A lot people in the marine industry share a similar past: a childhood spent on a boat, a lifelong passion for the water and starting a career in the marine business as soon as possible. Mercury Marine Chief Marketing Officer ...
These four wives of Mercury Pro Team members speak candidly and with next-level expertise
In honor of International Women’s Day, we presented a list of questions to a panel of four Mercury Pro Team members' wives to get their insights on running the business side of their family fishing enterprises.
Taking a short break from their busy schedules, these ladies were kind enough to provide some fascinating insight. Our panel of angler spouses includes Sherry VanDam, Kalamazoo, Michigan; Jennie DeFoe, Blaine, Tennessee; Leann Swindle, Guntersville, Alabama; and Karyn Stroschein of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Their husbands, Kevin VanDam (Bass Pro Tour), Ott DeFoe (Bass Pro Tour), Gerald Swindle (Bassmaster Elite Series), and Dale Stroschein (Walleye pro and guide), respectively, make their living in the fishing industry.
How involved are you in running your family fishing business, and what does that look like on a daily basis?
VanDam – I am very involved and have been since day one. For me, the daily routine totally depends on the day and time of year.
DeFoe – I am very involved in our business. Ott and I both wanted our business to be “we and us” and not “I or me.” It is important to us that our sponsors view us as a team. Every day is different for us. Some days are spent in the office all day, and others on the water getting to do the fun stuff.
Swindle – Sometimes, it feels like you are trying to herd cats. It is full-blown organized chaos most of the time. Schedules are constantly changing, sponsor requests are coming in continuously, and change waits around every corner.
Stroschein – I am 100 percent all in. I run both Dale’s guide service, Wacky Walleye Guide Service, and our family resort, Sand Bay Beach Resort in Sturgeon Bay. I’m in the office every day unless we are physically out of town. Some days I come in to check and return messages, and I’m in and out in under 30 minutes, and some days I work 14-plus-hour shifts, depending on the amount of workload and staff. I do whatever I have to do each day.
How long have you been running the business side of your husband’s angling endeavors, and what made you want to take over the business?
VanDam – I have been involved since he started 30 years ago. It’s just what we did from the beginning. Since day one, I have helped him with his receipts, tax prep, appearance bookings, expense reports, and tackle organization. Through the years, I have handled many aspects of the business.
DeFoe – Since the very beginning. So, about 14 years.
Swindle – We were married in 2004, and he pretty much gave me the reins right off the bat. I was working full-time at a local bank as a loan officer, but it didn’t take too long to realize with his busy schedule, I needed to be able to stay home and manage the business on a more full-time basis. So, I took a “leave of absence” for six months, and it was honestly one of the best business decisions we have made.
Stroschein – I’ve been actively running it since 2003. I fill in the gaps where my strengths are, and he may not excel. Anything computer-related just comes more naturally to me, so that’s how it started, I guess. I helped him transition into an online booking calendar. He used to have an actual day planner and recorded everything in! It was sloppy, and, heaven forbid, he ever would ever misplace it!
What parts of the business do you like the most? And the least?
VanDam – The part I like most is the friendships we have made through fishing.
My least favorite is interviews of me – please don’t take that wrong! I appreciate it and am thankful to be asked, but it is the thing I am least comfortable with. I enjoy being a part of everything from behind the scenes.
DeFoe – Honestly, I love the office work. I have always enjoyed doing paperwork. I know it’s weird, but I enjoy it. My least favorite part would have to be the time we have to spend apart, for sure.
Swindle – I love office work and organization, and he absolutely hates them both. So my favorite part is keeping an organized schedule, even though it changes often, and it’s funny that it’s also my least favorite because he fights me on this.
Stroschein – Hands down, it is the relationships and friendships we’ve developed over the years. I’ve met some of my dearest friends who either started out as fishing clients of Dale’s or I met through the companies he works with. The part I dislike is social media; not so much creating content or posts, but just seeing some nasty things people write or lies that are perpetrated. It seems that so many people have become “keyboard warriors” and have no issues tearing down people, most of the time people they don’t even know personally or businesses. I guess I am old school. Our business was built mostly the old-fashioned way—word of mouth, reputation, etc. To see people go on social media and there be so much negativity, I just have a really hard time with that. I’m not just referring to Dale in this matter, but dear friends of ours in this industry or companies we work with when I see people just get ugly towards them. Nobody thinks how their words really cut the person on the other side of that computer screen.
