Working in a family riverboat business

I have been fortunate to have spent most of my career running a small family business. The nature of this type of business generally means less structure, everything is hands on, tight margins, and working with several generations of family members. This presents a host of unique challenges.

I have been at BB Riverboats for many years but have also worked outside the family business. In my early years, I worked as a deckhand for the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and spent a summer as a busboy in the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York. Both experiences helped shape my future. I learned all about long hours, low pay, and customer service.

At 21, my father was an artillerist in the U.S. Army during World War II. He came back home from the war brimming with confidence and with an entrepreneurial spirit. He started several small businesses, including a passenger vessel company which today is BB Riverboats. These small businesses fully occupied our family, resulting in long hours and seemingly never-ending shifts. Everyone pitched in wherever they were needed. Eventually, I earned my captain’s license and added operating passenger vessels to an already long list of responsibilities.

My children, Terri and Ben, grew up around the business and now work full time at BB Riverboats. They work the same long hours and roll up their sleeves just as we did in the early days. They are stepping up to lead our small company into the future. Their children are also in line to enter the business.

There are many good things about working in a family business and there are also some unique stresses. A family business is in many ways more challenging because family issues are always there, on or off the clock. On the other hand, I was able to work alongside my father for 25 years. His tough management style, influenced by his military training, was interspersed with a twist of fatherly advice and love. I understand now that my father was preparing me to take over the company one day, just as I am doing now with Terri and Ben.

Whatever challenges we face in our day-to-day operations, I would not trade it for any corner office in the corporate world. I am proud to say that our little company is well positioned to continue moving forward in the Bernstein family way.

About the author

Capt. Alan Bernstein

Alan Bernstein, owner of BB Riverboats in Cincinnati, is a licensed master and a former president of the Passenger Vessel Association. He can be reached at 859-292-2449 or abernstein@bbriverboats.com.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Jo Ann W Schoen on

    Thanks Captain Al, for all your hard work. And so glad your children are interested in keeping your Dad’s dream alive.

  2. Avatar
    Dr. Capt Chief Jim McGuire. I had many choices --did all of them! on

    You write a Nice article.
    Here is a story I told my college classes when I taught Business.
    Subject: Fun Story with a Good Morll

    A boat docked in a tiny Mexican village. An American
    tourist complimented the Mexican fisherman on the
    quality of his fish and asked how long it took him to
    catch them.

    “Not very long,” answered the Mexican.

    “But then, why didn’t you stay out longer and catch
    more?” asked the American.

    The Mexican explained that his small catch was
    sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family.

    The American asked, “But what do you do with the rest
    of your time?”

    “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children,
    and take a siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go
    into the village to see my friends, play the guitar,
    and sing a few songs…
    I have a full life.”

    The American interrupted, “I have an MBA from Harvard,
    and I can help you! You should start by fishing
    longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish
    you catch. With the extra revenue,
    you can buy a bigger boat.”

    “And after that?” asked the Mexican.

    “With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you
    can buy a second one and a third one and so on until
    you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of
    selling your fish to a middle man, you can then
    negotiate directly with the processing plants
    and maybe even open your own plant. You can then
    leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los
    Angeles, or even New York City! From there you can
    direct your huge new enterprise.”

    “How long would that take?” asked the Mexican.

    “Twenty, perhaps twenty-five years,” replied the
    American.

    “And after that?”

    “Afterwards? Well my Friend, That’s when it gets
    really interesting,” answered the American, laughing.
    “When your business gets really big, you can start
    selling stocks and make millions!”

    “Millions? Really? And after that?” said the
    Mexican.

    “After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a tiny
    village near the coast, sleep late, play with your
    children, catch a few fish, take a siesta with your
    wife and spend your evenings doing what you like and
    enjoying your friends.”

    And the moral is:
    Know where you’re going in life
    … you may already be there.

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