KC Entrepreneur/Small Business Monthly


 

June 2008 by Kate Leibsle 

You might think with gas prices at an all-time high, consumer confidence somewhere south of enthusiastic, depending on who you talk with, and the everpresent Internet travel sites, that morale wouldn’t be flying high at Acendas. Well, you’d be wrong. In fact, things have never been better at the Mission-based agency that celebrated its 25th birthday last year.

In fact, the company presidents, Brent Blake and Gary D. Davis, said Acendas has experienced steady growth over the past 10 years. They’ve managed that feat by basing their business model on tried-and-true lessons from a variety of sources: their own backgrounds, a desire to serve others and a company-wide devotion to the principles espoused in Jim Collins’ best-selling book Good to Great (it’s required reading for all new employees).

But this story of success begins as many entrepreneurial successes do’with a dream and a desire to serve. Founded in 1982 by Coby Gaulien, Acendas started life as a corporate travel agency. The company did fairly well in the early days. In 1997, Blake joined the agency and the next year, bought a share of the business. In 2000, Davis came on board as a third partner, with Gaulien taking the opportunity to retire to Florida. Blake and Davis each have a strong background in the travel business. Blake grew up in the business and joined an agency out of college, cementing his career path. Davis’ background is in the oil field serice business, but his wife was a travel agent. When Davis’ father died, he and his wife decided the time was right to buy their own travel agency.

“We wanted to really be able to give back to our customers,” he said. “But could we make a living at it? We found we could.”

Service is Job One
The desire to serve customers is one the company co-presidents share. They see themselves and their associates as helping customers achieve their goals’whether that’s getting to a business meeting on time or getting away from it all on a vacation. They do that by turning the notion of a travel agent on its head and becoming partners with customers. They don’t see themselves as travel agents, but rather, Davis said, “we look at ourselves as managing the risks of corporate travel.” Their clients range from families going on vacation and couples on their honeymoons to major corporations, such as Burns & McDonnell, American Century and Russell Stover.

“There are so many risks involved today: overpaying, tracking travel data to try and save money, managing what happens if something happens,” Davis said.
When the biggest “if” happened’

Sept. 11′ Acendas was more than ready. The company had itineraries for each and every one of its customers and was able to redirect and rebook everyone to their destinations once the airlines were back up and running. More recently, when American Airlines and Southwest Airlines grounded hundreds of flights for mechanical reasons, stranding millions of people throughout the country, the agency knew which customers were on the grounded planes and it was able to help those passengers reach their destinations as soon as possible.Blake and Davis say that’s one of the many reasons travel agencies are still viable in the Internet age.

“Look around the airport when a flight is cancelled,” Davis said. “The people who are sitting, reading, who are calm? They’ve contacted their travel agent. The people online, on their cell phones, who are upset? They have done it themselves.”

Internet as a Friend

That’s not to say the Internet doesn’t play an important role in Acendas’s world. It is essential, and has allowed the company to offer customers more and more services. For instance, the company communicates directly with clients, giving them an “active” itinerary, updated regularly with information about flight status, departure gates, etc. They’ve also used the Internet to help customers who want to book their own travel, but still have the security of an agency behind their reservations.

Acendas’s proprietary system allows customers to search for flights on their own, often at a discount, Blake said. “It’s just another way we are addressing different customer needs,” Blake said.

Focusing on customer needs is one of the primary reasons these two entrepreneurs think their business has enjoyed long-term success. “We have focused on a niche,” Blake said. “We saw that companies that spend $250,000 to $10 million a year on air travel weren’t being served. The big companies such as Sprint and Cerner, they have different needs than those companies.

“The second thing is we’ve developed specific, customized solutions for that niche.”

Reminders, weather reports and travel updates can be sent to travelers’ mobile phones or handheld devices.

Good to Great – Influence

The other strong component of Acendas’ success, Blake and Davis said, is the aforementioned adherence to the principles of Jim Collins’ books, Good to Great and Built to Last. Blake brought the ideals to the company after first reading Built to Last.

Collins’ philosophy is that companies that are successful in growing and becoming not just good, but great, do so because they concentrate on sustain able growth. They empower all of their employees to run the company, rather than concentrating power in one central figure. And, perhaps most importantly, Collins’ philosophy encourages business owners to be honest in their appraisal of the business from every angle: how they are doing financially, how they stack up as an owner and how their employees are performing.

“I read the first book and then the second at a time of some challenges,” Blake said. “The business was facing a fork in the road and a lot of it talked about why some businesses last and some don’t. It just made sense for us and for our industry.”

Slowdown? What Slowdown?

And what is the state of the company with today’s economic woes, specifically high gas prices that are beginning to affect airline prices and, therefore, airline travelers? Blake and Davis don’t appear to be too concerned.

For starters, Davis said, trends such as economic slowdowns tend to reach the Midwest after they appear on the coasts, and usually they aren’t as severe here.

Plus, Acendas’ philosophy is that the best way to overcome a downturn, real or imagined, slight or heavy, is to maintain the current course and step up the effort to find new business. They know their customers are still out trying to find business, keeping people on the road, so they need to be prepared to assist them.

“It’s amazing how much you can grow a business in a downturn,” Blake said. “You may have to adjust some things, but we’re constantly out there soliciting and securing clients.” Both Blake and Davis are quick to deflect any praise for their efforts to their employees, which number just more than 70. Many are located at the company’s headquarters in Mission, but many also work from their homes, Blake said. Putting a work-at-home program in place has helped Acendas not only attract high quality associates, but has enabled it to hold on to many of those who have been with the company for a long time.

“It’s becoming hard to find experienced people on the travel side, so the program is a necessity,” Davis said. “Thanks to technology such as VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol), we can look for experienced agents throughout the United States and expand the number of employees we have without having to have more space.”

Expansion Coming

And expansion is just what Blake and Davis have in mind for the agency in the coming years.

“We will continue our expansion outside of Kansas City; not in bricks and mortar, but in our client base,” Blake said. “We already have clients in Indianapolis and Ft. Wayne, Ind.” The two presidents are bullish on their industry and their agency, despite whatever might happen with the general economic picture. They’ve put much thought into their long-term plans, including how they keep their partnership running smoothly by separating their job duties very clearly. Davis handles the leisure side of the business, along with IT and accounting. Blake takes on the corporate travel work and Cypress Meetings, the agency’s meeting planning arm.

“We’re respectful of each other,” Davis said. “A lot of businesses fail because of ego, with one or another being in charge. You have to throw ego out the door.

“We complement each other and keep in mind that our employees and customers have to come first.”