Profiles in Leadership: Women Making Waves executive leadership panel

By Wanda Kenton Smith

In this “Women Making Waves” edition, Boating Industry (BI) interviewed three leaders from different segments of the marine industry — all former WMW recipients — who share insights and recommendations for those navigating a fulfilling career.

BI spoke with Melissa Danko, the 2015 “Darlene Briggs Marine Woman of the Year” and23-year Executive Director of the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey (MTA/NJ). Gail Kulp is a 19-year veteran with 12 years as Executive Director of the Sea Tow Foundation and seven previously with the National Association of State Boat Law Administrators (NASBLA). Abbey Heimensen has worked 13 years for retail powerhouse MarineMax and is VP of marketing; she leads a team of 35.  

BI: How would you describe career opportunities today in the marine industry?


DANKO: Not only are there more women working in our industry, but there are so many more opportunities available now.  There was a moment during a National Marine Trades Council meeting a few years back when I realized that I was at a table with more women leaders than men; this wasn’t the case when I began in 2001.  During my tenure, I’ve been honored to work with the first woman president of our board, and at the moment, our second. 

While our industry does continue to be very male dominant, there is an increased awareness of the value that women bring to the workplace such as new perspectives, innovative solutions and a fresh, unique mindset. This awareness has created new opportunities and opened doors for women across all sectors of the industry.  Additionally, there are many more tools and resources available to assist women in the workforce such as mentoring programs, networking opportunities, discussion groups, seminars and meetings.  Women are supporting women: sharing their unique challenges, successes, experience, and knowledge. 

KULP: The opportunities are endless, from entry-level positions to the president, CEO or chair of major companies. I know many women who have raised children or are currently raising children while working in full-time, high-level positions. There’s nothing holding women back.

HEIMENSEN: We tend to think of boating and immediately think of sales. And while sales are very important, the opportunities go way beyond. We have STEM positions within the OEMs, Human Resources, Accounting, Service, Finance and Insurance, Real Estate Management and of course we can’t forget all the options within Marketing!

BI: What do you enjoy most about your marine industry career? 

DANKO: I absolutely love working in an industry that represents fun, adventure, and joy!   I take tremendous pride in knowing that everything we do helps people enjoy time on the water.  Some of my most precious memories are the ones I have made with my family on our boat.

I also love the diversity of my work which includes governmental relations and lobbying, education and training, public relations, event planning, fundraising,producing boatshows (which has been incredibly challenging!),research and writing, and directing the day-to-day activities. Every week is different, and the work is never boring.  The people I interact with are interesting and I’ve learned so much from them all.

HEIMENSEN: I truly love my career and can’t imagine doing anything but promoting the boating lifestyle. When I was a little girl, traveling for the summer with my grandparents to Okoboji, Iowa (#1 tourism destination in Iowa!) I knew I wanted other people to feel the way I did when the oaks parted, and I saw that magical lake … the way I felt when we stepped on the boat for the day skiing, swimming, cruising. My career path has afforded me the wonderful luxury of being able to deliver that feeling to millions of people.

KULP: I like the variety and the travel the most. I never do the same thing every day because there’s always something new to focus on, or a new project to tackle. And, I love visiting new places, especially if water is nearby. I have a map and have colored the states I’ve visited: I have only three left … Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

BI: What were the challenges … and how did you earn a “seat at the table?”


HEIMENSEN: My two biggest challenges are keeping up with the ever-changing world of marketing and being a female in a male-dominated industry.

Keeping up with marketing changes is as exhilarating as it is defeating. Utilizing mentors, webinars, AMA and surrounding myself with a team of intelligent, passionate people have been my go-to and a key to success. Long ago a mentor told me to always surround myself with those that are smarter than me and always have bench strength. These words have served me well.

As for being in a male-dominated industry, I’ve learned you must think differently and then think even bigger than that. Gender should never precede our ability; women must make sure we don’t limit ourselves to being labeled differently and not let gender expectations dictate what we do. The most important things I can do to overcome this challenge is  supporting other women in our industry, actively standing up for one another and leading by example.

KULP: In 2005, I was teaching middle school in Kentucky and saw an advertisement for an organization that wanted someone with an education background and a boating background. Since I’d grown up canoeing and kayaking, I applied and was hired as the first Education Director for NASBLA. I had a boating safety certificate when I was hired, but I was unaware that the boating safety laws varied from state to state. I learned a lot from the state marine law enforcement officers and state education coordinators. I felt I had finally earned my seat at the table when I was quoted by USA Today as a “boating safety expert” a couple of years later.

DANKO: I was a young female in my twenties when I began, and I knew I needed to work hard to prove that I could be successful.  I spent the first few years learning, asking questions, listening, and absorbing all that I could and arranged meetings with everyone that the association was involved with … state/federal agencies, organizations involved in boating/related activities, other associations both in and out of the state and members and business owners.

I wasn’t always taken seriously but I never let that get in my way, ever.  I worked as hard as I could and communicated relentlessly.  I put our members and their needs first and pushed forward.  I have a strong drive to solve problems and help others.  We faced incredible challenges over the years. I believe that my work in facing and overcoming them earned my seat at the table.  

