Janet Lanterman, Cruise Specialists

The Lanterman name is well known in the cruise industry. Kirk Lanterman is chairman of Holland America Line and is held in high regard by industry insiders and executives alike; and he's married to Janet Lanterman, the founder and now director of Cruise Specialists, which is headquartered in Seattle. Some sight the coupling as an arrangement that smacks of favoritism. "Everybody thought that everything I got was because of Kirk," she exclaims. Her story eagerly disproves her naysayers. Janet Lanterman

Lanterman got her first taste of cruising as a nurse with Norwegian Cruise Line back in 1974. In 1986, Lanterman quit the sea, deciding to go back to nursing in Seattle. However, her heart still belonged to the sea, so she decided to work as a nurse part time and sell cruises on the side—just enough to keep her hand in it, she says.

She put her small (south of $400) marketing budget, as fate would have it, toward tagging on to a Holland America three- and four-day Alaska cruise advertisement in the Seattle Times. It paid: to the tune of about $400,000 worth of sales.

The business took off from there: Lanterman did about $1 million with HollandAmerica in the first 12 months. Although she has developed many business principles, her earliest one is the cornerstone of the business.

"I always said that if I'm going to sell something, I'd like to sell the best," she says. "I refused to sell something that was going to take me more time than it was [worth] for the commission I was going to earn." True to that, Lanterman only sells upscale cruises (mostly the luxury lines) and relies predominantly on word-of-mouth advertising to accomplish it.

About a year in, Lanterman began adding staff and opened a tiny office in Seattle. She says she usually hires agents who have, at minimum, five years of experience and, above all, "really like people." Today, Cruise Specialists employs 36 staff, who are spread between two offices. A third of them have been with the company for more than 10 years. "You make money because of employees," Lanterman says. "As much as we make, we share it so they won't go any place."

Lanterman's dealings with employees have been smooth; however, her initial interactions with future husband, Kirk, were more comical than romantic. "HollandAmerica had an agent function and invited me because I was a big producer," she says. "I was seated next to him and the first thing I told him was his marketing sucked."

One year later, they again found themselves next to each other at a function and began rehashing the past year's encounter. Janet intrigued Kirk because, like him, she was all business.

Pretty soon, people were passing judgment on Janet because of her relationship with then-Holland America president, Kirk. She quickly quashes the notion that he helped her along, to a degree.

"Did he make the bookings or give us customers?" she asks, dismissively. "If Kirk was on the phone for five minutes, we'd lose every customer." Kirk is not the most gregarious person; he is a business genius, his wife says.

"If I wasn't married to Kirk, would I have been as successful as I was?" Lanterman wonders. "Yes, to a point, but I have to give Kirk credit for teaching me how to be a great business woman."

Sadly, Kirk, who is 74, suffered a heart attack this past year, but Janet says his convalescence has gone well.

Lanterman's business, however, has suffered no such setbacks. Cruise Specialists' annual revenues are hardy, which frees the business of any meddling by owner Carlson Leisure Group.

She keeps her advice simple: "Do one thing," she says, "and do it well."