Towing in the Line of Great Customer Service
There’s a new sheriff – make that captain – in town! For the past year, those distinctive yellow Sea Tow boats trolling the waters of Lake Norman and Lake Wylie have been steered by the steady hand of Captain John Ward, owner of Sea Tow Lake Norman/Wiley. Captain Ward and his team of U.S. Coast Guard licensed captains, also provides services to Sea Tow members on Mountain Island Lake.
Since taking over, it’s been all hands on deck to give this location the same reputation for customer service and professionalism as Ward’s other Sea Tow franchise locations in Destin and Pensacola, Florida, Orange Beach, Alabama, and Lakes Kerr and Gaston, North Carolina.
Sea Tow Services International has nearly 100 franchise locations across the United States, making it the nation’s leading on-water assistance provider. The membership service is often described as AAA for the water. It provides service for boats that need towing, a fuel delivery, jump start, disentanglement or a covered ungrounding from a sandbar or shallow area. The company was founded in 1983 after the United States Coast Guard stopped offering non-emergency services. This scaling back of government services gave way to the current industry which had previously focused almost exclusively on salvage work.
Owning a Sea Tow franchise seems like a natural career path for Ward, whose fondness for life on the water goes back as far as he can remember. Born in Foley, Alabama and raised mostly in Pensacola, Ward can scarcely recall a time when water activities weren’t a big part of his life. “It’s been in my blood since a very young age,” he says. “My grandfather was in the commercial salvage business in the Florida Keys and a pioneer in the towing industry.”
Ward joined the United States Coast Guard when he was 18. During his 10-year stint, he was stationed in Montauk, NY, the Florida Keys, St. Petersburg, FL and Dauphin Island, Alabama. As he moved closer to the end of his enlistment, he wasn’t sure of his next career move but knew he wanted something in the boating industry. He came across Sea Tow Services International while surfing the Internet and emailed to ask about operating a franchise.
At the time, the company’s only available locations were in places that held no interest for Ward – California and Louisiana. In Spring 2004, a franchise became available in Destin and Ward didn’t hesitate to claim it. Twelve years later, he’s even more sure he made the right choice. “It’s been a really good fit for my personality and I enjoy the lifestyle,” he says. “The 24/7 schedule gets frustrating sometimes and you never know from one minute to the next what you’re going to be involved in. I have never spent a Valentine’s day or anniversary with my wife because something always comes up. But that’s part of the job.”
Ward had his eye on the Lake Norman area for a while before taking over the franchise. Several years ago, he attended a conference in Charlotte and took a tour of the lake. It was an instant love connection but Sea Tow already had a franchise in the area and, therefore, no room for him. When the previous owner put the business up for sale in 2016, Ward didn’t hesitate to snap it up. “We took over the franchise around the end of April or first of May. As soon as we closed on the business, it was off to the races!”
Ward calls the Lake Norman/Lake Wylie and Mountain Island Lake communities “one of a kind with a unique and special feel.” He and his wife, Ashley, and their two young children spend quite a bit of time in the Charlotte area enjoying the waterfront and one of the Piedmont’s most popular pastimes. “Besides the fantastic boating community, that’s racing central,” Ward says. “I’m passionate about racing. I love NASCAR, drag racing, circle track racing and do some racing myself. I love everything about that area.”
While Sea Tow may be known for towing (it’s in the name), Ward is quick to point out that that’s not his primary focus. “We’re big on customer service,” says Ward. “My business model is focused on putting the boats on the water and being out there on patrol so we can respond quickly to a Sea Tow member who needs assistance. We try to get them going so their day on the lake isn’t ruined by just sitting behind the tow boat.”
Sea Tow values their relationship with the Coast Guard, which is an added benefit for Ward. “I run my operation like a small Coast Guard unit,” he says. “I try to bring the same leadership, skill level and training to the franchise that I learned in the service.”
So far, the strategy has paid big dividends. Ward was named Sea Tow Services International, Inc.’s Franchisee of the Year in 2009 and placed first in the nation for membership growth in 2009 and 2013. Membership at the Lake Norman/Lake Wylie location also continues to increase since he took over.
Ward’s business approach and professionalism is a winning combination. Capt. Glenn Dildy, who worked as a Captain at Sea Tow Wrightsville Beach for eight years is leading the charge and has been managing Ward’s Lake Norman franchise since April 2016. Ward’s successful businesses also attracted Capt. Daniel Weingard. The Louisiana native had run large tug boats all over the gulf coast region before spending four years working for Sea Tow’s Lake Norman competitor. “There was a great vibe here,” says Weingard. “The main objective is to fix things, not just put a band aid on them.”
Ward’s boating interests goes well beyond his own business. He is particularly concerned about the reputation of the marine assistance industry. “It is such a small industry and we’re self-regulated. We are dedicated to keeping this industry alive and introducing more and more people to the great sport of boating.”