Yvette Buckner-Rouse started a new business five minutes after graduating. Now she’s calling the shots at Wilmington’s burgeoning Riverfront.
It was May 21, 2017. Wilmington University’s spring graduation ceremonies at the Chase Center on the Riverfront had just ended. Buckner-Rouse, the promotion and event manager for the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), also at the Chase, had just graduated with her bachelor’s in Marketing. In the months leading up to commencement, she had been charged with running the company’s newly acquired Riverboat Queen, an 86-ton vessel that would host hundreds of events a year as it sailed from the Christina and Brandywine Rivers to the tip of the Delaware. The only challenge was that the Queen’s opening day was also graduation day.
Still clad in cap and gown, Buckner-Rouse sprinted to the boat. “I literally put my degree to work within five minutes,” she says, adding that she kept the cap on throughout the day. “I opened up a brand new business, welcomed a new staff, and celebrated my new degree. It was a first for everything — so exciting and rewarding.”
This real-life steel magnolia envisioned two things: that this skipper liner would be an upscale dining venue that would become a major tourist attraction; and that this new chapter would be full of promise. Both became reality.
The degree was Buckner-Rouses’s gift to herself, she says. WilmU offered courses that helped define the business world and her place in it. “It gave me the solid foundation that helped build my character in this industry.”
Buckner-Rouse’s handshake is firm, her smile is wide and her warmth is genuine. It’s clear that she paid attention to her professors and mentors, and understands her business. She has mastered the tenets of exemplary customer service. Also clear are the things you can’t teach, like working hard, treating colleagues respectfully and being humble — all traits that appear innate to this alumna.
Not that things have been easy. Going back to school later in life, like Buckner-Rouse did, has its challenges. She’s also a parent, and as most working parents will attest, life is a balancing act. Buckner-Rouse had no choice but to simultaneously tackle motherhood, career and college.
She isn’t in this alone. Her daughter is watching. So Buckner-Rouse’s goal is to demonstrate to the young woman she is raising that with hard work, anything is possible.
Serious work . . . ethic
Buckner-Rouse, who rose from receptionist to promotion and event manager, credits the collaborative work of her tight-knit group at RDC for its successes, adding that her solid foundation in business is in part due to her education and in part to working with colleagues who “will back you no matter what.” She oversees all of RDC’s outdoor events on land and water. (There were more than 200 events and 3,100 guests in 2017 alone.) That includes Wilmington events at Dravo Plaza, Frawley Stadium, Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park, Hare Pavilion and Justison Landing Park. There are music festivals, summer concert series, 5K walks and runs, ethnic festivals — even flea markets. Buckner-Rouse also manages two boats — the Riverboat Queen and the River Taxi, which hosts birthday parties, employee team building exercises, business social gatherings, senior center excursions, youth or church group outings — just about any type of group outing. She coordinates wine and cheese excursions, too, serving and teaching about local wines that customers can then purchase from local retailers.
On the taxi, she partners with Caption Lionel Hynson, revered for his entertaining and informative history tours of the Riverfront. (He’s taken a few WilmU courses as well.) The taxi attracts out-of-town visitors, but even locals are surprised to learn about the history of Wilmington’s Christina River. The Captain discusses World War II shipbuilding and its competing companies, offering the kind of plotlines that would enhance a good British drama. He explains the history of the Underground Railroad and is knowledgeable about wildlife that has managed to survive. Like Buckner-Rouse, he also remembers most passengers by name.
Buckner-Rouse offers a similar history tour on the Riverboat Queen, and is equally animated with her guests. For all intents and purposes, the Queen is her baby. Former RDC Executive Director Mike Purzycki, now the Mayor of Wilmington, had asked her to conceive a vision for the boat and then run it. RDC had purchased the Queen from former Wilmington Harbormaster and Police Lieutenant Steven Barnes, who now works for the Army Corps of Engineers. Extensive upgrades were necessary for the 1989 skipper liner to reside on the Christina. “Today she is a beautiful lady on the water and a force to be reckoned with,” says Buckner-Rouse.
Purzycki had placed his faith in Buckner-Rouse before, but this was a big undertaking. “I never imaged that I would learn so much about boats,” she says. “It thrusted me into the belly of the whale. It was amazing to see this vessel being transformed from beginning to end.”
When Purzycki asked Buckner-Rouse what her vision was for the Queen, she suggested it be an upscale, air-conditioned dining venue, which it became, and business has been steady. “I hold Mr. Purzycki in very high regard,” she says. “As our leader and executive director, he had always operated in the very best interest of our organization, economic development and growth.”
The feeling is mutual for Mayor Purzycki. “Yvette is smart, determined and tough-minded,” he says. “She’s an achiever and gets every job done to perfection. At the same time, she’s one of the most pleasant individuals I know. She was one of my stars at the RDC.”
