How second-generation owner Debbie Gosselin grew Watermark’s footprint in the Chesapeake region

By Alyssa Hurst

Gosselin

Debbie Gosselin

Watermark got its start in 1972, when it was founded by Ed Hartman, an attorney with a love of boating. Originally, the company offered sightseeing cruises in the Annapolis area, but in 1999, after ownership passed to Hartman’s daughter Debbie Gosselin, Watermark established a presence in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor as well. Today, the company owns several touring and charter yachts there, including the steamboat-style Raven. In the following interview, Gosselin shares how she grew the business and its mission after stepping into her father’s shoes.

Tell me a little bit about how you entered the business. Were you groomed for it, or did you sort of fall into it?

Gosselin: I think I worked into it. My father started the company in 1972, and I started working for him when my daughters were born. It just worked well for being a young mother with little children to do that. I just got more and more involved in the company and loved it, and eventually purchased it from him in 1999.

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Gosselin with her father and Watermark founder Ed Hartman

What was it like stepping into your father’s shoes in those early days?

Gosselin: A little scary, but I had been working with the company long enough to understand what it was we do, and what our customers want, and that’s really what has driven me. What we do is work to provide a great experience for our customers. It’s the most important thing, and it’s how we hire our employees. … Our brand statement is that we immerse people in the culture, history and fun of the Chesapeake area more completely than anyone else.

What was your vision for the company when you first took over, and how does that compare to what you’ve achieved today?

Gosselin: Our goal was to make sure our employees understood our mission, and we train towards that and hire towards that and reward against that. We’ve made I think tremendous strides since the very beginning. I think our guests, by and large, are very happy — we have many repeat guests, and we love making people happy. Everyone has a bad day every once in a while, but we make sure that we address it and leave the customer feeling good about their experience with us.

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Gosselin (left) and Ginny Mininger, Watermark’s director of vessel operations, pose in front of the steamship-style Raven, in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Given the importance of service to your mission, how is that reflected in your hiring and ongoing support for employees?

Gosselin: We let everybody know right up front that we immerse people in the history, culture and fun of this area, and managing expectations is important. We empower our employees to address issues with our guests. We meet and talk about experiences that we have with our employees, and the managers are onsite all the time. Our vessel captains are trained in this also, so that we’re all very aware of what our goals are and share those experiences with each other. Every week, we have a meeting of our operations, maintenance and sales staff, where we go over everything that’s going to happen over the next two weeks, and we can make sure that nothing falls through the cracks.

Watermark originated in the Annapolis area. Why did you decide to expand to Baltimore, and how has that decision changed your business?

Gosselin: We were in Baltimore quite a bit anyway — it’s only 30 miles by land and by water. During the recession, when business was slow, we found that we had extra capacity. We entered into communication with the City of Baltimore, and took the opportunity that was available for a spot right there in the Inner Harbor, and expanded our day-to-day operation there. We’ve really enjoyed it — Baltimore is a very dynamic place, the harbor is beautiful, and it’s so much fun to show people around it. It has really added to our business. We bring our Baltimore boats to Annapolis sometimes, and our Annapolis boats to Baltimore, and it’s really given us a chance to take advantage of the best of both cities.

In your time leading Watermark, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about running a business?

Gosselin: That you never stop learning, and you never quite get it right. You’re always just working to make that next improvement and get the whole operation functioning just right.

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A Watermark vessel is seen crossing under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

What do you have planned for Watermark’s future? Do you see expansion beyond Baltimore and Annapolis as a possibility?

Gosselin: We’re always looking for opportunities to expand that make sense for the business. There are some regulatory issues that we are paying attention to, to understand the cost of expansion, and we need to weigh that into what we do to make sure that we continue to offer our services at a reasonable value.

About The Human Element:

The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email ahurst@smartceo.com.