Combat Emotion with Facts

How Regulator’s Joan Maxwell prioritizes learning, in seas rough and smooth
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I remember Regulator Marine’s president, Joan Maxwell, from past boat shows as unfailingly friendly and upbeat. What I discovered when interviewing her and asking others about her is that she is not only always upbeat, but also consistently focused on learning.

“Joan is a very positive person,” Thom Dam­mrich told me. As the past president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, Dammrich worked closely with Maxwell when she chaired the NMMA board of directors during the momentous move of the Miami International Boat Show from Miami Beach to Virginia Key. “She was a remarkable leader during that challenging time,” he added, “always calm and able to look at the situation objectively and ask insightful questions.”

In early May, those qualities were proving key as the covid-19 pandemic continued to upend life as we know it. Maxwell, by phone, described leadership as looking to the future. “We can’t just look at today’s facts. We have to look far enough out to see what the consumer is going to do. When I don’t know what the economy is going to do, I look to economists to tell us what they see. I can take that and begin to work with our team to develop a plan to survive and be successful.”

Regulator is a midsize company that builds two lines of center consoles to 41 feet. Maxwell founded the company in 1988 with her husband, Owen, who is vice president of engineering. The company is based in Edenton, a town of about 5,000 people in rural North Carolina, a region with very few covid-19 cases as of early May. Maxwell says the factory had remained open, complying with the governor’s requirements for 6-foot social distancing. Regulator separated manufacturing from the company offices, was cleaning the facilities three times daily, and had allowed no visitors since March 19. There was a plan in the event that an employee became infected, but as of our conversation, no cases had been recorded.

Maxwell acknowledges some nervousness among employees. Her mantra is to “combat emotion with fact,” providing regular updates on the state and region to help people understand the situation — to assure them every effort is being made to keep them safe. “When we start looking at it in factual ways, it’s helpful to people,” Maxwell says.

To be able to dispense useful information requires gathering it, and Maxwell normally does market research on the road, visiting dealers and attending industry events. When we spoke, she had been in her office since mid-March and had spent more time than usual reading and calling dealers for updates.

She also pointed to the value of her C-12 group, a monthly Christian roundtable of 12 area company leaders who continued to meet during the pandemic, via Zoom, to share information from different business sectors.

At Regulator, Maxwell leads a management team of seven that includes Owen, plus the heads of engineering, human resources, sales, manufacturing and finance. “We meet every Monday,” she says, “and the only reason you can miss it is if you’re dead or you’re dying.” The reason for the required attendance, she says, is to stay aligned on company goals. While the pandemic disrupted Regulator’s plans, the “discipline of the meeting makes it possible to walk through the crisis differently,” Maxwell says.

“It was important to get ahead of the decisions,” she says. “With the Great Recession, we didn’t make cuts in overhead and costing structure fast enough. We weren’t meeting as an executive team. We didn’t have the bandwidth. We didn’t have a great financial person in place.”

On March 20, the team reduced its workforce from 237 to 188. Since then, Regulator has taken more steps to protect the company — for example, moving the shutdown week to May from the Fourth of July, adding capacity later when it may be needed.

Maxwell often references the importance of her faith. She says the company mission is “to build the best center console sportfishing boats with people, processes and resources to honor God. Whatever we’re doing in this time period, we want to remember doing it all to the honor of God.” Maxwell has an In His Service group of 10 employees who are empowered to offer useful courses, arrange company events and provide emergency assistance funds to employees.

How might a leader’s faith show up in day-to-day operations? I got a glimpse from Dammrich. “Joan reads a daily devotion,” he says. “At one particularly low point for me, when it looked like we might fail [to move the boat show], she typed her devotion from that day and sent it to me. It was a prayer asking for God’s help and recognizing that the outcome was in his hands and we would accept whatever he had in store for us. It was particularly powerful for me at the time. I taped it above my computer and said that prayer every day until well past the first successful Miami Show on Virginia Key.”

Maxwell says she was an unremarkable student at University of North Carolina, but it’s clear that lifelong learning became a key to her leadership path. “I like to learn things that are of value to me,” she says. “I’m a high-utilitarian learner.”

An early example is when, soon after graduating from college, Maxwell’s mother taught her the basics of bookkeeping so she could take a nearby job. From that job, she learned many fundamental business lessons. Since then, in partnership with her husband, Maxwell has learned a lot about leading through give and take. “We balance each other,” she says. “I want something now for the customer, and Owen says, ‘We can’t do that and provide it with the quality we’re known for.’ I’ll tend to be more impetuous at times, and he’s much more methodical. That doesn’t mean it’s always bluebirds and sunshine all the time, but it works for us because of mutual respect.”

Maxwell also credits industry role models — people such as Dammrich and her friend and competitor Kris Carroll at Grady-White — who got her involved in NMMA leadership. Of Carroll, Maxwell says, “She is fair, joyful and runs her company with great discipline. She’s built an incredible culture, and she’s very free to share the things she’s learned in her journey. To me, that is a mark of not a good leader but a great leader.”

Dammrich describes another pre-Miami crisis that shows Maxwell’s grit and focus on facts. The permits for the in-water show were delayed, he says, but the electrician needed $1 million of electrical equipment ordered for the in-water portion, to be sure the equipment would arrive in time. But if the association spent the $1 million and didn’t get the permit, Dammrich says, there would be $1 million of unusable equipment.

“Joan presided over an executive committee called on short notice, and in a relatively short time got [it] to approve spending the $1 million,” Dammrich says. “Our goal was to produce the show at Virginia Key. Staying focused on the desired outcome, the decision was easier than it appeared. Joan kept us focused on the mission and the goal, and helped to bat away all the noise that made some decisions seem more complex than they really were. Hell, the whole undertaking was a monumental risk. Joan kept things in perspective.”

Maxwell says that when she starts to worry about something, she asks herself, What do I know? If I can figure out what it is I know, then it helps reveal to me what I don’t know so I can then try to figure out how I get that piece of information. Each piece of information helps me make a better decision.” 

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue.

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