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Sarah S. Wiles, 64

Skaneateles tour boat operator, linked to legendary Stickley family, has celebrated 50 years in business

By Mary Beth Roach

Q.:  What is your role with the company?

A.: I’m one of the owners here. There are four family members who are owners. I handle the marketing and supervise advertising and public relations. There are four equal partners in all of the entities. I’m the oldest; my brother, Peter is the president; my sister, Hattie, is one of the captains; and she handles the operations for this part of the business. My brother, Dan, is a project person, so he’s everywhere.

Q.:  Give us a brief description of what Mid-Lakes Navigation does.

A.: We have two tour boats on Skaneateles Lake and offer a variety of dinner cruises and sightseeing. We do the mail boat that delivers mail around the lake. We also have a full-service marina on the Erie Canal out near Rochester in a little town called Macedon. From that location, we also operate a fleet of canal boats that vacationers can rent and live onboard.

Q.: What’s it like to be part of a family business?

A.: It’s awesome. I think family businesses are notorious for infighting and things that don’t necessarily go well. But for all this time, and I think I’ll credit Dad with this, we’ve always been able to see our way through to a consensus in just about every single big decision that we ever encounter. We enjoy each other’s company.

Q.:  How did your father come to start Mid-Lakes?

A.: In 1968, he had a successful golf course and restaurant down on the east side of Skaneateles Lake in a little town called Borodino. He grew up around boats and summered out here with his family. At some point, the gentleman that at that time operated the mail contract and the mail boat decided it was time to retire. He buttonholed Dad and said, ‘Pete, this is what you should do’ and created good terms on which to buy the boat. We were able to get the mail contract, and that was the beginning. We had a 25-passenger boat called the Pat II, and she delivered mail for a year. Then, one of our employees got the idea to use the boat more. We had this restaurant, and thought perhaps we could serve people food on the boat. Things just went from there.

Q.: There are many family run businesses that don’t last 10 years. You’ve lasted 50. What are the secrets to your success?

A.: They’re not secrets. Dad always had a great deal of respect for the people who worked for him. He’s given us all of these insights and gifts, and is part of the community partnering with other businesses. Tourism is a very cool business. It’s fun, and it relies on the cooperation of everyone involved. All of the stores, galleries and restaurants in our area have an understanding that you’re not by yourself.

Q.: What’s the favorite part of your job?

A.: I’m a pretty gregarious person, and I like talking to people. There are lots of fires to put out with having a small business, and that’s challenging too.

Q.:  What’s the least favorite part of your job?

A.: I’m not always a good delegator; I’ll just do it.  But you really can’t do everything and we have such a great staff.

Q.: What do you do during the winter?

A.: Design our brochure, upgrade the website, figure out what the marketing moves are going to be next year, design new cruises and take a look at what happened last year to make plans for the following year.

Q.: Who was Judge Ben Wiles?

A.: He is my paternal grandfather and was a bankruptcy court referee in the 1930s. The “S” in Barbara S. stands for Stickley. Barbara Stickley was a daughter of Gustav Stickley, and she married Ben.

Q.: So, you’re a descendent of Gustav Stickley?

A.: I’m a great-granddaughter. My middle name is Stickley.

Q:  How do you honor that legacy?

A.:  There’s a house on Columbus Avenue in Syracuse where Gustav Stickley lived. He designed the interior to follow his own philosophy. The house has been in disrepair for a long time, but the basic bones and the design elements are there. The University Neighborhood Preservation Association acquired the house. The house has already gone through an initial phase of exterior restoration. I’m vice president of the Gustav Stickley House Foundation. We’re raising funds to complete the next phase.