How Can Lessons Learned from A Lighthouse Help Our Businesses?

Numerous projects and institutions have been named after lighthouses. Illustrations of lighthouses have served as symbols for these projects and institutions through the years. One might assume that this is because the projects and institutions were close to lighthouses or had some sort of relationship to building, repairing, servicing, maintaining or educating people about lighthouses, but this is not necessarily the case. As a lighthouse enthusiast, I recall following signs to the lighthouse only to find that it was a church far from the water. My physician’s billing company had lighthouse in its name. A very significant learning project for Fortune 500 Executives used to be called the Lighthouse Project, though it was not located near a lighthouse. Why are institutions attracted to lighthouses?

Perhaps, because the lighthouse serves as a guide to people, or possibly it is because the lighthouse keepers serve heroically under good as well as adverse conditions to meet the needs of their traditional customers, crews of ships at sea. Maybe it is because the lighthouses are picturesque. Maybe (but less likely) it is because lighthouses are complex businesses which serve many masters. In Rhode Island, we are fortunate to have numerous lighthouses which make our state more attractive to tourism. One of the lighthouses is Rose Island, and it is about 1 mile from the Newport Jamestown Bridge. The lighthouse still functions today to guide boats. Its beauty enhances views of Newport Harbor. Additionally, it is a wildlife sanctuary and a great place to visit during a day tour or to spend the night. The Rose Island lighthouse is also a not-for-profit organization that needs to raise money, sell services, make purchases, and transport items. It has numerous customers and is regulated by the Coast Guard. Various challenges faced by both the Rose Island Lighthouse and some of our businesses are described below. Reviewing the Rose Island challenges and experiences provide us with a model of how to be more productive and efficient.

Challenge #1: Raising Money. As a not-for-profit, the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation is dependent upon grant money, private donations, and selling services. Executive Director David McCurdy has demonstrated that by offering some suggestions, simply asking benefactors and customers how they would like to see their money spent, and spending the money according to the benefactors’ and customers’ wishes has dramatically increased the organization’s financial success. So, David says, “Be sure to listen to your customers!”

Challenge #2: Conserving Resources. The Rose Island Lighthouse is heated with oil heat. There is no pipeline from the mainland to the island. There is no oil delivery service via boat available. There is no natural gas pipeline, either. Instead, Chris Papp, the lighthouse property manager, needs to place 55-gallon drums on the Starfish (the boat owned by the lighthouse), fill them with diesel oil, drive the boat to the lighthouse, and set up fuel lines to pump the oil into two tanks (which are similar to the ones you may have in your basement). Clearly, this is not a job Chris wants to do more frequently than necessary (and the oil is expensive, too). To reduce the need to carry out this laborious job, the lighthouse recently replaced all of its windows and reduced the diesel oil consumption by 30 percent. While the window replacement project was expensive, it is expected to pay for itself within 5 years just in fuel savings. Chris recommends checking your windows at work and at home to save money.

Challenge #3: Government Regulation. If you think your business is over-regulated, consider that the lighthouse is regulated by the Coast Guard (because it is a functioning lighthouse), the RI State Office of Historic Preservation, the Department of Interior, and the City of Newport. The foundation recently replaced the lens (the “light”) with a beautiful new one which was custom-made. The new lens had to meet all government regulations, be made cost effectively, and have a long lifespan. David found that working the various agencies was a challenge, but it was greatly facilitated by not overreacting to regulations. A government official will work with you if you navigate the regulatory task with little complaint and if your attitude is one that assists the process.

Challenge #4. Collecting Payments. There is a $5.00 landing fee per person to use the island facilities for island maintenance. As with every business, it is essential to collect payments. At Rose Island, visitors need to be encouraged to land their boat at or near the dock, as opposed to on the more distant beaches, and pay the fee. David anticipates that it will be much easier to collect payments when he sets up a booth right at the docks to pay. He looks forward to reporting back on whether having the more noticeable payment process improves cash flow.

Challenge #5. Turning Visitors/Customers into Ambassadors. The entire staff of the lighthouse is dedicated to turning every visitor into being a spokesperson for the lighthouse. They do this by offering great tours, special events year round, memberships, and a great accommodation for all overnight guests. Tour guide Nora Eschenheimer, a recent college graduate who has been giving tours since the age of ten, has found that demonstrating true enthusiasm and encouraging visitors to explore are the keys to success. She recommends that all business owners demonstrate enthusiasm for their business (and also, where practical, involve their families in the business from a young age).

1 I would like to thank Industrial Consultant Dr. Margarita Posada for helpful comments.

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