I’ve been saying for a decade that I’m going to write a book. Today, I’ve decided to start with small articles and chapters that hopefully one day will become part of a whole book. This first one is about the beginnings of how Aquila worked through the book Good to Great to become who we are today.

Can going from Good to Great be a real thing? A great question that we asked many times over the last thirteen years.

If you imagine you could be the best in the world at one thing, would you try?

Aquila did.

The Aquila story begins when we moved to Saint John in 1981. I took a city tour and thought, I could do this better. What I really wanted to hear about were the stories of the architecture and special places that I saw. Despite a poor tour, I fell in love with Saint John, a true pioneering city that entrepreneurs thrive in.

I founded Aquila in 1982 and we quickly became recognized as an outstanding tour operator, delivering creative and innovative guest experiences. When the first cruise ships started calling Saint John in 1989, we were there. We continued to do convention programs, tours around the world, act as a receptive operator for tour groups coming to Atlantic Canada and offer shore excursion programs to the ships that started calling more frequently in the mid 90s.

Fast forward to 2006, a co-op student from UNB brought me her copy of the book by Jim Collins “Good to Great” which she felt I would enjoy. I still remember staying up all night reading. I felt then and there that this was research that spoke to me, made common sense, and that if we were to follow its concepts, it might offer real transformation for Aquila. We were doing well, we were selling tours all over the world, but we were not doing great. I went out that week and bought eight copies of the book, one for each of us on the team, and we set out to study it and begin working through it. What was it as a team that we were truly passionate about? What was it we felt we really could be the best in the world at… and could this be profitable for us… what was our profit per “x”?

We faced an important dilemma, questioned our very core, and created a clear vision forward. These were not easy discussions and debates. Our company was at a crossroad. It took about a year to figure out this one question, and another year or two for the other questions. We divested of all the other revenue streams to focus on the one part of the business we loved most, and the one in which we believed we could be the best in the world serving – and where we felt there was a ready market.

We all were passionate about Cruise and what we truly believed we could be the BEST in the world at Cruise.

It was a daunting goal, yet I’ve always believed that if you build a vision, make a plan, and really believe you can do it… anything is possible. And with the whole team working together, we set out to work through all the concepts in the book and really work the plan. It was this consistent and determined focus that month by month, year by year, got us through knowing what we were great at, what we were not the best at, what we could stop doing and say no to. Jim Collins calls this the Hedgehog Concept… it is “not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at. The distinction is absolutely crucial.” 

The first call came in 2007, soon after completing the first year of working through this book. A cruise executive called to see if we would consider helping a start-up operator in Mexico. Without thinking too much about how we would do this, we said yes. Then a few cruise executives asked if we could take our model and teach it to others, especially in the Caribbean where there was such a need. That is where the spark of the idea of Aquilafying tour operations came from, and we started building an envisioned future around being the best doing tours for ships calling Saint John, our “Living Lab”, and Aquilafying tour operations worldwide. This was 2010 – it had taken three years to finally come up with our envisioned future. It was not a small vision, it was our BHAG, our Big Hairy Audacious goal. Every decision, every turn in the road moving forward, was built on this envisioned future, and we were determined we were going to have fun doing it!

Today, Cruise Lines continue to refer Aquila as one of the best operators in the world. With Saint John as our Living Lab, we coach and teach others throughout the world. Launched in 2007, the Aquila Center for Cruise Excellence became the exclusive training partner of the FCCA (Florida Caribbean Cruise Association). We have now coached in over 55 countries, with the goal of raising the level of excellence with each session.

What drives us? We truly care about each other and about the success of the organizations and destinations we work with. We want them to succeed, and we want to help raise the level of excellence in the cruise industry.

This article is the first of what will eventually be the book I have said I would write. There are so many lessons learned throughout these 37 years of leading Aquila that I want to talk about. My next articles will cover topics such as building a culture of discipline, the importance of mentorship, managing an organization to have fun, succession planning and community giving, and more of the Good to Great journey. Stay tuned!

Originally published on LinkedIn on October 5th, 2019