Opportunities instead of obstacles

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Blind dealer Vincent Morvillo has a unique perspective as he conquers challenges beyond the economy

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Vincent Morvillo learned early on to "see" differently because the 65-year-old yacht dealer, consultant and motivational speaker has been blind since birth.

"I had to think differently because I always had to learn to do things differently," says Morvillo, owner of Sea Lake Yacht Sales, of Kemah, Texas, one of the Gulf Coast's largest yacht sales and brokerage businesses.

Morvillo grew up overcoming challenges and adapting daily to changes in his environment by devising creative ways to accomplish tasks without eyesight. He says it has helped him as an entrepreneur and businessman and has better equipped him to respond to changes in the marketplace. "We don't have to see change as a disruption," he said in a talk at the International Marina & Boatyard Conference in Fort Lauderdale in January. "We don't have to see it as a problem. I see change as a gift" - an opportunity.

Morvillo says entrepreneurs are always alert to new opportunities. They see a need, they cast a vision to respond to that need and then they execute. They start a business or change its direction. In a marketplace such as the one we are in now, where it seems that the only constant is change, "you have to embrace the change, work with it, be comfortable with it and reconnect with that entrepreneurial spirit," Morvillo says.

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Small business is the backbone of the marine industry; the men and women who built the industry had "passion, energy and an incredible entrepreneurial spirit," he says. "We believed there was nothing that could stop us. We were tireless in our approach to the business. There was no obstacle too great."

He warns against complacency. "Don't get comfortable with the way things are," he says. Keep the entrepreneurial fire burning. Don't focus on the downside of this marketplace - the lower sales volume, the tougher loan terms. "Focus on the opportunities," he says. "The reality is 90 percent of the American public is working. People are using their boats. They are getting them repaired." Get a piece of that business, he told the marina and boatyard operators.

Morvillo learned that scrappy attitude from his mother, Ruth. "I had an awesome mom who wouldn't let me believe I had a disability," he says. "If I wanted to get work or run with the kids, she'd let me do it - and she'd leave me on my own." Her mantra: "I want you to go out there and try."

When Morvillo was 5 years old, his mother would swing by his uncle's boatyard in Riverside, R.I., and drop him off for the day to explore a strange new world - the tools and materials of building wooden boats - under his uncle's loose supervision. "I loved crawling around in that boatyard, in the shed. I stayed in the building most of the time," he says.

He became interested in boats and in woodworking. Today he is a skilled furniture maker. His father built a couple of small boats in their garage, and they'd go fishing in them. Spending summers at the beach, he learned to sail with his family. He dug for quahogs and sold them to the shellfish store. It was his first business venture. As a teen he worked at the store, bagging and stacking 80-pound bags of quahogs. "I was different, but I wasn't different," he says.

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He went to public school, even tried out for Little League. His mom bought him a baseball glove; the first day of practice was discouraging. "I couldn't hit the ball. I couldn't catch the ball. I got hit by the ball. I was feeling really bad when I climbed into the car after practice," he says. "My mom put her arm around me and said, 'You know what? You tried. Not succeeding isn't failure. Failure is not trying.' "

Though he didn't succeed at Little League, he did at many other things. He graduated from California State University in San Jose in 1968 with a bachelor's degree in sociology and extensive course work in physiology, anatomy and motor skills development. He worked his way through college, doing pulmonary research with children suffering from cystic fibrosis.

After graduation he headed the pulmonary research and respiratory therapy department of the children's hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., where he had been doing that research. In 1975, he was named executive vice president of Houston Ventures Inc., a venture capital firm specializing in turnarounds and new business development in the medical, manufacturing, organic foods and precious metals reclamation industries.

Then he bought an old marina on Galveston Bay and transformed it into a combination marina, wholesale seafood, bait shop and restaurant business. In 1985, a year after receiving an MBA from the University of Houston, he used the proceeds from the sale of his marina business to found Sea Lake Yacht Sales, a Beneteau, Catalina, Lagoon and Pacific Seacraft dealer.

Like many businesses on the Gulf Coast, Sea Lake Yacht Sales suffered the double blow of Hurricane Ike, which made landfall Sept. 13, 2008 - the third-costliest hurricane to make a U.S. landfall - and the start of the Great Recession. Morvillo says his business survived these events with a combination of focus, commitment and innovation - three crucial ingredients of the "entrepreneurial spirit."

Morvillo says it's easy for employees to become distracted by bad news when the economy goes into a tailspin. The leader's job is to shift their attention away from the distractions, restore their commitment to moving forward and get them focused on what they can do today to jump-start the business. Innovation is finding new ways to sell a product or service when the old business model isn't working.

Borrowing from the Dupont Center for Creativity & Innovation, Morvillo tries to get his people thinking about possibilities and opportunities instead of obstacles. He says it's important to identify problems, but give them a positive spin by asking: How might we change? How might we do things differently?

He brainstorms with his staff to get as many ideas as he can, then sorts them into categories: those that have a high probability of success and he can do now; those with a low probability of success that he can do now; those that have a high probability of success but will take longer to implement; and those with a low probability of success and will take longer to accomplish.

Morvillo says he starts working on those things that are likely to succeed and his staff can work on now. He puts the good ideas that will take longer to implement on a back burner and works on them as he can. He calls this "harnessing the power of the unimagined," something he says he has become adept at because, being sightless, he must imagine so much that others can see.

Morvillo bought a Snipe in college, sailed it competitively with friends and did reasonably well. In 1993 he won the National Blind Sailing Championship and a bronze medal in the first World Blind Sailing Championship in Auckland, New Zealand. In 2004 he further challenged himself and became the first blind skipper to win a national sailing championship, in the Ensign class at Newport, R.I. Morvillo helmed and sailed with three sighted crew.

The key to the victory: communication. "Communication between me and the mainsail trimmer, who was my eyes on the water," Morvillo says.

He says a can-do attitude also was essential not just for him, but also for his crew. "Fate is the hand we are dealt," he says. "Destiny is how we play the hand."

Morvillo plays his while imagining the unimaginable.

Visit www.vincemorvillo.com for more about Morvillo's speaking and training programs.

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.

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