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The first thing you're struck by when you hear Andy Wilson talk about the birth of his tour company, Boston Duck Tours, is how he finds a positive spin to put on every obstacle he's faced. Even though it took him two years to bring his dream to fruition, Wilson is hesitant to complain about the lack of support he found in the more than 100 government agencies he had to deal with to get the 29 permits required to open his doors.
"There was a great deal of resistance to the idea at the time, but that's taken a 180-degree turn," says Wilson, 42. "Now everybody we deal with thinks we're a very good thing for Boston."
Wilson chalks up both his good and his bad experiences to fate, but it took a lot more than destiny to get him where he is today: It took tenacity and confidence, as well as faith in the power of Boston's history and the amphibious World War II vehicles fondly known as Ducks. Last year, nearly 400,000 passengers took the plunge on Wilson's 16 Ducks--which cruise down the streets of Boston and splash through the Charles River--to the tune of $6.2 million for the 5-year-old company. And Wilson, who expects his sales to reach $7.2 million this year, has become one of the more distinct and respected members of the Boston landscape, spreading the joy of quacking throughout the city.
Back in 1992, however, Bostonians thought Wilson was a bit crazy when he began to spread word of his idea. Fresh from a lucrative job in corporate finance, Wilson knew he wanted to steer his life in another direction. While on a cross-country trip, he found his inspiration on a Memphis tour given in Ducks.
He decided to bring the concept back to Boston and create a fun, yet informative, historical tour given in candy-colored Ducks with names like Beantown Betty and Fenway Fannie. Pouring $30,000 in savings into his efforts, Wilson began making the rounds to apply for permits and find investors.
The unique nature of the Duck--part bus, part truck, part boat--led Wilson through a maze of government agencies, seeking permits everywhere from the Department of Public Utilities to environmental groups. He encountered not only skepticism but even confusion and rudeness as he tried to explain his concept to officials, who, unfamiliar with the Duck, pictured a World War II tank rumbling through Boston's historical districts. "The short and sweet of it is that everybody thought I was nuts because it was a new idea," says Wilson.
Between the city of Boston, the state of Massachusetts and the U.S. Coast Guard, Wilson faced dozens of officials asking questions he admits he wasn't prepared for. For example, he says, "There's a stability test to make sure a vessel is operating in the proper condition so it won't roll over when people are on it. The first time I walked into the Coast Guard office, they asked me about stability. `I'm a stable individual,' I said. I knew a lot about boats, but I didn't know anything about what the Coast Guard wanted."
Almost a year later, Wilson was still lacking permits, investors and support from just about everyone. "It was clear I was going broke," says Wilson, "One day I said, `I'm going to give up. But before I do, I have to see what my potential competitors are doing.'"
So Wilson took his first trolley tour. "It was such a pathetic experience compared to what I wanted to do," he says. "I said, `If this is my competition, it's a no-brainer.' And I never looked back."
Soon after his inspiring trolley tour, Wilson found his first supporter in Manny Rogers, a funeral parlor owner and military vehicle collector from across the Charles River in Cambridge. A Duck owner himself, Rogers understood Wilson's vision and invested $90,000 to pay for the first vehicle. Wilson could now give skeptical officials and potential investors tours in the Duck so they could experience firsthand the excitement of seeing the city from the amphibious vehicle's perspective. He went one step further and sent tour invitations to everyone in the Greater Boston Visitor and Convention Bureau to get the local tourism industry familiar with the idea.
Around the same time, Wilson met Robert MacDowell, the owner of a 25-year-old Duck tour business in Branson, Missouri. Wilson began to use MacDowell's business as a model to show naysayers that Duck tours could work successfully. Also, MacDowell restored Ducks on the side, which provided Wilson with a much-needed source of vehicles. Now he only had to wind his way through the remaining red tape and persuade investors to provide the $1.25 million he still needed to get Boston Duck Tours rolling.
As Wilson was traversing the halls of government, he was also falling deeper into debt. Other than Rogers' $90,000, he'd gotten only verbal commitments from potential investors. And as the permit process dragged on, even those sources dried up.
"I originally thought it would take six months [to start the company]," says Wilson. "But then six months came and went, and I hadn't gotten anywhere. By the time I pulled all the [permits together], people had pulled out, saying, `What else is going to go wrong?'"
By June 1994, Wilson had all the necessary permits but no money to get the venture rolling. After pouring every dime he had into the business for two years, he was $250,000 in debt. Wilson played his last card by calling CPA acquaintances from his former corporate job. Through them, he found an investment firm that quickly went to work, finishing Wilson's private stock offering and raising $1.25 million in two months. Wilson was ready to open for business.
Wilson set his opening day for October 4, 1994--almost two years after he was struck by the idea of starting a Duck tour company. His crew began the final preparations for the grand opening. All seemed good to go...until the government stepped in once again.
Months before, the city of Boston had told Wilson he could slowly work on equipping his Ducks to be wheelchair-accessible after opening. Just two weeks before launch date, however, they reneged, telling him he wouldn't receive his sightseeing license until the Ducks complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act. He scrambled to order custom-made lifts for the Ducks, and they arrived on October 3--the day before Wilson was set to open.
"Literally the morning of our grand opening, I demonstrated that we were wheelchair-accessible," Wilson remembers. "A half hour before my opening speech, the city issued my sightseeing permit. It was a rush."
Wilson doesn't begrudge the city their last-minute change. Since then, he's carried thousands of wheelchair-bound passengers and received numerous letters from families who take the tour annually with disabled relatives. Looking at Boston Duck Tour's phenomenal rise since it's been open, it's understandable that Wilson would be beyond such grievances.
Wilson was only open for two months his first season, but he carried 9,000 passengers. During the first full season in 1995, Boston Duck Tours carried 130,000 passengers and sold out every day. "The tide really turned by 1996; everybody seemed to be embracing us," recalls Wilson. "I can't think of a single person who was my adversary who right now isn't my friend."
Wilson has strengthened his presence in the community by getting involved in local environmental groups and by getting the community involved in his business. He sponsors a contest in which local schoolchildren name new ducks, donated one million pennies to his one millionth passenger's charity of choice, and gives veterans free tours during the week of Veterans Day in honor of his father, a World War II veteran. And, not least of all, his tour guides mercilessly goad Bostonians to get into the act by getting full Duckloads of tourists to quack at them--expecting a quack back, of course.
"I realized all along that if this was going to succeed, it was because Boston existed," says Wilson. "It's a wonderful city. So I've done everything I can to be a responsible citizen."
And Wilson's efforts have paid off. The recipient of the 1997 Small Business Person of the Year for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts award from the Massachusetts SBA and the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau's 1997 "Spirit of Enterprise" award has proved to past detractors that he's not only sane, but an asset to the city. "I went from somebody who was nuts to having a successful business that we operate responsibly [by] giving back to the community," Wilson says. "It's like I've been reborn. I went from being a social outcast to being a local hero."
Boston Duck Tours, 790 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02199