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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 24, 2016 5 years ago

Eat, sleep, dive

Wayne Hasson co-founded the Aggressor Fleet with one scuba boat in the Cayman Islands more than 30 years ago. Today, the fleet consists of 20 luxury yachts that ply 31 exotic destinations around the world.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Executive Summary
Company. Aggressor Fleet Industry. Hospitality Key. Luxury service and international diversification helped fuel the firm's growth.

People stare when they see Wayne Hasson drive by on the highway. After all, the Naples resident's truck is festooned with images of sea life.

The plate on his front bumper proclaims: Eat, sleep, dive.

That's exactly what you do on the Aggressor Fleet, one of 20 luxury scuba dive yachts that ply 31 exotic destinations around the world, including the Galapagos Islands, Fiji, Palau and Belize. Well-heeled customers pay from $2,099 to $6,595 for seven nights in private cabins aboard the first-class yachts and some of the best diving in the world in locations only reachable by boat.

Hasson learned and taught scuba diving in the U.S. Marine Corps and later taught thousands of recreational students to dive in the Cayman Islands. He started the company in 1984 with Paul Haines, a Louisiana oil-crew boat owner. The oil industry was suffering at the time and together they retrofitted a 100-foot boat into a luxury yacht that would host scuba divers in the Cayman Islands. Total investment: $50,000.

But no one had offered anything like this before. Scuba diving was a nascent sport at the time and operators were land-based in resorts. “There was a learning curve,” says Hasson, the company's president.

Hasson says he knew customers who traveled to the Cayman Islands to scuba dive were wealthy. “It was luxury from the start,” he says. “We ran it together and it had a crew of five.”

Haines and Hasson advertised in Skin Diver, the main diving publication, and reservations started coming in before the 100-foot boat was even ready. The magazine dubbed it “The Fastest Resort in the Cayman Islands” and “The RV of the Sea,” Hasson chuckles.

Hasson's hunch was right. “Once it caught on, we were booked solid,” Hasson says. “It was instantly profitable.”

The Aggressor name raised concerns among the locals in the Cayman Islands. “People were scared of the name,” Hasson acknowledges. But it was the name of the company's first boat, and some mariners consider it bad luck to change a ship's name. Besides, Hasson installed 112 permanent moorings around Grand Cayman so no boat would drop anchor on sensitive coral, generating goodwill for his operation.

Within a year, Haines and Hasson were retrofitting a second boat that also filled with eager divers looking for out-of-the-way dive spots. By the fourth year, the business partners had a fourth boat. “I was training people as I was building the fleet,” says Hasson, whose wife, Anne, is vice president of reservations, advertising and marketing.

Licensing the fleet
In the Marine Corps, Hasson learned to write standard operating procedures for scuba-diving instruction. The guides were used to train future instructors. “I had to write the book,” he says.

Hasson started doing the same for the Aggressor fleet, eventually writing 400 pages of instructions that included how to start the business, hire staff and do every job. “I started writing the whole recipe,” he says.

Hasson wrote the instructions because he wanted to create a standard of luxury for the fleet. But it also created the foundation for the company's licensing in 1988.

Aggressor Fleet licenses the name to the owner of a yacht with the agreement that Aggressor runs the back-office operation, including reservations and marketing. Financial details of such agreements are undisclosed, but Hasson says many of the licensees were customers first. In fact, Titanic movie director James Cameron was one of the first licensees (he later sold it.)

That's how Wayne Brown became the majority owner of Aggressor Fleet. He was a customer in 2005 on the Galapagos Aggressor and two years later acquired the majority ownership of Aggressor Fleet from the children of co-founder Haines, who had died.

Brown, chairman and CEO of Aggressor Fleet, then sold 10% of the company to co-founder Hasson and in 2008, Brown acquired competitor Dancer Fleet.

Customer to owner
An Augusta, Ga.-based entrepreneur, Brown was a successful franchisee of Taco Bell. He owned 60 Taco Bell restaurants with a total of 1,500 employees

In 1999, he was looking for an activity to do with his then-15-year-old son and together they enrolled in a scuba-dive course. “Like most divers, we did a lot of shore dives,” Brown recalls.

In 2005, Brown booked a trip on the Galapagos Aggressor, one of the most popular trips in the fleet. He was impressed with the first-class feel of a Ritz-Carlton-like service onboard where the staff is trained to pamper passengers. “This is the way you go diving,” he remembers thinking.

In 2006, Brown booked a trip on the Belize Aggressor because he wanted to confirm his first impression of the luxury experience. When he learned Haines had died in 2005, Brown approached his heirs and bought the company in 2007 for an undisclosed sum.

Brown's experience as a franchisee gave him a good perspective on how to ensure a good working relationship with Aggressor licensees and consistency of service. “We want to be the Ritz-Carlton of liveaboards,” he says, referring to popular term for scuba-diving yachts with cabins.

Consistently great
Each yacht measures about 100 to 150 feet long and generally carries 18 to 22 guests with as many as 13 staff onboard. This year, Brown says the fleet will carry about 15,000 passengers to its 31 destinations, including new ones like Sri Lanka.

About 55% of Aggressor's passengers come from outside North America, which helps diversify revenues and is one reason the company barely felt the recession. “It's been double-digit [annual percentage growth in sales] every year since I bought it,” says Brown, declining to share specific revenues.

To make sure that the experience is consistent from one yacht to the other, Brown has three employees whose sole jobs is to perform inspections year-round. Customer surveys quickly identify any problems. “I try to schedule six trips a year,” Brown says, so he can talk to customers, 55% of whom are repeat. Over the years, the company has carried about 250,000 passengers.

Hasson too has a big fan base of divers eager to sign up when he's onboard. “I still go out and travel on the all the boats,” he says.

Social media posts also provide the company with immediate feedback. A search through popular travel websites such as TripAdvisor and Scubaboard reveals overwhelmingly positive reviews. Brown says it's essential to identify any issues immediately to maintain a sterling reputation.

In addition, the company is actively involved in promoting ocean conservation through two organizations: Oceans for Youth Foundation and Sea of Change Foundation. Hasson, who moved to Naples in 2000, is a frequent speaker to school groups and conservation efforts in Southwest Florida, including creating a new artificial reef system on the Gulf Coast.

Scuba enthusiasts make great employees and the company never has a hard time recruiting. “Out of all the businesses I've had, I've never had a business where employees love what they do so much,” Brown says.

Still, Brown says finding a customer-service-oriented licensee with a big enough yacht and an understanding of the mechanical side of ship operations is more challenging. “I'm very particular about adding new destinations and licensees,” he says. “I turn down several a month.”

Licensees must be hands-on operators. “We almost always require that person to live in that destination full time,” Brown says. “There's no such thing as a turnkey business.”
In addition, the company requires that the yachts go into dry dock once every two years for maintenance and replacement of items such as bed linens and dishes. That's much more frequently than the typical five years. “If you keep it up, it's not an issue,” Brown says.

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