Does working so closely have challenges for you as a couple?
VanDam – Of course…
DeFoe – Yes and no!
Swindle – Yes, absolutely. Have you ever had to talk to an angler coming off the water in a tournament where they didn’t catch them? Usually, they are not in the most loving, flower-arrangement-toting mood. He’s usually just mad, so it took me some time to realize that and figure out how to not take it personally. I learned to give him some space and just let him vent. It’s hard when you are upset with your business partner – not to let that go over to being upset with your spouse.
Stroschein – Yes. I think as humans, it’s natural to vent about your day. Well, our days coincide with each other a lot. Case in point, as I’m answering these questions, Dale is doing a podcast right around the corner from me. Anybody who’s ever heard Dale talk on a video or give a seminar knows he is loud. So, here I am thinking about how to answer this question, and I’m thinking, “Dale, can you please take it from a 10 to a five so I can concentrate?!” So yes, working closely together definitely has its challenges.
How do you take time to separate work from your personal lives?
VanDam – It’s hard, but we try our best to balance it all. Fishing is definitely not a 9-to-5 job. Even when on vacation, there are responses that sponsors need, interview requests, emails, social media, and business planning, etc.
DeFoe – We try to set hours for working purposes only. Work typically seems to pop up at all times of the day, but we try to stick to the hours we set.
Swindle – In 2020, I started the year with mini-goals. I didn’t want to set a New Year’s resolution, so I tried to set monthly goals instead. One of those was to take “mini-vacations,” whether that was a hike or a quick trip to the beach. COVID threw a wrench in that plan. We always look forward to our hunting season; that allows us time to spend together outside of the fishing world.
Stroschein – I think that’s one of the things we do best. We always make time for fun. We love to do things together. I manage Dale’s calendar, so I will intentionally schedule a time to go to a movie, out for sushi, get a pedicure, etc. I know it’s maybe sickening to hear, but we are honestly best friends. That part is easy.
What did you do professionally before taking over the business side of your husband’s career?
VanDam – I was 20 years old when Kevin started fishing professionally. We had been dating for three years. At the time, I was attending college, running my own pre-school, and teaching dance at the dance studio I grew up attending.
DeFoe – I stayed at home and raised our babies. (The DeFoes have two daughters and a son.)
Swindle – I was in banking. I started as a teller and worked in many different areas of the bank, and I was a loan officer when I left.
Stroschein – Well, I was only 20 when I met Dale. I finished getting my degree in marketing and graphic design and worked a brief stint at a printing company, but I just found it much more fulfilling to work for myself and our businesses. Luckily, that degree has really helped me throughout running our businesses. For example, when the guy designing Dale’s truck wrap emails asking for a .ai file or .psd, I actually know what he means!
What challenges you the most in taking care of the business?
VanDam – Probably the schedule. I always want to try to make as many requests work as possible. Unfortunately, most years, there doesn’t seem to be enough time for everything.
DeFoe – Umm Ott…
Swindle – The ever-changing schedule is challenging. This past year was the most challenging. With the tournaments being postponed and rescheduled, making sure we had a place to stay and those places changing at each event, that was tough. My poor planner/calendar looked awful. I have now learned to write in pencil.
Stroschein – The most challenging part is resolving issues. We are open year-round and have thousands of people each year come through our door as lodging guests or fishing clients, or both. With that volume of people, as in any business, sometimes the stars don’t always align for every single client. And they get upset. I take things very personally, and I get flustered dealing with somebody who may not be having their “best day.” I will always go above and beyond to try to make something right, but sometimes no matter what you do, it just doesn’t help. To be honest, I can count these on one hand, but they still haunt me.
What is the most valuable thing you have learned that might help others?
VanDam – Staying organized is so important, and you have to roll with and accept last-minute changes to the schedule.
