I had the pleasure to interview Captain Joseph Frohnhoefer III. It’s said that the best captains start as a deckhand. Captain Frohnhoefer is the second-generation Chief Executive Officer of Sea Tow Services International, Inc. Sea Tow was founded in 1983 by his father and has since evolved into a thriving franchise network of almost one hundred locations. Joseph assumed the role of CEO in 2015 and has since helped enhance the vision and direction of the family-owned and operated company. He grew up on the waters of Eastern Long Island, was one of the first Sea Tow deckhands, earned his captain’s license at 19 and currently holds at 1600-ton Master, Chief Mate — all oceans, all seas license. Prior to the offices in Southold, NY, Joseph was navigating cargo ships around the world. His on-water and in-the-field experience gives him a unique perspective and understanding of how “corporate” decisions impact the local level and day-to-day operations of franchise owners. Joseph maintains oversight of the business with a focus on external operations including legal, franchise development, operations and compliance.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Most people say I had no choice, I was born into it! When my father founded Sea Tow Services International, Inc. in 1983, I was 8 years old. By the time I turned 10, I was with him all the time and always out on the water. If I wasn’t on a boat, I was in the shop learning about vessel repair and maintenance. I even spent time with him in the office. To say the least, I started learning the Sea Tow business at a young age.
When I was a freshman in high school my father asked me what I wanted to do with my life and offered me two directions. Did I want to be at a desk? Or did I want to be out on a boat? That was easy — I wanted to be on a boat! I found myself at SUNY Maritime College where I earned my BS in naval architecture and my U.S. Coast Guard Third Mate’s License. Like many young college graduates, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with either newfound qualifications, so I returned home to work for the family business. I spent the summer towing boats and had a ton of fun, but once the weather cooled and I found myself doing construction, I knew it was time to buckle down and find a “real job.”
With my Third Mate’s License, I was able to apply to work on ocean going cargo ships. After a short time, I landed as third mate on a Ro-Ro (car carrier) moving Toyota and Lexus vehicles from Japan to the West Coast of the U.S. After a few long trips across the Pacific Ocean, I joined the crew of a gasoline/chemical tanker and I finished out my last couple years on container ships working for Maersk.
I had recently returned home from a 135-day trip at sea when I was asked to come work at Sea Tow full-time. Then, the business had just converted to a franchise model and the team needed someone who knew the operations side and had maritime experience. Well, that was me! Being away for months at a time is not the best lifestyle. Coming home to the family business was supposed to provide a more stable and “normal” lifestyle… boy was I wrong! Turns out there are many different definitions to the word “normal.”
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
I wouldn’t say there is one major challenge, but a combination of many small that have helped grow to be the leader I am today. I have been fortunate to grow with Sea Tow and as the company evolved, so did my role or roles within. There have been steps along the way that have presented challenges, but we have experienced all the growing pains together. I’ll be the first to admit, it hasn’t been the easiest of roads.
For starters, SUNY Maritime was not the “normal” college education. It wasn’t fully military, but it was regimental in order to prepare students to work in the merchant marine. Working on ships was equally regimented with a strict chain of command and a crew that is completely dedicated to the vessel and its mission. This is not always the case when it comes to building a team in the private sector. I encountered challenges with personnel that I was not accustomed to. It helped me realize that I needed someone on the team who was smart, multi-talented and fully committed to Sea Tow — so I called my sister. At the time, she was a Spanish teacher in Baltimore. Very long story short, I told her it was time she come home to Sea Tow and she did just that. It was probably the best and most important call I’ve made in all my years here. I like to believe that, since that day, we’ve been a great team and are continuously moving the company ahead together.
On top of that, not having a traditional business school background has posed its own sort of hurdles. I try to be engaged in every meeting and with every contract, department and legal dispute. It all has helped me learn and gain well-rounded knowledge of the business to grow as a leader. I find that I’m always challenging myself. I look at the who, what, when, where, why and how of everything and always ask questions and do my own research.
Then there’s the “unsaid” challenge of being the founder’s son. When you’re the children in the business, you need to prove yourself. You need to prove that you deserve to be there, that you know what you’re doing and that you’re smart, and humble, enough to seek help when you need it. I like to think I’ve done so and done it well.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Work every day, even if only for a short time, and don’t give up. Never be afraid to take yourself out of your comfort zone, that is when you learn the most.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- You are the expert in your business, trust your gut. Do not give in to the pressures of others.
- Focus on your business. Don’t invest too much time in what the competition is doing.
- Enjoy the victories as large or small as they may be because a new challenge will appear before you know it.
- Everyone is replaceable, even someone who is considered a key employee. No organization is reliable on one person and only thrives on the efforts of many. You do not need to know or do it all, hire people smarter and more talented than you.
- Never underestimate the power of serendipity.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Take the initiative to engage with whatever is going on, even if it is “not your job.” Find out what is happening, listen and learn. Participate where you can. Before you know it, you will be the one being asked the questions and opportunities will open for you.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Of course, my parents have had the greatest influence on my life. I’ve been lucky to always have their guidance and am grateful for all the opportunities they’ve provided me — personally and professionally.
Sea Tow’s General Counsel also played a large role in my professional growth. I’ve known him for more than thirty years. He was actually the one who recommended I stop shipping out and come home to Sea Tow. From there he took me under his wing as a student and taught me much about the law, business and more.
Finally, the Sea Tow franchisees. Our franchise system is unique not only due to our membership revenue sharing model and operating in the maritime domain, but that our franchisees have a tremendous amount of “say” in the implementation and management of the franchised system. On top of that, they too are all licensed Captains and CEO’s, so you can imagine it’s created some interesting conversations and situations over the years. You know how rules aboard a boat go. Rule one — the Captain is always right. Rule two — if the Captain is wrong, see rule one. We all face many of the same business challenges and to be able to talk to them about how they approach the various aspects on the local level, has help me approach how we operate STSI.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Personally, I am the father of two young children. I’m always working to find the proper work/life balance to spend time with them and pass along my knowledge and life experiences while embracing their interests too. I want them to get more into boating and develop their love of the water just as I did at their age.
Professionally, I would like to streamline business processes to promote a better lifestyle while continuing to build value in the Sea Tow business opportunity. Over the past few years we have adopted a “YES” mentality across the Sea Tow network of franchise owners straying from our historical lines of work. This has opened the door to new lines of work and revenue streams. I want to continue to nurture these opportunities, while never losing sight of the importance of our core Sea Tow membership offerings and commitment to service.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
That I was able to advance and maintain value in the Sea Tow brand to ensure it continues to live on well past me.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
Over the years, basic courtesy seems to have declined in recreational boating. When I was growing up on the water, everyone used to wave to one another. It was a simple way to say hello and show to your fellow boaters that you have a friend out here. Plus, people are happier when someone returns the friendly gesture.
These days, every time I wave to someone, maybe half wave back. People need to start waving to each other and help bring common courtesy back to boating and daily life.
How can our readers follow you on social media?