Detach emotionally. As a company founder who sold everything I had, left a great Navy career and gave up my family, friends and health to get this company off the ground, I tended to get very emotional about the company’s successes and failures. I used to take things so personally that I would lose sleep for days if someone did something to hurt Tropic Ocean Airways. I realized after a couple of years that I could not create a successful organization unless I detached emotionally from both the failures and the successes. Having passion in business is important, but keeping that passion in check so you can always make clear decisions is equally important.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Rob Ceravolo, Founder and CEO of Tropic Ocean Airways. Rob Ceravolo is a Fort Lauderdale native and University of Florida graduate with a degree in business. A US Navy fighter pilot with fourteen years of experience flying Navy fighters, Rob was awarded two Air Medals for missions flying the F-14D Tomcat in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. After two aircraft carrier deployments and a transition to the F-18E Super Hornet, Rob transferred to shore duty to become an Adversary Instructor in the F-5N in Key West, FL. Graduating from the Navy’s prestigious TOPGUN Fighter Weapons School in Fallon, NV, Rob returned to his squadron as an air combat instructor. During his long tenure in the U.S. Navy, Rob has held a variety of leadership positions, including Operations, Safety, Training, Maintenance, Legal, and Administration. Additionally, he served as a Coalition Coordination Officer for United States Central Command, where he was responsible for coordinating logistical support for foreign allied countries supporting the International Security Assistance Force. Recognizing a growing need for professionally run small to mid-sized airlines, Rob founded Tropic Ocean Airways, a commuter seaplane airline based in Florida with operations throughout Florida, the Bahamas, the Tri-State area, New England, and the Caribbean. Using the leadership lessons learned from his experience as a Naval Officer, Rob grew Tropic Ocean from one four passenger seaplane and one employee to become the largest amphibious aircraft operator in the world, with a growing fleet and a team of over 100 personnel. With a foundation based on best practices, standardization, and leadership principles of TOPGUN and US Navy fighter squadrons, Tropic Ocean is expanding in the US and in multiple coastal regions throughout the Caribbean, and elsewhere in the world. Rob was recently awarded EY’s Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2019 Award in the Consumer Services category in Florida.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I had two dreams when I was a kid: fly fighter jets for the Navy and someday start an aviation company. I planned to do the latter when I retired from the Navy, and then in late 2009, I was reading “Screw It Let’s Do It” by Richard Branson while on leave riding a motorcycle through southern Italy. I decided on that trip to start my company as soon as my 10-year active duty commitment was up. I focused on creating a seaplane company because I believed amphibious (land and water) seaplane service would be a game changer for congested, difficult-to-reach and remote areas.
I grew up in South Florida, so I loved the water in addition to aviation. I decided to fly for the Navy instead of the Air Force because I loved the idea of combining aviation with the ocean — you land on a boat!
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
We have overcome so many obstacles since our founding in 2009. I sold everything I had, including my house and car, to get this company off the ground. Everyone said I was crazy to start an airline company at the end of a recession, but we found the right partners and persevered. The examples of us overcoming obstacles are so numerous I would need a day to tell the story. There is a reason we have the core value of “Find A Way”!
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Persistence, perseverance, a great team and an unwavering faith in your mission.
So, how are things going today? How did Grit lead to your eventual success?
Things are going great. We are making a huge positive impact not only in our industry but in the communities we serve. We’ve always believed that our model of operation could become an economic engine, creating jobs, connecting communities and improving air service in multiple regions. But so many companies who came before us failed and many in the industry said we would not succeed. It takes grit and determination to continue down a path that is littered with the failures of others. Our entire team believes that opportunity can be found in obstacles as well as failure. We can always find a way forward, regardless of the circumstances.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I might have been a bit naive in the corporate world early on. Coming from a Navy environment where we were all bound by the idea of being ‘honorable,’ I had high hopes that the rest of the world believed that a person’s word backed by a handshake was solid. The deal with my first partner and now COO, Nick Veltre, was done on a handshake (he’s also a Marine Corps veteran). Unfortunately, I made the mistake of “handshake deals” and subsequently getting screwed multiple times before I realized that you have to back everything you do with a contract because people’s memories seem to be very short.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The idea of seaplane flying for me is “freedom.” What I mean is, you can be flying along and see a nice little harbor and say, “Let’s land there and go snorkeling.” It is so different than regular aviation and gives you that freedom and access to places that are normally out of reach.
