Hurricanes. Recessions. Here's How We Survived It All

Last Updated Jan 21, 2011 1:46 PM EST

By Vince Morvillo, Owner, Sea Lake Yacht Sales, Houston, Tex.
In 2008, my business, Sea Lake Yacht Sales, faced two enormous challenges: a hurricane and an economic recession. The boating industry had experienced difficulties in the previous few years, but we'd had strong sales in the first two quarters of 2008 and my sales team was starting to feel better. Then hurricane Ike hit in September and really knocked the confidence out of the team. The recession hit just a few months later.

We went from averaging more than $13 million in annual revenue before the hurricane to sales of just $7 million in 2008.

I strongly believed that we could pull through as long as my sales team didn't get discouraged. So I told them to view the challenges as opportunities, and we found creative ways to reach out to our customers and improve our sales strategies. As a blind man, I've learned not to think about the things that aren't supposed to be possible. If I thought about what I "can't" do, I never would have won a national yacht racing championship against sighted guys or taken up making furniture with power tools.

I try to apply the same approach to my business, and that point of view has helped us survive through these latest challenges.

Ike hits Houston
On September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall at Galveston Bay -- right where our marina is located. When I returned after the hurricane to survey the damage, everything seemed to be in pretty good shape. Both of my buildings float, so they survived the nine-foot storm surge. No windows were broken and we still had electricity. But I'm blind, so I couldn't see the full extent of the devastation. My sales team had a different reaction.

They saw the boats strewn about the marina. They saw the destroyed homes in the city. They thought our sales were finished -- buying yachts is a low priority for people who are putting their lives back together after a hurricane. And because they work on commission, they couldn't see how they were going to be able to provide for their families.

I needed to keep my salespeople from getting overwhelmed by the devastation, so I pointed out two pieces of information that were cause for optimism. First, not every customer in our database lives in Houston. Second, not all of the boats that were for sale before the hurricane were damaged. That meant we still had people to sell to, and we still had inventory to sell.

Going the extra mile
In addition to maintaining a focus on new sales, I wanted to reach out to our existing customers who'd been affected by the hurricane and offer ourselves as a resource. We hosted a free information session for customers to meet and talk with experts: a retired vice president of claims for a major insurance company, a marine surveyor and an attorney. They taught people how to navigate the claims process and offered advice about recovering sunken or severely damaged ships. People really appreciated being able to come to us for help, and my salespeople were excited to be a part of that.

Just over a month after the hurricane, we began selling some boats again. The sales came from customers we targeted outside of Houston, and also from customers who were getting insurance payments. It felt like things were getting back to normal.

We spoke too soon
But just as we were getting back on our feet, the recession hit and it was a pretty demoralizing blow to my staff. So I gathered everyone together for a meeting and told them we were going to opt out of the recession.

There was a big boat show coming up in a few weeks, and we were going to go and show everyone that we were still strong, even though we'd earned very little income for the past three months. We were realistic about it -- we'd originally planned to have 10 boats at the show, but we cut that back to two to save money -- but we decided it was worth paying the attendance fees.

Instead of lining up all of our boats at the show, my sales team set up kiosks to discuss our available models. It was a much less expensive way of doing a boat show than we'd tried in the past -- and it turned out to be more effective. We were able to interact with attendees, and we came away with some great leads and even a few sales. Once again, instead of getting distracted by the challenges, we found a way to turn them to our advantage.

Our sales dropped to about $6 million in 2009, but I'm sure they would have fallen much further if we hadn't taken the steps we did. We're still dealing with the fallout from both the storm and the recession -- and sales are still down -- but we've made the business stronger overall. We still target more customers outside the Houston area and serve as an information hub for boat owners. All the changes we made in response to these challenges stem from a lesson I learned through my disability: Instead of getting distracted by "can't," it's always better to focus on "how."

Vince Morvillo is the first blind person to ever win a national yachting championship. He says the challenge of blindness made it necessary for him to approach many situations in his business and personal life in non-conventional ways. He shares insight into overcoming personal and business challenges as a motivational speaker.
-- As told to Zack Anchors