SPEAKER

 
President Matt Ruppert introduced our speaker, our own Bob Benjamin, who shared with us the story of how he became involved in Rotary.  
Bob Benjamin with a sample of the rock that sunk the ship.
 
In 1985, Bob’s daughters were involved in a group called Indian Princess (part of the Indian Guides program). On one particular outing, while the girls played on the beach, their dads sat around the campfire swapping stories. Knowing that the company Bob was with had gone through a dramatic turnaround, this group of attorneys, accountants, and engineers asked him, “What happened?”
 
Bob, at the time, was working for Stan McDonald, the founder of Princess Cruises. He and Stan had worked together for about two years, starting up another cruise line, Sundance Cruises. On June 15, 1984, the first voyage sailed, and all went well. On June 29, the one and only ship in this start-up operation left from Vancouver headed for Alaska on its second voyage – and ran into a rock off Maude Island.
 
The ship’s experienced captain, Christer Bierqvist, evaluated how quickly the ship was sinking and took the ship five miles south to a lumber company dock, where he was able to get all 499 passengers and 288 crew members safely off the ship, just minutes before she sank, taking the dock with her. “The passengers were all in nightclothes, because this had happened at midnight. They had just jumped out of bed and ran for the lifeboat stations as the ship was beginning to sink.”
 
By 1am, Sundance executives were in the corporate office in Seattle, “Figuring out what to do.”
 
 The Canadian military took the passengers from the lumberyard to COMAX Air Base. Pete Skinner, the “sales guy” for Sundance who had previously worked for Alaska Airlines started calling his contacts and by 5am, Alaska Airlines flights were shuttling passengers to the Seattle-Tacoma airport. Other company employees contacted Grayline, which provided busses to meet the planes and take the passengers to the Red Lion Hotel near the airport, where a full wing was reserved to accommodate the passengers.
 
Meanwhile, Stan McDonald’s son Kirby woke up his neighbor, “a guy named Nordstrom,” and told him that they had 500 people who needed clothing and toiletries, because they had not been able to bring anything from the ship. “Nordstrom called and had a crew of salespeople go to the store by the airport, and by 6am, we had passengers going in and out of that store, picking up clothes so they would have clothing to wear on the flight back home.
 
“My controller, Hugh Gustafson, woke up our banker at 3am. The banker called the security people at the bank and got the top-notch code, and Hugh and our banker drove around Seattle and cleaned out every ATM machine in the Seattle area, and headed for the Red Lion. When the passengers arrived, we were able to give them each $150 so they could go and get the stuff they needed.”
 
Next, Stan realized that the company was going to need a PR guy. The company had already hired Gordon Thorne, but he wasn’t scheduled to start working for another week. At 3am, Gordon received a call to come in and start working immediately. From the moment he arrived, Gordon laid down the rules: “No one talks to the press except me; I will tell the truth with no omissions; and I will keep the press informed. That’s the secret of getting us through this successfully.”
 
The company came out of the episode with a lustrous reputation. “Our comments from the passengers about how we handled this were 5-star. The travel press wrote the most glowing articles about Sundance Cruises; about how we dealt with the disaster, treated everybody fairly, and managed to get through this.” But Sundance went one better: Stan insisted that the company pay all travel agents the commission they would have earned if their customers had taken the cruises that were booked for the rest of the season – which, of course, they could not do without the one and only ship owned by the cruise line.
 
But how did the company avoid financial ruin after losing the ship, accommodating passengers, and paying commissions for travel agents? That’s where Bob comes into the story – as a prequel. Bob had sailed on the first cruise on June 15, saw it through to a smooth conclusion, and then he and his wife headed back east for some R & R. When the accident happened, he was sleeping peacefully in Virginia Beach. “But I did have a major role to play.” As the Sundance corporate secretary and CFO, Bob had met with the company’s insurance reps on June 15, the day of the first cruise. They were a little apprehensive about insuring that particular type of vessel, but offered another policy that necessitated a total loss before the policy would pay. “I couldn’t get hold of Stan or any of the other guys, so I made the decision and spent $10,000 with one signature, securing the insurance.” As it turned out, that’s what saved the company. “When the guy from Lloyd’s came, he handed us a check for $7 million for the total loss. That paid all the travel agents, allowed us to keep all of the employees in place, and gave us the leverage to get into a new ship that was twice as big as the first. By the following June, we had climbed out of this absolute gloom.”
 
By the way, when the ship was raised, investigators found that the marine pilot charged with steering the ship safely through difficult passages, had multiple bottles of mouthwash filled with vodka in his room. When the event happened, the pilot gave the command for a starboard turn. The captain realized something was wrong and questioned the pilot’s order, but by then the ship had already run aground – and the pilot had passed out. He was fined $1,000, was given a 90-day suspension, and then was back to work as a marine pilot.
 
After hearing the story, one of the dads around the Indian Guide campfire insisted that Bob come tell the story at his Rotary Club. That led to several more invitations to talk to several more Rotary Clubs. And that led to Bob joining Rotary.
 
Sundance Cruises went on to become so successful that Royal Caribbean bought them out (for an undisclosed, but juicy amount) in order to absorb the competition.