Our guests can expect safety, reliability, professionalism and compassion while having a truly luxurious and enjoyable experience. All our employees, regardless of position, work together to create the fun and personal experience that is traveling with Tropic Ocean Airways.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
If you fail, you are not a failure; if you succeed, you are not a success. You are an entrepreneur — every day is a new opportunity to grind and get after it.
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?
My father was an Italian immigrant who came to the United States in his early 20s. He was a teenager in southern Italy during World War II, and the American military liberated his town from the fascists and Nazis. He always remembered the US bombers and fighters flying low over his mountaintop town and fell in love with the US and aviation. Some of my earliest memories are spending time with him at the airport or sitting on a cushion in a small plane so I could see over the dashboard and take the controls. His influence is the reason Tropic Ocean Airways exists.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We have worked hard to create an operation and experience that is unmatched, and we are working with several governments to apply what we’ve learned to develop similar operations in new regions. Point-to-point, direct, amphibious service combined with our ability to train and develop people from the ground up can be a game changer in regions that struggle with reliable and guest-focused air transportation. It opens up opportunities for the development of high-end, low-impact resorts, enhancing the visitor’s experience while creating jobs.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Have a contract in place for everything you do.
2. Hire slow, fire fast.
Any organization is a sum of its people, and attitude is everything here. We used to hire people quickly because they had a good resume or we thought they could “solve a problem,” which many times ended in disaster because they were just not a good fit with our company’s culture. We would then keep toxic people on staff for too long, hoping they would change. We now take our time with the hiring process, ensuring that a person’s attitude is in line with our culture as well as being clear about who we are and ensuring that the person would be happy to work in our unique environment.
3. Come up with a timeline to complete a process, then double it.
We almost went bankrupt before we even launched our first revenue flight because it took 18 months to receive a government approval that was expected to take no more than 6 months.
4. Detach emotionally.
As a company founder who sold everything I had, left a great Navy career and gave up my family, friends and health to get this company off the ground, I tended to get very emotional about the company’s successes and failures. I used to take things so personally that I would lose sleep for days if someone did something to hurt Tropic Ocean Airways. I realized after a couple of years that I could not create a successful organization unless I detached emotionally from both the failures and the successes. Having passion in business is important, but keeping that passion in check so you can always make clear decisions is equally important.
5. Never forget the “why” behind what you are doing.
Being an entrepreneur is not an easy thing. There were so many times in the history of the company that I second-guessed my decision to launch Tropic Ocean Airways. However, when I’m having a rough day, I remind myself of the impact we are having and the wonderful things our company is doing for the industry and the community. We’ve created jobs, improved airlift, created career paths, saved lives, etc. Just today I was able to congratulate a new captain who started in our company as a customer service agent. How cool is that?! We have our core value of “Love What You Do,” which captures that mentality.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)
I have a few more than five and they are the core values of Tropic Ocean Airways: Safe is Right, Be Professional, Be Compassionate, Find a Way, Mutual Support, Love What You Do and Lead.
The two that you can apply today to develop “Grit” are “Find A Way” and “Love What You Do.”
“Find A Way” is commonly misconstrued as blind hope that a solution to a problem will magically appear. What it really means is: while we can’t control the external circumstances, we CAN control how we react, and more importantly, ADAPT to those circumstances. This bypasses “hope” and relies on faith that your objective is achievable. It requires some humility to accept that through all of your hard work you just haven’t figured it out yet, but the answer is there and you’ll find it if you can keep moving forward.
“Love What You Do” simply means that you understand the “why” behind everything you do, even if the path to get there is difficult. You “embrace the suck” because while you can’t always do what you love, you can always find a way to love what you do.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I had my way, I would make a face-to-face or phone conversation mandatory for any disagreement, whether in business, politics, etc. Our society as a whole has become so passive aggressive. Simply look at social media — people spew venom without any thought about whether there’s another side to the story. In my own company, if one employee complains about another, I pull both of them in a room and we hash it out together. Face-to-face conversations that involve actually listening to each person’s point of view would change our world for the better.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow the airline on Instagram at our handle @FlyTropic and you can follow me at @FlyTropicRob.
Thank you for these great insights!