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5 Ways to Create Longevity in the Toughest Industries

Ovation Travel Group survived two Iraq wars, multiple airline bankruptcies, 9/11, a global financial crisis, and Hurricane Sandy, each time growing stronger as a company. Its CEO explains how.
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I was recently honored by being nominated for Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year award in the New York region. As part of the selection process, I had to submit a personal essay, complete a questionnaire, and have an in-person interview with a panel of judges who were mostly recent winners. Despite my past interview experience and the in-house preparation that had taken place leading up to the meeting, I found myself ill-prepared for the panel's first question: "Didn't the Internet disintermediate travel agencies? How are you still in business?"

I did my best to answer the question, but found that over the next few days, my mind was lingering on the question. The company that I founded, Ovation Travel Group, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, and has grown from a handful of employees with an insolvent balance sheet to a formidable leader in the travel management field, with close to 600 employees.

As I recounted our humble beginnings to assembled staff in our New York City headquarters office last week, I was struck with a sense of enormous pride. Among other crises, we survived two Iraq wars, multiple airline bankruptcies, 9/11, a global financial crisis, and Hurricane Sandy, each time growing stronger as a company. Below, I'll outline why I think that is by sharing some tips on creating longevity in a tough industry.

1. Be naive.

Naiveté, despite what you might think, can be helpful when embarking on a new project. In fact, for me, it's one of the things that kept me from filing for Chapter 11 when I took over my father's struggling travel business in 1984. Located in the Garment district of New York City, my business had a handful of advisers in the form of my father-in-law's friends who kept telling me to pull the plug and start over, because we were too far in the red to survive. Despite their counsel, I didn't see that as an option. My parents had invested all of their resources into the success of the small travel agency, and success was the only outcome I would accept as I took over the project of turning the business around.

In this case, throwing in the towel too early would have been a mistake. Fortunately, I was naively optimistic, against all odds and against all counsel, and in the end it paid off. No matter what industry you're in, from banking to real estate to construction or engineering, a little naiveté can go a long way when you're surrounded by naysayers, and can lead to a profitable future.

2. Be humble.

Though some people might find it surprising that a CEO would admit to not knowing how to do everything, I think a proper dose of humility is the most important ingredient for success. Know-it-alls always finish last in my book. Your employees will see you as arrogant, and your competitors will see you as someone they can take advantage of. Being humble is the key to permanence in any industry. The sooner you can figure out your strengths and weaknesses as a person and as a professional, the better. When you've finished performing your personal inventory and accepted what you bring to the table, the next step is to find people that complement your strengths and weaknesses. For example, I'm not a numbers guy. Though I was able to process payroll (sort of) the first few years that I was managing my travel business, when I began to expand Ovation it was imperative that I find a great CFO to oversee the company. Following natural disasters every other year, 9/11, and the global financial crisis of 2008, I see that I was right. Hiring my business partner and CFO, Sunil Mahtani, was one of the best decisions I've ever made. More than 25 years later. we're good friends and are running a successful company together, along with our two other partners, each of whom is responsible for a significant portfolio of the business as well as for our mutual success. No matter your industry, having employees with various skill sets who can shine in their positions is key to making your business bloom.

3. Incentivize your employees.

My philosophy has always been that to make the pie bigger, you have to give some of it away. I've taken that idea to heart by incentivizing the travel consultants at Ovation for providing what we call "value-added services" (waiving no-show fees, upgrading flights and hotels) for our clients. It ensures that the travelers receive a first-class experience and that the travel consultants know we're patting them on the back. By giving away tangible items (gift cards, bonuses, etc.), I've actually added to Ovation's bottom line. The old saying goes, "Give a little, get a little," right?

Regardless of your industry, incentivizing employees is a good idea. You can't, and shouldn't be, a micromanager. And because you can't and shouldn't try to be everywhere at once, you need to empower your employees to do a good job and trust that they'll take on the challenge of exceeding your expectations. By incentivizing your employees with anything from bonuses to off-site team-building days, office birthday parties, or gift cards for a job well done, you're letting them know that you see what they're doing and appreciate it. You're letting them know that they matter to you and increasing the likelihood that you and your company will matter to them. By forming lasting relationships with your employees, you're making it more likely that they'll pick up that extra call when their shift ends rather than let a call from an important client go to voice mail.

4. Be persistent.

Has anyone ever made it the first time around? I don't think so. And though it's possible that you could be the exception to the rule, the likelihood is that if you and your company are going to succeed, you're going to have to try, fail, try again, fail again, etc., before you find the special sauce that makes your business soar.

What ultimately helped me in the early days was adopting a customer service philosophy courtesy of the book Raving Fans. This book helped me to focus on the big-picture goals I had for Ovation rather than the day-to-day issues that bothered me. Years later, we still train all of our employees on the book and have found that it has helped us all to consistently "deliver what's expected plus one" and be persistent. While my naiveté served me early on, my dogged determination has helped me throughout my career. I don't hesitate to make follow-up calls. I don't think twice about repitching ideas that were previously ignored or lost steam in the planning process. I try again, because for all I know, it's the 100th for me. For all you know, it could be the 101st.

5. Be balanced, and don't micromanage.

No one ever says, "Put all of your eggs in one basket," do they? When approaching your professional life, as well as your personal life, it's important to have balance when thinking about longevity. Be realistic with your expectations, and accept that nothing will ever be perfect in the long run, and it's OK to have highs and lows as your business pushes forward. In the end, it will balance out.

Relating the idea of balance to the melding of your personal and professional selves, it's important to work hard but play hard, too. You're working hard and running a business for a reason, right? So why not celebrate a little with friends and family after a big project is completed? Why not go for a run on your lunch break if there are no pending deadlines? If you're all work all the time, your life is missing meaning. If you're all play every day, chances are that important work decisions are being made without you, and your company might lose its edge. The key to far-reaching and long-term success is prioritizing and striking the right balance between work and home life.

As it turns out, I lost the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award to someone whose business portfolio includes establishing old-age homes. Lest you think I don't follow my own advice, I'll be applying again next year. With enough perseverance and humility (and a little bit of naiveté thrown in), I think that 2015 could be my lucky year.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Jul 8, 2014

PAUL METSELAAR | Columnist | CEO and chairman

Paul Metselaar founded what is now Ovation Travel Group in 1984, filling a void in the corporate travel market by providing specialized service to law firms. Today, Ovation is one of the largest corporate travel management companies in the U.S., serving more than 700 companies in a variety of industries, including law, financial services, and entertainment.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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