DeFoe – To set limits and stick with them. It can get overwhelming and consuming if you allow it.
Swindle – I love to have a plan. But I now realize that plans will most likely change. Don’t sweat it. Don’t stress out. Things will work out. In business, you are doing one of two things: either building new relationships or mending old ones.
Stroschein – By far, the best piece of advice I can give to anybody is how to manage expectations. Never over promise and under deliver; do just the opposite. Dale is known throughout the industry as being honest and is respected so much because of it. He is not a “tell you what you want to hear” kind of guy, whether that’s with his clients, the companies he partners with, or just a guy asking a question at a boat landing. And I am the same way. Being 100-percent authentic will always be an advantage.
What do you feel is the key to a successful business partnership with your spouse?
VanDam – Trust. We both know we always have our best interests in mind at all times, and we have the same values and integrity in how we handle our brand.
DeFoe – Allowing God to guide us and communicating with each other is key. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing your hard work come full circle – so take the chance!
Swindle – You each have to understand the other’s job description and what toll that takes on them. Then try to figure ways to help alleviate any stress that they may be going through.
Stroschein – Playing to each other’s strengths is what makes us successful. Dale is so laser-focused, and he’s a perfectionist. When he is in the zone, he’s quiet and fully concentrated on the task at hand. I’m a multi-tasker and would consider myself the social butterfly out of the two of us. He comes close to over four decades of fishing knowledge and involvement in the industry. I can help him put that knowledge out there in articles, social media posts, online seminars, etc. Also, taking the day-to-day work out of it for him (answering phones, emails, booking fishing clients, etc.) allows for him to be 100-percent present with each and every client he works with each day.
What would you change if you could start over as to how you approach the business?
DeFoe – I’m not sure we would change anything. We had no idea what we were doing when we started and grew and learned together.
Swindle – Honestly, I would have made more of an effort into carving out personal time for us. That’s a real challenge with our workload. I have great intentions at the start of every season, but I need to work on it more.
Stroschein – Early on, I tended to shy away from hosting events and clinics as it was intimidating for me to organize. I wish I had incorporated those types of events much earlier than we did. They’ve become so successful and popular, and we get so much satisfaction out of hosting these events.
What is one of the most memorable or rewarding moments in your role?
DeFoe – I think the most rewarding thing we have done is launch an apparel line. I love how exciting our fans are to represent us! Since I run it all, I get to be in contact and hear great stories from them!
Swindle – That’s an easy one: the 2016 AOY season. I was there alongside him every step of the way. It was a rough year. Between his knee health and some behind-the-scenes issues we were having in the business world, we felt alone and isolated, and we were pretty much all each other had. The Lord blessing us with that AOY is a feeling I will never forget.
Strocshein – One of the most rewarding things – and I’m very grateful for it – is just seeing our clients enjoy their time with us. It’s so simple, but it’s an honor to be a part of people’s lives and contribute to their happy memories. Being in the service and tourism industry is full of challenges, but it is so satisfying when our hard work is rewarded by happy faces, high fives, and returning guests!
What is the worst thing you feel you did or a mistake you made?
DeFoe – I am famous for sending the wrong attachments to the wrong sponsors! It has happened more than once, and I am thankful they all have a great sense of humor!
Swindle – I had to ask Gerald his thoughts on this one. In the early years, I took negative criticism towards Gerald personally. I shed tears and worried. It took me a long time and some great advice from friends to develop thicker skin.
Stroschein – Oh, I’ve made plenty of mistakes, too many to count. Honestly, though, each mistake is an opportunity to learn and grow. I guess it’s a “no regrets” kind of attitude I try to have. Each stumbling block leads me to where we are today, and I can always look back and say, “look at how far we’ve come.”
A Final Note
Sherry VanDam added one final insight after the interview:
“To any wife, girlfriend, or significant other who works with their angler in any way –
YOU MATTER. WHAT YOU DO MATTERS. Don’t let anyone who doesn’t understand what you do tell you differently!”
Well said, Sherry.
On this International Women’s Day, thank you!