First impressions make a difference for reporters as well as potential customers. Let's take a look at what showed up in my notebook after I reached the Tampa branch office of Galati Yacht Sales:
"Shiny boats on trailers, flags flying, more boats at adjacent docks, clean yard.
"First staff member, a young man waxing a hull, politely inquired how I was doing, directed me to the office.
"Second, a young woman in sales, asked if I were "John," offered me something to drink while waiting for my appointment.
"Third, minutes later, a more senior salesman, asked if I had been helped.
"Waiting area clean, quiet music playing. Pictures of company principals and copies of awards hung on walls. Staff dressed casually, but in shirts with Galati logos or brands the company sells, such as Tiara and Cruisers."
Even before I met the Tampa office's general manager Darren Plymale (the only senior manager who isn't one of the Galati siblings), I had picked up a good sense of a friendly, purposeful, and consistent company. And I could start to imagine how this and either other Gulf Coast locations like it might position Galati Yacht Sales to earn first rank among Boating Industry's Top 100 Dealer.
Not that the spread of its offices from Naples, Florida, to Houston, Texas are what make this company unique. "They are maniacally focused on making sure the customer always has a good experience," said financial consultant Mike Eiffert, who I met the next day. As the financial guy, Mike regularly sees the price tag on some of the "investments" required to back up this approach. But in the recent economic downturn, he has also seen the value bred from customer loyalty and the company's strong reputation.
How does a tagline like "Always Exceed Customer Expectations" get converted into business practice? Darren showed me one example aimed at improving the Galatis' sales training—not a simple task when you're selling Tiara, Cruisers, Marquis, Viking, and Viking Sport Cruisers, plus assorted brokerage boats. The company tracks the experience levels of their 44 broker/salespeople by product, for which each is designated a Primary, Secondary, or NA. If a salesperson hasn't earned a Viking Masters certificate, for example, he's not allowed to sell that brand. Once he has the certificate, he's still a Secondary until he has more experience. New salespeople (NA) can partner with Primaries in any sale, and Secondaries can take the lead in some sales; but to ensure a positive customer experience, Galati policy says that a Primary will always manage customer interactions.
As I drove south across Tampa Bay's Sunshine Skyway, I reflected on how Darren had also applied his background in marine finance to making finance and insurance a simpler part the buyer's experience. Clearly, in the process of growing the company's revenues tenfold in the last decade, somebody in this family had realized talents such as Darren's would be needed.
Then I drove west across the bridge from Bradenton to the barrier island of Anna Maria, and turned back the clock in my head 40 years to when Mike and Anna Maria Galati, transplanted from Brooklyn, made the same trip to buy a tornado-devastated marina. In the process, they not only moved to an island that shared Anna Maria's name, but also found an ideal spot for a service and sales marina. It might seem to be a remote outpost at first, but, as Chris Galati explained to me the next morning, it's about as close to the Gulf of Mexico's rich fishing and cruising grounds as you could get.
Mike and Anna Maria raised Joe, Carmine, Fran, Mike, and Chris in a house that held the marina office as well. Dad serviced and sold boats while rebuilding the place. Mom ran the marina store and pumped gas with babies on her hip. As soon as they could, the kids got involved.
"When Chris was three or four," Anna Maria told me, "if people came by to look at boats on the weekends, he'd take a pad and pencil and say, 'Do you like this boat? Put your name here, and I'll have my Dad call you.'"
Chris told me his own story of being 14 and managing the dry-stack facility alone on weekends, putting people's boats in and out of the water for them. "The dry-stack was four stories high, and people were a little surprised to find me running the forklift by myself," he said. "We were treated like adults at a young age."
"We all worked through service, parts, and sales," said Joe, the oldest son and now company president. "And if one of our parents was sick, one of us would stay home from school. There was a solid curtain between our home and the office, and we could listen in on the sales process. Business and family life were very intertwined."
In separate interviews with each sibling, they uniformly told me how much they appreciated what their parents had taught them in those years, echoing consistent themes of showing respect, working hard, and working together.
"We cleaned boats from when we were 8," said Carmine. "There were no slackers; everybody worked hard. Dad was tough, stern, hard. Mom was the perfect balance: incredibly hardworking and super intelligent. If we hadn't gotten along, that would have been disrespectful to her. You found a way to get along." Added Chris, "My father would say, 'If you have the energy to fight, you should get back to work.'"
"He was hard on them and made them work," admitted Anna Maria. "They got to play very little sports outside of high-school football. But if I told him 'It's important to me,' he would let them off to play.
Mike had an expectation that his kids would take over the business. Anna Maria said, "He told them, 'You need to be able to step into every position and handle it.' And if you work together, you'll be successful.'" It turned out that they got the opportunity to test the theory sooner than any had anticipated because of an accident that proved to be a pivotal moment in all of their lives.
"I broke my neck, diving at the beach," Chris told me, sitting in his wheelchair behind the desk at the marina office. "It was August 5, 1985. I became a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down."
Anna Maria and Mike took Chris to a hospital in Orlando and didn't look back. According to Anna Maria, Mike said, "I'd rather lose my business" than leave his son and wife.
During Chris's convalescence, Mike refused to believe the doctors' prognosis and insisted that Chris would not only soon learn to drive a van, he was going to tow a boat with it. "He provided the inspiration for Chris," Anna Maria said. "And then when Chris was first learning to drive again, his brothers would go with him and help to push the pedals."
Today, despite limited use of his hands, Chris manages the marina, recruits captains for customers, outfits and runs the company's demo fishing boat, and plays a lead role at customer events. He also drives his own van, with or without a boat trailing behind.
Needless to say, the Galati yard stayed open, too. "We had a dry run of managing the business ourselves," said Joe, who was 25 at the time. Except for a year of part-time work while attending a community college, he had already been on the job full-time since high school, as had Carmine, who is 18 months younger.
Once Chris had recovered sufficiently that the family was reunited, the dynamic had changed. "After we returned," said Anna Maria, "Mike would put them in situations and then let them work it out. He'd stay at home and pace."
The training was timely, because seven years later, Anna Maria's husband was diagnosed with cancer and died three months later. That was a difficult year: Anna Maria lost her husband and both of her parents. In reflecting on 1992, she said, "God closes a lot of doors but always opens others."
Coming Soon, Exceeding Expectations, Part 2: Get to know the Galati siblings and more about Galati Yacht Sales. (A version of this story first appeared in the November issue of YachtWorld.com magazine.)
Editor's Note: John Burnham is the editorial director of Boats.com and YachtWorld.com. Photos courtesy of Eric Stammer. For more about Galati Yacht Sales, visit their website.