Top Entrepreneurs: CEO grows boat club business, expands into other vehicles
John Giglio has grown Freedom Boat Club by focusing on customer service. His plans for the company’s next phase include a move into RVs — and he’s ready for the road trip.
| 11:00 a.m. May 23, 2019
Water isn’t everywhere.
That’s the biggest challenge ahead for Freedom Boat Club and Freedom Franchise Systems President and CEO John Giglio. “The thriving economy has put a lot of pressure on marina space,” he says. And in the boat club business, without water, there’s no space to operate.
To address the issue, Venice-based Freedom has purchased its own marinas. It owns four now and is getting ready to buy a fifth, already having invested some $10 million in the effort. “Because waterfront property tends to appreciate, it’s a great fit for us,” Giglio says. “I want to be in the boat club business with slip security.”
Freedom, with about 180 locations that are primarily franchise locations, continues to grow its boat club business. It also has big plans for a new realm Giglio is excited about because it doesn’t require water, just parking lots — RVs. That move could also lead to forays into other vehicles.
Giglio, at the helm of the fast-growing company with $23.39 million in revenue in 2018, started with Freedom on the operations side in 2004. He purchased the business in 2011 with partner Bob Daley. Then, in 2012, Daley retired and Giglio bought him out. Giglio, 44, says they still keep in touch, and Daley is a great resource.
Freedom’s franchise network is a good resource for Giglio, too — a group of people who have been successful in business and are a sounding board. That’s one of his entrepreneurial tricks, Giglio says: to surround himself with people who are smarter than him in other aspects of business.
Giglio is a proponent of several other entrepreneurial mantras. One is to hire slow and fire fast. Spending enough time hiring, he has learned from experience, is big must-do.
Another important philosophy: Giglio is a hands off leader. “I want people to be able to make decisions,” he says, whether they’re financial or membership-related. “That’s always been my style. If I have to micromanage, I didn’t hire the right person.”
Giglio’s leadership has also evolved over the years. While he used to overcommit, he now delegates more duties. “You kind of just have to take that leap,” he says. “You just have to have confidence in the right people making the right decisions.”
Sarasota area IberiaBank executive Richard Hopper, who gave Giglio the initial loan to buy the company and subsequent loans to grow the business, describes Giglio as low key, modest and someone who takes care of his customers first.
The success of Freedom Boat Club, Hopper says, is due in part to the “exceptional service” Giglio emphasizes. “He’s had very impressive growth each and every year of his ownership, and it keeps trending that way,” Hopper says.
Giglio has also put a lot of thought into every aspect of the business, using top-line boats, equipment and locations, says Hopper. “It’s just one of those businesses where he wants to deliver a Grade A product,” he says. “He consistently recognizes he has to keep investing in his own company to achieve that outcome.”
“The goal has always been, ‘we want to be your garage.’” — John Giglio, president and CEO, Freedom Boat Club and Freedom Franchise Systems
One big decision the company made lately was to expand beyond boats and get into RVs, so Giglio’s focus has been on building a Grade A experience for RV customers as well. Giglio says RVs are another activity the company can offer families, representing a natural transition. “The goal has always been, ‘we want to be your garage,’” he says.
Before heading down the RV route, the company surveyed its boat club members, and 5,000 said they were interested. To grow the new leg of the business, Freedom is cultivating customers from the boat side and expanding into additional markets.
The company plans to compete with others in the RV rental space by offering nicer vehicles and taking it a little more upscale, Giglio says. RVs will be stocked with fresh linens and other essentials that will be pulled off the vehicle at the end of each trip and restocked with a new set.
Possible next steps for the company could include similar programs with all-terrain vehicles or snowmobiles.
Giglio says the concept behind Freedom, no matter the vehicle or vessel, isn’t difficult. “The complicated side is customer service,” he says — and maintaining the high level of service that has set the company apart. He says of members, “I want them to be so happy that the thought of dropping the club is the furthest thing from their mind.”
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