"I want to give back because I feel like Annapolis has saved me."
When Debra Ann Smith ’76 returned to Bucknell last year for her 30th Reunion, her classmates, she admits, "were fascinated. Everybody asks where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing, and I certainly had the most unique change of venue."
Once a senior vice president of ACNielsen, an international marketing research firm, Smith had recently chucked her business career and bought a 100-year-old boatyard in Annapolis, Md.
"A lot of the guys at Reunion," she remembers, "were like, ‘You’re doing my ideal job! How did you ever do this?’"
It was not an easy path from Fortune 500 executive to Annapolis’ only female boatyard proprietor. Four years ago, Smith’s boyfriend, Donald H. Ogilvie, proposed buying the Sarles Boatyard & Marina, which sits adjacent to her home. Initially skeptical, Smith was soon won over by the idea. And then, one week after he asked her to marry him, Ogilvie was dead, the victim of a heart attack.
Smith decided it was time, she says, “to reinvent my life.” She quit her job as CEO of Empower IT, a management consulting firm, and retreated to her home on the water, intent, she explains, “on getting connected to the community, because I didn’t know anyone there. I had no life.” In February 2004, the boatyard’s owner, who had initially turned down Smith’s offer to buy his property, told her, “I want you to have it. You have heart."
By November 2005, the deal had closed.
Smith, who has also worked for Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo, did have some experience with watercraft. Raised in Cherry Hill, N.J., she had sailed throughout her youth on her parents’ boats. Today, her boatyard features kayak and small-boat rentals, a yacht brokerage, a 42-slip marina, and boat building and repair facilities.
The sense of community, of home, has come, too. Smith is now the vice president of the local business association, sits on the board of the Annapolis Maritime Museum, and periodically hosts fundraisers for area charities at the boatyard. She muses, "I want to give back because I feel like Annapolis has saved me."
Smith credits her Bucknell business degree for "the ability to feel confident in what I do. People ask me, ‘Have you ever run a marina before?’ No, but it’s a business, so you just treat it like a business. If you have good people, you can do almost anything. That’s what I learned at Bucknell. I never thought I couldn’t do it."
Smith pauses, adding, "I’ve been very blessed."
Posted Fall 2007
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