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  • Writer's pictureSandy Cleary

Rockets, Pop-Tarts & Perseverance: My Journey to Success

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

If someone ever told me thirty years ago that one day I’d be telling you about my so-called “journey to success,” I’d have thought that person was smokin’ some wacky tabacky!

Here’s why: I grew up the youngest of four kids in a lower income neighborhood in Boston. Our family of six lived in a single-family three-story brownstone that Mom & Dad bought as their first and only home.

I had a family which was filled with your typical players: the loving and dutiful Father who had a blue-collar job welding, the older and protective brother, and two older sisters -- one who had that nurturing spirit and another that I got in trouble with regularly. Finally, of course, there was my mother who built my core personality and values and allowed me to both fail and succeed by myself... a skill I would grow to appreciate later in life. My mother held our family together and made sure we all sat down to dinner as a family each night to recap the trials and tribulations of everyone’s day. She was the key to my realizing that you need to make your life full of happiness and joy every day.

I got my degree in aerospace engineering and right out of college began my career in California designing and building guidance systems for ballistic missiles; so, yes… I really was a rocket scientist! That was the career I thought I’d retire doing until I was met with a personal crisis at age 34. My brother and my Dad passed away within a year of each other due to heart issues. My Mom, after 50 years of marriage, was alone, in failing health, and living in my childhood home 3,000 miles away. My two older sisters had families of their own, so Mom’s care fell on me, and I decided to move home to Boston, not quite sure what I was going to do to support myself.

I remembered something my brother had always told me… “If you do what you LOVE … you’ll always be successful at it”. One day, I found myself sitting in my childhood bedroom, which looked like a shrine from when I left home for college at 17, trying to think about what I “loved to do” … I loved to cruise!

So, there it was… I started CruCon Cruise Outlet in the basement of my mother’s house and since my Mom was a strict 5-foot tall Irish woman who was suspicious of everyone, no strangers were ever allowed into her house… so, it had to be an internet-based business. Luckily, the Internet was originally developed by DARPA (the Defense Department’s Research arm) and that’s how we used to transfer files in the defense biz, so I wasn’t afraid of it. Keep in mind, when I started, the Internet was known only as “the world wide web” and people were actually “amazed” at how fast dial up service was! My oldest sister, Pat, helped out a few hours a day since she passed Mom’s “no stranger” test. I was determined to use the Internet strictly as a way of getting my marketing message out, but I still wanted to rely on good old fashioned personal phone calls, conversation and customer service for sales – so I created a call center of TWO (myself and my sister).

When you start something from scratch, you never know for sure if you are on the right track or doing it “right”. This moment came one day about three months into this new venture when the phone rang, my sister answered, and she looked at me and said, “There’s a Vicki Freed from Carnival on the phone and she wants to talk to you.” Vicki was the Senior VP of Sales and Marketing for Carnival Cruise Line at the time, and that was a “Holy Crap” moment for any agency. That call could only go one of two ways. She thanked me for the number of guests I had booked recently and told me to keep up the good work. THAT’s when I knew I was on the right track. If someone as important as Vicki had noticed me, I had to be doing something right. The moral of that story is that as business leaders and business owners, we must always be looking for those ‘diamonds in the rough’ in our employees – and remind ourselves that a simple support call, a pat on the back, or “hey, I just wanted you to know how much I appreciated your efforts the other day,” can light a fire under them!

Speaking of fire… Pat and I continued rejuvenated for the next few months until what is now known as the “GREAT POP-TART INCIDENT”. We were still in Mom’s basement, but the kitchen and living areas were on the second floor. One morning I was hungry and ran up to the kitchen to stick a pop-tart in the toaster and hurried back downstairs to make some sales calls. I totally forgot about it until I could hear my Mom in a frantic voice calling out to me. As I opened the door from the basement…all I could see was SMOKE. So yes, after 50 years of marriage, raising 4 kids, and all without even ONE insurance claim… I burned out my mother’s whole second floor!! Apparently, the pop-tart got stuck in the toaster and since it’s all sugar, it started to burn and caught the kitchen towels and cabinets on fire. It was terrible.

The next day my Mom sat me down and said in her kindest voice: “I love you with all my heart and I am so glad you moved back home to care for me, but PLEASE, PLEASE… move your business OUT OF MY HOUSE!” … which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We were able to find a larger commercial space and continue to hire people and grow. However, from that day on…there has NEVER been an upright toaster in any of our facilities!!!

CruCon continued to grow for the next 20 years until we were over $150M in sales with 140+ employees…but it wasn’t always sunshine. There were many lessons learned and obstacles along the way.

First, when you start a business you need to be “all in”. Your people are your biggest asset and you need to always be a role model for them. I was the LAST person in the company to get paid. Many times, in the first eight years, there wasn’t enough money for me to get paid! I rented a small apartment with two other friends and we shared expenses. We survived on pasta and cheap wine!

Why didn’t I get a loan? It wasn’t that I didn’t try, but banks were only loaning to companies that seemed to not really need the money. There wasn’t anything out there like you have today... Angel Investors, venture capitalists, etc. I could have reached $150M in sales at a much earlier time if I had access to capital at the right time in our growth.

There were world events that made a HUGE impact on the travel industry. 9-11 was horrific. Everyone was afraid to travel for at least six months and the call center phones were silent. More than 50% of independent travel agencies didn’t survive. I kept all my staff employed and instead of wringing my hands in despair, I realized that if I was hurting, the cruise lines were hurting worse, and so I worked closely with them to develop new marketing messages and got funding for marketing promotions focusing on U.S. drive market ports.

The outcome? We became one of their strongest partners for putting “butts in beds” during crisis times. This creative thinking garnered us much appreciation from the cruise lines and that strengthened our bond with them for years. However, I did have to pick and choose which bills to pay and my credit card did get cancelled when I couldn’t pay it in full as required, and I was devastated. Fast forward years later… I did re-apply and now they keep trying to give me a black card after many successful years of using it for millions of dollars in advertising bills.

One of the other disasters of the cruise business was the Costa Concordia accident in January 2012. This rattled the cruise world globally for so many different reasons. First, 32 lives were lost due to what we now believe to be ego and human error. Next, with the extensive news coverage, it looked like a remake of Titanic, and we all sat mesmerized watching the story unfold on TV…day after day after day. This made consumers feel that cruising was not safe. Plus, it happened at the worst possible time in the year… January. In the cruise industry, January - April is called “WAVE” season because we book over 70% of our business that is set to sail in the next 12 months during that 4-month period. This destroyed the 2012 WAVE season and therefore the whole year’s projected sales. We launched a campaign involving safety education with the cruise lines along with other large players in the industry to regain consumer trust and cruise prices were dropped to low, low prices until consumer confidence was once again established.

The moral of this story is to always remember to keep moving forward and pick yourself up every time you fall. One thing is certain, on the road to success, you WILL make mistakes. We all do. Don’t blame someone else for them. Own them. They are yours. Recovering from our mistakes quickly and learning a lesson as a result of them makes us stronger and wiser in our decisions going forward. I hope that my story will inspire YOU to continue to push forward and take charge of your dreams by turning them into your reality. After all, I’m no different than any of you.


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