Been There, Run That

Women have filled executive positions at Sea Tow since Joseph and Georgia Frohnhoefer founded the company in 1983
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Co-founded by Georgia Frohnhoefer (center, front), Sea Tow has been an outlier in a male-dominated industry.

Co-founded by Georgia Frohnhoefer (center, front), Sea Tow has been an outlier in a male-dominated industry.

When Sea Tow business development vice president Cindy McCaffery went to the Norwalk Boat Show in Connecticut for the first time more than a decade ago, it was eye-opening to see how few women were in the marine industry. Things have always been different at Sea Tow International, where more than 67 percent of employees are women.

“I think back then there wasn’t as much eye contact as there is today,” McCaffery says with a laugh. “I don’t get the look of, ‘Who can I speak with?’ as much anymore. And specifically with our brand, we’ve been able to show that we put our money where our mouth is, and that it didn’t matter if it was a female or a male in that role.”

Women have long held positions of leadership at Sea Tow.

Women have long held positions of leadership at Sea Tow.

Sea Tow has been an outlier in an industry that men dominate, in part because Georgia Frohnhoefer was a critical player in building the company with her husband, Joseph Frohnhoefer II, who died in 2015. “When we started Sea Tow, you just had to do what you had to do, and you learned as you went,” Frohnhoefer says. “I was in charge of every department because I was every department. I wore a lot of different yellow Sea Tow hats.”

Today, four of the company’s six departments are women-led. Gail Kulp heads the Sea Tow Foundation. Jenny Waters is Sea Tow’s director of marketing. Patrizia Zanaboni is controller and leads human resources, and Alicia Grattan is the customer care center manager. Kristen Frohnhoefer, Georgia’s daughter, is Sea Tow president.

From the Beginning

The company culture was established early for all employees, says Kristen, who runs day-to-day operations with her brother, Joseph Frohnhoefer III. The Frohnhoefers have always embraced flexible schedules. “The credit goes to mom, to Georgia,” Kristen says. “She just set an example for everyone because she was such an integral part of the company. They say there’s a woman behind the man, and that woman was mom. My father might have had the vision, but Mom was the one who got it done and demonstrated you can do anything you want.”

The likelihood of women taking on leadership roles grew exponentially because the company offered flexibility in the way people do their jobs. “I worked at a public accounting firm 20 years ago that was very open to having women not only at higher levels, but also on a part-time level with a family, on a track,” Zanaboni says. “If women are allowed to do that on the job — split time between taking care of a family and working — you’re finding more and more able to rise to the higher levels.”

Sea Tow hasn’t ceased operations during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sea Tow hasn’t ceased operations during the coronavirus pandemic.

Data show that including more women and diversity in management can increase revenue. And the flexibility Sea Tow offers paid off when the pandemic hit. Many staffers were already equipped to work remotely. “That’s one thing that’s important to employee wellness: If your son or daughter has an event at school, go for it, or if you have to take the kids to a doctor’s appointment, go do it,” Kristen says. “That’s where people are very used to working at home or off-site.”

The company tends to be diverse in other ways, as well, says Grattan, who has worked with customer service at Sea Tow for 16 years, since she was 14. “We have different age groups too — older, young — so I think everyone can learn something from each other,” she says. “We have a whole bunch of different crowds, and we all get along pretty well.”

Communication

While there are a growing number of female Sea Tow captains, it’s still a male-dominated field, so the company is hoping to grow that roster. Capt. Amy Donaldson, co-owner of Sea Tow Sebastian in Florida, grew up turning wrenches with her mechanic father. She says being in such a male-dominated industry makes her appreciate her female colleagues.

Sea Tow co-founder Georgia Frohnhoefer

Sea Tow co-founder Georgia Frohnhoefer

Marketing director Jenny Waters 

Marketing director Jenny Waters 

President Kristen Frohnhoefer

President Kristen Frohnhoefer

“It’s one thing for the guys to get together and talk, but when the women get together and share the highs and lows of our experiences, it makes a difference knowing that they have been there, too,” Donaldson says. “We share a special bond as women working in the marine assistance industry, challenging the stereotype of what a boat captain or marine business owner should look like.”

Finding employees who speak their minds, as well as listen, is important to the Frohnhoefers, Kristen says. “It’s one of the things I like about our teams — all the women in leadership do speak their mind,” she says. “Everyone is very confident in themselves, but I think women tend to have a respect for others and others’ intelligence. They’re willing to jump in and help but understand we’re not better than anyone else.”

Communicating During Upheaval

Although today’s remote meetings are exacerbating gender imbalances at many companies — some women report feeling just as talked-over online as in person — Sea Tow’s “speak your mind” policy has helped ease the transition to remote working. “Just because we change how we speak to someone doesn’t mean we’re talking down or talking up. We’re just communicating,” McCaffery says. “You can pick up the phone at any time and say you need something, and it’s all hands on deck. That’s from the top down — it’s Kristen’s directive — but also from the bottom up.”

For example, Waters had to make a quick decision about a photo shoot for new marketing materials. As the pandemic shut everything shut, she worried she’d be trying to present an unfinished campaign at an annual meeting. “Cindy and I were going back and forth and I kept saying, ‘I don’t know if we can do this,’ ” Waters says. “If she didn’t push me over the edge to say, ‘We’re going for it,’ it would never have happened. We’re very supportive of each other.”

The pandemic has led Kristen to communicate more frequently with the Sea Tow team, as well as with off-site workers, improving communications all around. “It’s given all of us a better understanding of our off-site team,” she says. “I feel like we’ve done more in the past five weeks than in the past five years.”

Sea Tow has been assisting boaters since the 1980s.

Sea Tow has been assisting boaters since the 1980s.

Remote working also may be inspiring the next generation of women leaders, Waters says. Her husband is also working remotely now. They have two young daughters. “Having your daughters see you working from home and getting to understand what you do, rather than saying, ‘Bye, I’m leaving’ — it’ll pay off in spades,” Waters says. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue.

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