Buckner-Rouse is equally complimentary of her current boss and RDC Executive Director Megan McGlinchey, calling her “the real queen of the Queen.” McGlinchey and Purzycki appear to have a similar leadership styles, believing strongly in the talents of their employees. As Jim Collins wrote in his famed book “Good to Great,” “Great vision without great people is irrelevant.”
“We have honestly been so fortunate to have a team of people who really love what they do,” McGlinchey says. “They’re all very proud of the role they play in making our city a better place. I guess you could say my management style is to lead by example. They all know that whatever they need, I am right there by their sides.”
Indeed, she stood by Buckner-Rouse at a pivotal time.
The WilmU Influence
Buckner-Rouse remembers the day she approached McGlinchey about her potential at the company. She enjoyed her time as a receptionist but wanted more. “So I asked Megan what I could do to help contribute to the organization,” she says. “What role could I play?”
At the time, Buckner-Rouse was attending classes at Delaware Technical Community College and had discussed with McGlinchey the excitement she felt completing her coursework. The promotion and events position had just opened up and she knew she was qualified. She also knew she wanted to complete her bachelor’s program at WilmU. McGlinchey was not threatened by Buckner-Rouse’s ability to self-advocate, and in fact, helped guide her next step. She promoted her to the promotion and event post while Buckner-Rouse was still at DelTech, and she’s held the title for seven years.
“Yvette has an incredible work ethic and is always eager to learn new things,” says McGlinchey. “She is extremely customer-focused in all that she does, so bringing her into a role where she deals with the public — who are our customers — was an easy decision. She’s a natural.”
McGlinchey told her she needed help with marketing, which was a component of the new position.
“I said ‘OK, marketing it is,’” says Buckner Rouse. “And I went to WilmU for marketing.”
WilmU, she says, left her open-minded, in terms of business practices. “Everything I learned was useful at my job. Can I take on more? I believe I can, because I have the education and the skills. The courses I took helped define what I wanted to do even more. I knew I had all possibilities available to me. My marketing courses taught and showed me how to interact with the public, to appropriately do my budgeting and forecasting, and the importance of time management.
“Plus, I’m old school. I got to WilmU at a good time because the marketing language has changed. Work was my canvas to apply all of my new skills. I needed to stay abreast of all the latest technologies, including social media, which is the catalyst for the way we communicate. Everything goes out with the click of a button. WilmU taught me how to be a part of today’s social media, advertising and marketing communities.”
It was all about the four Ps (price, product, promotion, place), and seeing how they can work for the organization and generate additional revenue while adhering to our mission. No matter what, communicating, being a team player, and remaining accessible to my colleagues are also things I learned at WilmU. It helped me open myself up to greater opportunities.”
College of Business Dean Dr. Rob Rescigno feels that Bucker-Rouse’s success is a strong indicator of how WilmU’s curriculum and faculty, who are scholarly practitioners, take theory and transform it into action. “Our students are continually saying, ‘What I learned in class last week I used in my job,’” he says. “It’s a true compliment to our instructors and their ability to deliver a concept in class and turn it into a practical application.”
Buckner-Rouse feels that WilmU also helped her build character. “When you tell people you’re an alumna of WilmU, they’re really impressed,” she says. “The instructors are excellent, but also you have networking opportunities with classmates in all fields along the way. You never know whom you’re going to come across, and being in my type of industry, you cross so many paths. WilmU helped me establish skills to engage and maintain great working relationships.”
She still wears her WilmU student badge on the boats. “I refuse to put it down,” she says, explaining the pride she feels about graduating at 47 with her marketing degree. On her desk is a slip of paper with the words, You deserve better. “Starting at such a late age (she enrolled at DelTech at 37), I convinced myself that I did deserve better. And from that point forward I set myself out to do better every day.”
The Why Behind the How
“I have a young lady who’s following me,” says Buckner-Rouse of her daughter, Amber Rouse, who is studying marketing at DelTech and, like her mom, plans to finish her bachelor’s at WilmU. “I need to show and exhibit skills that will prove successful for her.”
Those skills will be useful to a daughter who’s been taught to embrace a world of possibilities. “There are so many things she can learn and that I want to emulate,” says Buckner-Rouse. “When you’re in public service, the job is helping people and selling great experiences. If you have the attitude, the willingness, if you work well under pressure and have great negotiating skills, and if you can compromise and are willing to bring home the big fish — no pun intended — you’ll do great in this business.”
And just about any other business. Buckner-Rouse feels a sense of pride reporting that her daughter will one day graduate from Wilmington University. “It’s a place I trust,” she says.
Recently, Buckner-Rouse was hired by DelTech to teach Hospitality Management. One day, she plans to earn her master’s at WilmU in hopes of teaching there. For now, she’s excited to share her wisdom with DelTech students, knowing she’ll bring real-world experience into her classrooms.
Amber has learned that for most, success is earned; it’s not handed to you. She watched her mom that day in May sprint from stage to boat, ready to start a new chapter. “She told me how proud of me she was,” says Buckner-Rouse. “Also, that she’s going to be just as successful as I am. So watch out!” WU
Cover Story by Maria Hess