement is costly, it pays in customer experience. And that creates a powerful marketing force of loyal passengers.
Community support. Dad started us on the path of joining chambers of commerce and trade groups.We now belong to about 10. He set the example of being a good neighbor by joining the Borodino Volunteer Fire Department. It’s a commitment, but the Golden Rule comes into play. Or karma. Or, what goes around comes around. We volunteer at many levels, from raffle donations to building community docks. And when the power goes out, our restaurant friends loan us cooler space. Or we loan them a generator. You don’t last 50 years as an island!
Relations with industry colleagues. No one understands the challenges you face like others in your industry. It’s another kind of community, and the same karma applies. There are other advantages, too. When New York state seemed ready to pull the plug on the Canal System, Dad rallied with other operators and marinas and stakeholders to push back.
Relations with regulatory agencies, inspectors and licensing. We are proud to be held up as an example of how tour boats should be maintained and how training and compliance programs should be run. When we sold the Emita II, our regional Coast Guard inspectors could provide good reports to the buyer, facilitating a good sale. Our reputation for respecting regulations also means we have a valid voice in promoting change, when necessary.
Maintenance of assets. As a business owner, you must understand the value of your assets and the importance of keeping things in good order. Dad taught us to think ahead, which is especially critical for a seasonal business. He often said that everybody should learn to either fly a plane or captain a boat, since both endeavors require you to solve problems that have not yet appeared. Due to our short operating season, we can’t afford to be out of service for even a day. We always have spare components at the ready. Good maintenance has less-obvious benefits, too. Dad taught us that if the engine room is spotless, we can detect any fluid leak or problem instantly.
Slow growth to test changes/products. Mid-Lakes Navigation has always grown organically. This is mostly because we never had the capital to make big changes, or the time to do a lot of research. We did our research by trying new cruises or other systems slowly and seeing what sold, what improved efficiency, what made people happier. There were exceptions, like when we switched from a great big book to a computerized reservation system, which was terrifying. But it worked, and we love it now!
Expert help and advice. This is a hard one. Dad pretty much knew it all, and we apples haven’t fallen far from the tree. But recently, we enlisted consulting help to organize our financial and operational systems. It’s hard work to do what an expert recommends. It takes time you don’t think you have. But you’ll never regret investing in good expertise. And maybe someday, you’ll be the experts!
For more information on Mid-Lakes Navigation visit midlakesnav.com.