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Flying high Featured

9:26am EDT June 24, 2005

For more than 30 years, Monica Teplis has helped people get from one place to another. And while that concept hasn't changed, the company and the way it conducts business are light years away from the small agency she and her late husband opened in 1972 to plan travel for groups.

Teplis, president and owner of the $85 million Teplis Travel Service, kept getting the same question from early clients -- do you do corporate travel?

"The answer was no at that time," says Teplis, a native of England who came to the United States in 1968. "But we looked at it and opened an office to service the people that were in our groups. That's how Teplis started."

That move cemented the company's future. Teplis Travel continued to grow, and in 1996, opened a second office, its West Coast reservation center in Las Vegas. The company opened a third office last year in London.

With proprietary software, Teplis serves clients around the world by offering more than just reservations. It's about service from experienced travel agents who serve clients with years of know-how. The company works with clients to manage their travel budgets; many clients lack a clear picture of the amount of travel done in their companies, and Teplis helps track and manage those services.

Those decades of experience helped the company survive one of the most turbulent times in the travel industry, one that still has airlines reeling. Nearly four years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, passenger traffic has yet to reach pre-Sept. 11 levels, Teplis says.

Smart Business spoke with Teplis about how she created one of the state's largest corporate travel companies -- and one of the Top 100 in the country -- how she continues to produce 15 percent growth ratio each year and the lessons learned following Sept. 11.

What factors do you think contribute to the success of your company?

The quality of service that we give, and not just going out and soliciting an account and running on to the next account. It's also servicing the account and being on top of technology (that enables) you to go and cut their costs.

How has the company's growth changed how you manage the business?

I've added to my management team. As you grow, you have to add. At one time, we would promote from within as far as having managers. Today we find we've gone out into the marketplace for managers. Part of our success and growth is the longevity of the people that work for me. I have people that have been with me for 22 years, 20 years, 15 years.

What qualities do you look for when you hire?

We're looking for people with strong customer service skills. They have to have been in the industry; I wouldn't hire anybody who hasn't been in the industry. It's experience, the customer service ability.

If they don't have the customer experience, then they're not going to be a good fit for Teplis. When we're looking for managers, as we grow, they grow with us -- you don't have to reach out as you're growing and find somebody else.

What is the greatest challenge you've ever faced?

September 11. I don't think any of us knew the devastation it was going to cause to our businesses. The first thing we did was a roll call to make sure we didn't have anybody on those planes. Thank goodness we didn't.

What we did for our clients -- we stayed open. We got the reports to our clients letting them know where everybody was. We did so many things. We run a lean ship now; we had to go even leaner at that time.

(We) had enough in the bank, (so when we) hit a September 11, you can stay in business. Fortunately, we've always been a company that has been financially strong. If we hadn't been, we wouldn't be here today.

What long-term effects did Sept. 11 and the ensuing airline troubles have on your business?

After September 11, everybody took a stance. There was basically no growth. It's not back to where it was, but it's getting back. As far as Delta having problems, it really hasn't affected our business.

I think they know if Delta files Chapter 11, they're still going to be around. Maybe with some of the smaller airlines, that could be a problem. When you're talking about an American, a Delta, a United, you know they're going to be there.

People are just more aware when they travel today. I don't think travel will ever (again) be where people just hop on a plane and don't think anything about it. With everything one has to go through at the airport, it does make people think.

What can you do to minimize the impact of fewer travelers on your operation?

You just have to run a tight and lean ship. (Post 9/11) we tried not to do layoffs. During that time - that first year - we had people go to four days a week. It was an understanding between everybody that we were saving a job for their peers to prevent a layoff.

We didn't have a lot of the dot-com companies (as clients). If we'd had a lot of the dot-coms, then yes, we would have had to cut a lot of people because those were the (companies) that went out of business.

How would you describe your leadership style?

One thing is an open door policy. Anybody, at any time (is welcome). Everybody is responsible for their areas. People that are hired are very capable. By having the right people, they run the ship. I don't micromanage.

Everybody understands what their role is. Customer service (representatives) understand their role. VP of operations understands his role. Accounting (workers) know what their roles are. Everybody knows.

How has technology changed the way you do business?

We're up against your Expedias and your Orbitz. People have the concept that if they're going to Expedia and Orbitz, they're getting cheaper prices. That's not so. In fact, something just came out from Topaz that said (people) using a travel agency (find) tickets $80 cheaper.

Companies are more aware. They want to know where their travelers are. We're able to pull that up in no time. If a catastrophe were to happen, we could have the information to the company most probably within a couple of hours or less.

What do you provide that benefits your customers more than the array of online offerings?

We're going to look at a client's volume. We're going to bring the cost vendors to the table; we're going to bring the airlines to the table. We're going to bring the hotel vendors to the table.

Sometimes companies aren't aware of the amount of travel that they're doing. When you go online, they're looking at today's ticket, not tomorrow's ticket.

Good communication. