Cruise Planners-American Express Travel co-founder and CEO Michelle Fee had a decision to make at the end of 2012. Palm Beach Capital decided to get out of the travel industry and sell its share of the company after a fund matured.
Despite headline-grabbing incidents involving cruise disasters, Fee, who owned part of the home-based travel agent franchise company, saw potential in the business and put together a plan to buy the remaining ownership stake.
“It’s more acceptable to sell home-based than ever before. The franchise model is through the roof,” Fee says. “We were just awarded No. 19 in Entrepreneur for Franchise 500, and we compete against the McDonald’s, the Cold Stone Creameries and all the franchises everywhere. So we’re pretty proud of that.”
She also knew that she didn’t want to work for someone else.
“We didn’t want a big brother. Unfortunately, sometimes you’re sold to a third party who doesn’t really understand your industry. We’ve lived this. I’ve been in this business for more than 30 years. Sometimes one and one can equal three, but other people look at it more in black and white terms,” Fee says.
Along with COO Vicky Garcia and CFO Tom Kruszewski, Fee secured funding and bought out Palm Beach Capital’s share.
“We’re the insiders. We know what the business is worth, and what its potential is. So we decided we were going to get funding to buy this business back,” Fee says. “We feel that it’s back where it belongs now.”
Fee, who started the business 20 years ago with co-founders Lynn Korn and Marvin Davis, was set for a fresh start with a new pair of partners.
Invest in the business and be patient
When an investment company has ownership, the bottom line always seems to take priority. For Fee, that meant making decisions with monthly financial statements in mind and preparing for questions if profits fell short.
“Business isn’t about winning every single time. So when you don’t win or you make a decision that isn’t necessarily as profitable as you thought, you wind up having to explain that to somebody,” Fee says.
That concern about having to answer for every decision no longer dictates the direction Cruise Planners takes.
“When you own something 100 percent, you know you maybe have to take a step back to take 10 steps forward. You might invest in something a third-party owner wouldn’t spend money on. We’ve invested a lot of money in our technology because we believe travel is technology,” Fee says.
Technology is particularly important to home-based businesses, which must instill confidence in customers that they can deliver results without a commercial base.