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CEO leads business success in Hoonah

Wysocki helps Icy Straight Point hold 90 percent local hire rate

Posted: Friday, December 26, 2008

Aside from the occasional yawn, balancing a busy schedule appears effortless for Huna Totem Corp. and Icy Strait Point CEO Bob Wysocki, who, in addition to catering to Huna Totem's 1,300 shareholders and ISP's 100-plus local employees, finds time to serve on several boards, train for triathlons in the summer and father two young girls, Sydney, 2, and Katelyn, 4.

"Trying to find that balance between the work, play, family and then community (is difficult)," he said. "That's why I'm yawning. It wears you out."

But, being a successful businessman, Wysocki understands the value of hard work.

He grew up in Seattle, but his mother, who is half-Tsimshian, was from Ketchikan. From a Sealaska shareholder family, Wysocki started his career through help from Sealaska's scholarship and internship programs. After working shortly as an industrial engineer for Boeing, he moved to Juneau in June 1992, when a job opportunity arose at the local Sealaska office.

"I came up for a six-month tax project, and I'm still in Juneau 16 years later," he said. "I ended up doing just about everything. I was there for about 11 years, working for almost every subsidiary. I was controller and corporate finance director when I left for the Huna Totem job 5 ½ years ago."

Now Wysocki oversees investments and other activities for Huna Totem and Icy Straight Point, a historic-themed tourist attraction located about 1 ½ miles from Hoonah, which he helped restore and open to cruise ships in 2004.

"When we started ISP, we had hardly anyone who'd been in the industry," he said, "and we'd been hiring more than 100 people in the community all five years, so to get them to come into a new industry and focus on the customer service industry was extremely challenging."

But ISP held its 90-percent local hire rate and has become a successful port "because of the people," Wysocki said.

"We wanted to provide jobs to our shareholders and community members," he said. "We wanted to showcase what we believe is the real Alaskan experience in a way that didn't overwhelm the community or our staff."

For such dedication to the preservation of Native culture, the Travel Industry Association and National Geographic Traveler magazine awarded ISP the "Travel to a Better World" award in late October, in conjunction with TIA's Odyssey Awards.

"This is a great honor and really strengthens our commitment to ISP and our community," Wysocki said. "We've focused on providing an authentic experience in the 'real Alaska,' with real Native Alaskans, and this award certainly reflects our commitment and honors us for that."

Wysocki said the award has given ISP public recognition it could not have gotten through its own advertising.

"We can't afford to market directly to cruise guests," he said. "So these kinds of awards really get our name out there in the trade."

In addition to winning the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Blue Ribbon Award the last two years in a row, ISP last year won the ATIA's Alyeska Award and was rated the Most Friendly Port in Alaska by the McDowell Group. And in May, ISP's zip line also was listed as the Anchorage Daily News' third (of seven) Alaska things to put on your "life list."

"It's all because of the board having the insight and the courage to do something different, the community just absolutely, 100 percent, supporting this, and then a staff that's been phenomenal," Wysocki said.

Wysocki also manages Huna Totem's investment portfolio, including possession of commercial real estate and part of an investment company in San Diego, as well as its shareholders' settlement trust. He must constantly seek to meet shareholders' and community members' needs, which he said is the most demanding part of his job.

"Meeting shareholder expectations in an ANSCA corporation is always difficult," Wysocki said. "We're in some trying times with the economy, looking at a tourism season that may be challenging and trying to meet all those expectations sometimes is very difficult. ... There's always a strong desire for dividends and employment opportunities. We're always trying to increase funding for education to provide more opportunity, trying to encourage folks to get into accounting and tourism-related fields, and getting folks in the pipeline to move up in the system."

With two bachelor's degrees and an MBA, Wysocki said his drive for education has helped him become successful. For that reason, he encourages community members and shareholders to also explore formal education.

"Seeing the value in education and the ability to help yourself and do more in your career and life ... you really get driven to try to pass that on and encourage other people to rise up and take a little bit of control over their lives," he said.

Wysocki is highly motivated, but he still likes to relax and have fun, which he does through hunting, fishing, training for triathlons and spending time with his family.

"Life's short and you got to get in as much fun as you can," he said. Although he doesn't do Iron Mans anymore, because of his busy daughters, he still enjoys triathlons.

"It's just a challenge of finishing something like that," he reasoned. "It's three sports instead of one, not monotonous training, good release of stress. It's got to be a little twisted, but it's fun. ... That's kind of the smaller piece of what I do now. I'm mostly a family man now."

Besides finding time for his family and coping with the "Terrible 2s," Wysocki is looking to the future, and that involves growth at Icy Straight Point.

"We want to get to roughly five ships a week. That's where we want to be for the financial model to work the way we'd like it to," he said. "And for Huna Totem, we got very focused on this project because of its impact on the community - it's our hometown and our shareholders - but we do want to grow and diversify."

Wysocki said Huna Totem has, for the last couple of years, sought investments to get the corporation into the 8A program, doing government contracting or something counter-cyclical to the tourism industry.

"But with this economy and this tourism season coming at us, we're being very defensive right now and being careful to make sure we can survive whatever the summer ends up being, as cruise bookings are not at record highs," he said. "For this coming year, in response to the global and U.S. economy and financial issues, we're trying to be very cautious to make sure we can get through the storm OK. Most of our expansion plans are pretty much on hold right now."

However, Wysocki anticipates growth by 2010.

"Norwegian Cruise Lines came out last week with a press release that they were going to visit us 10 times in 2010 on northbound itinerary," he said. "We really do think we'll see some nice growth and probably stabilize from there in 2010.

Norwegian Cruise Lines would make five of the six big lines visiting Hoonah.

Wysocki credits Huna Totem and the community of Hoonah for the success they've had the last five years.

"I've seen a project that people were really worried about - how it would impact their lives and their community and the way we've been able to do it and maintain that shareholder hire and local hire - I don't think any other village has been able to do anything like this," he said. "I think we've really melded, too, the economic need with the local sustainability need, and living that subsistence lifestyle is still very much there."

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at kimberly.andree@juneauempire.com.



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