Almost by definition, entrepreneurs build things from the ground up. Do not, however, suggest that Mission-based travel agency Acendas is anything but entrepreneurial just because co-presidents Gary Davis and Brent Blake joined the company more than a decade after it launched.‘
‘Yes, you have business, you have cash flow, you have customers’ when you come on board an established organization, Davis said. ‘But All About Travel (the brand forerunner of Acendas) had kind of reached a plateau. The ownership had taken it probably as far as it could be taken under that existing model and paradigm that it had.’
Getting the company to the next level, he and Blake say, required some different thought processes. Davis brought technology and vacation program knowledge, Blake knew corporate travel and meetings/incentives. Those elements would become the focus of a rebuilt company, but even then, change outside their control was about to summon every entrepreneurial fiber of their combined beings.
‘If you assume for a minute that you’re a small successful business owner and all the sudden you wake up one morning and 70 percent of your total revenue is gone,’ said Davis, ‘that your clients have decided to not pay you for your business but you’re still required to service them’that’s what we woke up to when we got into this business.’ Why? For one, the entire airline commission model was crumbling. For another, on-line services were starting to change the travel sector forever. ‘It meant that we had to change the way that we do business, that we had to very quickly develop a model that would work within the existing marketplace that was out there.’
But, as Blake noted: ‘We did it right, and that’s why we were able to grow.’ And how: From $54 million in annual revenues a decade ago to nearly $158 million last year, the company has secured double-digit growth in what Blake calls a consistent, stair-stepped fashion. But it wasn’t easy. ‘I think for all agencies there was a lot of course correction involved because nobody knew what it looked like on the other side,’ Davis said. ‘It was new to all of us and we weren’t sure if the source of our revenue was being moved from our vendors to our clients.’ That model had never been tested before. Blake and Davis said that at one point, they were crafting as many as 10, even 20 different operating scenarios a week trying to figure out which one would work. One key to pushing through a challenge like that in a partnership arrangement: These are two guys who not only like each other, they are like each other’both conservative, faith-centered family men with three sons each. Their personal and business values mesh; their skills sets complement each other. When you’re spending that many hours a week with someone, likeability is a powerful difference-maker. ‘The point I would make is that it wouldn’t have mattered what he and I went into,’ Davis said, because it was a team built for success.
Blake said they really find inspiration in the book Good to Great, by Jim Collins, which explores the reasons some companies move on from mere success to astonishing achievement. ‘It talks about focus and finding the correct economic metrics to follow,’ said Blake. ‘By implementing those principles, it became very apparent to us that we were on the right track. By continuing to focus on customers, continuing to focus on our employees and those metrics, we very quickly got momentum and realized that it was working.’
Especially when they looked around during a travel sector and broader economic downturn in 2001 and found that they were still growing. Yes, hindsight suggests they could have made some decisions more quickly, they acknowledge, but Blake says the focus on customers and employees’grounded in a conservative approach to sustainable growth’helped avoid ragged peaks and valleys.
‘To me,’ Blake said, ‘that is the best sign of consistent leadership’consistent focus on the customer, because during that 10-year time frame, lots of things changed.’