Harold J. Friestad, Lake Geneva Cruise Line
IB Wisconsin's Professional of the Week is the premier way to meet the state's professionals. This week features Harold J. Friestad, vice president/general manager, Lake Geneva Cruise Line.
Business Address: 812 Wrigley Dr., Lake Geneva, WI 53191
Spouse/Partner’s Name: Cheryl
Organizations: Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy, chairman; Geneva Lake Level Corp., vice president
Education: Graduated in 1963 from Milton College with a B.A.
Awards: Aldo Leopold Award (Midwest Div. of Nat’l Assoc. of Garden Clubs); Citizen of the Year (Lake Geneva CVB and also from the Fontana Chamber); Geneva Lake Conservancy Conservation Award
Harold, please tell us a little about your history at the company, and its operations.
I have worked for Gage Marine – Lake Geneva Cruise Line – for 50 years. I actually started 52 years ago, but left for two years after graduating from college. I have been general manager since 1968. When I started as manager, I had a total of 17 employees and we were open for a little over three months over the summer. We now have 100 employees at the Lake Geneva Cruise Line, where we offer public and charter boat tours and the iconic Mailboat Tour. We offer tours for seven months and perhaps longer this year, as we see an opportunity to extend the season into November and possibly December.
This year, for the first time ever, we began running the passenger boats in late March because of the warm weather. Back in 1968, even my job was seasonal, and I worked in the Gage Marine boatyard operations during the winter. Now I have a staff of five employees who work throughout the winter booking private charters for weddings, corporate events, family outings, etc.
Our Tour Division is also busy throughout the year booking motor coach groups and arranging for all of their activities while in Lake Geneva. I am also kept very busy scheduling crews for eight passenger boats with flexible schedules each week. I also do all of the ordering for our beverage needs while my office staff works with seven caterers, making food arrangements for all of our public meal tours and private charters. One thing that has worked to my advantage over the years is my decision back in 1968 to tap into the local school systems to offer summer jobs to teachers, which has allowed me to have part-time employees who continue to work for me 30 to 40 years in some cases.
With 100 employees, only about half are students who work for me for four to six years, with the remaining either retired professionals or teachers still in the system. This program gives us well-trained, professional staff in a seasonal business. Even my full-time staff is comprised of employees who started while in high school or college and have stayed with the business as I did.
The long careers of my staff are testimony to the fact that working on our fine line of boats on beautiful Lake Geneva is a lifetime love. Our customers come from all over the United States to enjoy the beauty of the area.
Harold, who outside your company has influenced your career the most – and in what way?
Of course, it has to be my wife, Cheryl. This has been a very rewarding career but also required being gone for very long hours during both the high season and shoulder months when we can be very short on staff on busy days. With this in mind, I have to give thanks to my family for attending many events without me over the past 50 years.
Your firm has won a Wisconsin Family Business Award in the past, but that was a company honor. With your longevity in the business, can you name a personal high point in your own career?
After 50 years, it is very hard to put my finger on any one event or award. I feel my greatest satisfaction is to see the success of so many employees who have gone out into what we refer to as “the real world” after they have graduated from college and excel in their chosen career field. I stay in touch with many employees from the various decades that worked for me, and this gives me great gratification. So many of these friends remind me of the long hours they put in at the cruise line and how often they look back at the fun they had on the lake and how the work environment prepared them so well for their professional life.
Do you have a long-range goal that you’d like to achieve before leaving the organization?
That’s easy. Make it to 60 years on the job.
When you started out, was this a career goal, or was there a set path you wanted to take?
Back in the ’50s, it was really just getting a college education and seeing where that would take me. However, other than odd jobs in high school, my first paycheck was working on the boats here at the Lake Geneva Cruise Line. I was paid $36, which was the weekly total for a boat crew. We also received a flat rate for additional special jobs over 40 hours. But then, [my career goal] was nothing specific, other than to get into some type of business, own a house, and have a family.
Given that you work in a recreational job all year, what do you do “beyond the office” that brings you happiness or relaxation?
This is an easy one: I ran for the office of village president in Williams Bay, Wis. in 1987. At that time, a developer wanted to build a major project just back from the lakefront in Williams Bay, which would have included a golf community, hotel, high-rises and mid-rises along with many other commercial activities. This was a 231-acre project that was planned on a property that included acres of valuable wetlands. After two years of negotiations, we, the Village Board, purchased the property from the developer and transformed it into the Kishwuaketoe Nature Conservancy.
This has turned into 22 years of an extremely rewarding volunteer life beyond my career with Lake Geneva Cruise Line. We have restored 50 acres of the property into a beautiful tall grass prairie with a 15-acre hardwood forest and added acreage to the wetlands. The Village of Williams Bay and those of us involved in the project have received many awards for what we have been able to accomplish. We have done all of the restoration with volunteer labor and money from grant writing and generous contributions from the local Geneva Lake Area Community. We are not a line item in the village budget.
When you get away from the business, do you have a favorite place to travel?
Having worked so many long hours during our busy season, I have always enjoyed taking the family to Florida for our winter vacations. I also love to ski and just skied my 25th American Birkebeiner Ski Race in Hayward this past winter. Of course, after getting all the exercise training for the Birkie, I always look forward to some alpine skiing in Colorado.
I have been blessed with a wonderful wife, children, and grandchildren. I have always enjoyed vacations and sporting activities with my family. My children and grandson are all very good skiers, which allows me, at my age, to still look forward to getting together and enjoy the outdoors.
Great! We’ve covered travel. What about reading? Do you have time to read for pleasure?
I work so much between my job at Lake Geneva Cruise Line and my volunteer work running Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy that I am not able to do a great deal of reading. But my favorite book is A Sand County Almanac. We are so fortunate to have an environmentalist the likes of Aldo Leopold being such an important part of Wisconsin history. I always tell my interns working at Kishwauketoe that one of the requirements is to read A Sand County Almanac. Whenever I give a talk on Kishwuaketoe, I tell everyone it would be a better world if all students going off to college and all people running for public office would read it.
Do you have a special sports-related memory?
Having ushered at the famous Ice Bowl at Lambeau Field, I always feel the ethics that Vince Lombardi brought to the Packers and the NFL are a highlight in all of sports history.
Borrowing from the Lombardi lesson, who would you most like to be a mentor to, or have the most influence on – and in what way?
I would like to create a positive work and educational environment for all of the high school and college students working for me both at Lake Geneva Cruise Line and Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy. In most cases, this is their first experience in a professional work environment; the more positive I can make it, the better they will be prepared for the future.
Our last question, most people tell us, is the hardest of all (which is why we like asking it). Can you list three words you think best describe you?
Dedicated, flexible, and loyal.
Sign up for the free In Business Wisconsin Report – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.