An interview with Arnold Freight owner and operator, Veronica Dobrowolski, about the recent acquisition of Shepler’s Freight, being one of the first licensed female captains in the Great Lakes, and life on the Straits of Mackinac.
How long have you lived in Northern Michigan?
I’ve lived in Northern Michigan my whole life, and just turned the big “5-0” so there you go! I grew up in Cheboygan, built a house in Mackinaw City in 1998, and have recently become a resident of beautiful Mackinac Island as that is the location I spend my entire work day.
What got you started in the boating industry?
I grew up boating with my family on Mullett Lake in Cheboygan every Sunday during the summer and loved being on the water…swimming, water skiing, soaking up the sun. I always knew that boats were in my future. I have been a licensed captain for 27 years, having gotten my 100-ton Master’s License in 1993.
How has your role on the water evolved over the years?
The variety of experiences gained over time in the marine industry, from dock attendant to deckhand to becoming a captain when I was 23 and everything in between led me to see the marine transportation industry from all facets. These experiences took me from a role of employee, ultimately to a management position with Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry as their Dock/Human Resources Manager. It was a hard and long haul, with 23 seasons and many 80- and 90-hour weeks. The experience and lessons I learned were invaluable which prepared me for my next move with a competing ferry boat business, Arnold Transit Company, a company with a history and tradition dating back to 1878, as their General Manager. I currently am CEO/Co-owner of Arnold Freight Company, Manager/Co-owner of Pure Michigan Boat Cruises and General Manager of East Dock, LLC.
I can honestly say short of being a mechanic, although at times I’ve had to turn a wrench to keep things moving, I have touched all aspects of the passenger and freight operations that currently serve the Straits Area. It has always been a work in progress and now I’m ready for the next step in an ever-expanding business environment. There is never a dull moment, which comes with the typical job stressors but also with opportunities and challenges which I enjoy.
Tell us a little bit about your businesses, how they’ve grown, and what a “normal” work day looks like for you.
As I see you noted the word “normal” in quotes so you have some understanding that my work day is anything but normal. Arnold Freight Company carries approximately 75%
of the freight that comes to Mackinac Island and continues to expand its offerings through other vessels. Freight arrives by 6:00 am each morning on our freight boat, Corsair, a 92’ x 33’ vessel, typically starting with two semi-trucks of food for all the restaurants and businesses on the Island. This is followed by anything from construction materials, beverages, horses, hay, etc. – anything that may be needed by Island residents. We also service the US Mail, FedEx Ground, and FedEx Air aboard our fast landing craft, 906 Express.
I manage and schedule transient boats for dock space at the Coal Dock and the East Dock, a private yacht dock located next the State Harbor. My time is primarily spent on the Freight Dock, where I am preparing for cruises under our Sip n’ Sail banner, featuring an 81’ steel hull 90-passenger vessel which transports passengers along the Mackinac Island shoreline and under the Mackinac Bridge. The cruises feature live entertainment and a full-service beverage bar. This business also does private charters for any number of groups and occasions, such birthdays, anniversaries, wedding parties, and corporate events. I feel blessed to be cruising on Lake Huron and Lake Michigan on a daily basis…. it never gets old and all of the pictures on my phone prove that.
So, the “normal” day starts before 6:00 am many days and doesn’t end typically until after 10:00pm. There are few dull moments keeping the ships afloat, so to speak, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything else, especially a desk!
What is it like owning and operating multiple successful businesses on Mackinac Island and working in the Straits daily?
I feel fortunate to be a part of the Mackinac Island community and owning and managing businesses in the Upper Peninsula. We live in such a beautiful area! Our success is really built on customer relations and we have been fortunate to have a loyal customer base. Without such support and loyalty we wouldn’t realize the success we have. PERSEVERANCE has been my key to success.
What is your favorite part about the boating industry?
Besides the obvious - water and boats - what I enjoy the most is the diversity of my work and the people I get to meet from all over the world and from every walk of life. There are so many nice people out there that I’ve crossed paths with and have become friends with over the years. The boating industry has also given me the opportunity to offer employment to many individuals. I have had the opportunity to hire over a thousand employees, many of them young and just starting out in the workforce. I have always had a strong work ethic and being able to instill the same and mentor young people in the ways of doing business has been very rewarding, especially when those same young people come back years later over to tell me how much of an influence I had early on in their careers. Several are still active in the marine industry and others are teachers, doctors, attorneys, etc. I feel honored to have been a small part of some of these young peoples’ lives.
Best piece of advice for someone looking to get their license?
Get as much experience on the water in as many different vessels as possible. Learn the ropes from those most experienced and respected in the industry whenever possible. A captain’s license can be as diverse as you wish to make it. I would strongly advise young people starting out to look outside the box and live your dreams and don’t get fenced in by stereotypical thinking about the role others think you should pursue.