BI: What are three key strategies necessary for long-term career success in the marine industry?

HEIMENSEN: Be willing to listen and learn. Be willing to fail fast. Be willing to break the rules.

DANKO: Communicate clearly, honestly, and effectively.  Share information that is helpful, informative, and interesting.  I always want our members to know that we are working hard for them every single day. 

Be Strong/Stay Strong. Maintain strength and resilience in the workplace and especially this industry.  We are continuously faced with challenges and hurdles that we need to overcome.  Having strength enables me to navigate these challenges effectively. Self-care, setting boundaries, asking for help, and maintaining a work-life balance helps me stay strong.  We all have different strengths and weaknesses.  We need to know what they are so we can cultivate our strengths and overcome our weaknesses.

Work Smart. Use time wisely.  I’ve learned certain things are necessary to get the job done while others are not.  I always try to stay focused and figure out the most effective way to get the job done.

KULP:  First and foremost, you need to love what you do and believe in it. Second, surround yourself with others who are just as passionate about their careers and the organization/company. Third, always be willing to ask questions and learn from those around you.

BI: What advancements have you seen during your career that have positively impacted women working in the boating business?

HEIMENSEN: At the beginning of the pandemic, we were a small team of 12 and sales drove our business. We made the firm decision to move our sales team to HubSpot and effectively move marketing to drive the business rather than chase the fires. Our field of 70 + locations began to realize how committed and competent our marketing team was, and this earned us well deserved respect.

DANKO: Advancements in technology have made certain aspects of the industry more accessible, allowing women and other individuals to work remotely, collaborate, and leverage digital tools to get the job done, which has provided much needed flexibility in the workplace.  This flexibility specifically benefits women as they often face more barriers to traditional employment due to family responsibilities. The workforce changes we experienced during Covid helped push us away from the 9-5 workday mindset with more of a focus on productivity and results.

BI: Who have been your professional marine industry mentors … and how did they support or inspire you?


KULP: John Johnson was the NASBLA Executive Director until his recent retirement, but he was instrumental in helping me learn how to write grant proposals and to understand how to effectively present to an executive board. These are both skills that I still use to this day. Ron Sarver also works for NASBLA and he introduced me to the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) along with all of their education and networking opportunities, which led to earning my Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential which has been invaluable for my career in association leadership. Pam Dillon was the first female role model who showed me that a woman can do anything and be successful in the boating industry. She was Executive Director of the American Canoe Association and then left to become the Chief of the Department of Natural Resources for the entire state of Ohio. She’s always been approachable, friendly and the type of leader that I strive to be. Kristen Frohnhoefer is president of both Sea Tow Services International and the Sea Tow Foundation. She wears a lot of hats and juggles everything from technology to marketing to communications while overseeing staff for both the non-profit and for-profit. Every time I talk to Kristen, I learn something new, or learn to think about something in a new way.

HEIMENSEN: Jim Shepard, MarineMax Director of Operations has passed away, but he gave me great advice when I wasn’t sure what the next steps in my marine career would be. He supported my ideas, asked the right questions: “Do you need to vent, or do you want advice?”  Chuck Cashman, CRO MarineMax is an industry powerhouse. He led MarineMax Marketing and supported my vision of the future of our brand and the brands we represent. He inspires by doing. You want to follow Chuck into battle, because you know he’ll be there with you. Julie and Susan Mau, owners of Mau Marine, Okoboji, IA are truly inspirational as the operators of not only an established, traditional boat dealership, but as entrepreneurs who think differently. They have grown their business, and have a lucrative restaurant business to enhance their customers’ experience, on and off the water. Seeing females in our industry who do not conform, but who make their own rules, inspires me every day.

DANKO: As trade association leaders, we lean on each other for assistance, support and friendship.  We know that much of the work we do is similar, and we are each other’s greatest resource.  I really knew nothing about the industry or running an association when I began, and it was a very difficult time. I had so much to learn yet was fortunate enough to meet some of the most incredible industry leaders that helped guide me over the years. Van Snider, Norm Shultz, Nicki Polan and Liz Walz are at the top of my list.  They were and still are always there when I have a question, problem or simply need some advice. 

BI: What is your go-to word, quote or business mantra?

KULP: My favorite quote is from Katharine Hepburn: “As one goes through life, one learns that if you don’t paddle your own canoe, you don’t move.” Not only does this apply in the boating industry, but in anything that I do. Waiting for something to happen doesn’t make it happen; I must work hard and go out and get what I want, or to make it happen.

DANKO: I’m a full-time working mother with incredible responsibilities.  Balancing all that I have on my plate on any given day often feels insurmountable.  I begin each day with a list of positive affirmations that I repeat often.  When it comes to work, I stop and tell myself to “FOCUS”and “MOVE FORWARD.”  It helps me to pause and get back on track with a focused mindset on what I need to accomplish.

HEIMENSEN: “It’s all figureoutable!”

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