The water bug has long been a part of my life. As a young child I sailed the Chesapeake with family and friends. I learned to race sailboats as small as Penguins to crew on offshore handicap.
My first job on boats was painting bottoms. Even today when I hire people, their first job is painting bottoms. If they can graduate from bottom painting, they will be great workers. During summers in my college years I was a crewmember on a Swan 45 that visited Canada, Norway and Greenland — a good education not taught in schools.
After college I was captain for a year on a large sailboat. That year, I sailed the East Coast and did the racing cruising circuit. It was fun, but on to real work. I tossed the anchor and began a string of new businesses. Working for companies evolved to starting businesses, which became more my focus.
After a career in the restaurant industry it was time to focus on something less demanding — or at least I thought it was. The marine industry might be more fun, but it definitely is no less demanding than restaurants.
Renting bikes, boats and scooters in Newport, R.I., evolved into InflatableXperts — the first of its kind in sales and service of inflatables. In 1995 no one in the United States knew what an inflatable was. We offered the service to educate people and sell and service these boats, and we ended up opening eight locations during a seven-year period.
As the market changed and inflatables became more of a commodity, our business model evolved. We got into outboard engines and fiberglass boats. Due to market changes and the ups and downs of the economy, we ended up closing or selling five of the locations.
The Annapolis and Rhode Island locations existed beyond the economic downturn. In the spring of 2015 I sold the Annapolis location to Annapolis Inflatables, good operators who will continue with a great model.
The Rhode Island location, known as Maritime Solutions, has grown into a full-service boat dealership serving the Rhode Island area market.
In 2008 I was introduced to Freedom Boat Club. I was intrigued by the concept. A good friend was struggling with it, and I tried to assist. With the poor economy and changes in FBC structure, he was going to fail. I offered to buy him out after he found no buyers on the horizon.
In retrospect it was a good move, although not during the first few years. Freedom Boat Club management bought the company, and they turned it in the proper direction. I am proud to say I own three locations in Rhode Island: Newport, Portsmouth and Warwick. I was a partner in Freedom Boat Club of Annapolis until it was sold last fall to a local operator, who will develop Freedom Boat Club over the Chesapeake Bay.
I and my partner — Pete DeVilbliss, of FBC New York — have opened three locations in eastern Connecticut — Deep River, Mystic and Westbrook.
We are excited by the Freedom Boat Club concept and see it as having a bright future in the evolving marine industry. It encourages entry-level boating at affordable pricing. It allows access to boating without the headaches. It is a growth model for the industry.
Enough about my day job. For the past three years I have served as president of the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association. RIMTA, under the great leadership of Executive Director Wendy Mackie, has grown from a small, sleepy trade group to a multifaceted organization and an industry leader.
RIMTA acquired the Providence Boat Show three years ago. It has been a leader in the development of job programs for the industry. The programs have become the model for job development in several states, including Maryland and Connecticut. RIMTA continues to lead Rhode Island, as the maritime trades are one of the state’s larger employers. It also has been recognized internationally because of its innovations and development.
I also serve as membership chairman of the Newport Yacht Club.
My career has had many ups and downs. It is a matter of proving yourself by not being afraid to bottom-paint. Second, it is important to get involved. When you make friends and earn the respect of others, good things will happen. There are many pathways to success in the marine industry, and they all involve people and hard work.
Dick Cromwell is president of the Freedom Boat Club of Rhode Island and Maritime Solutions.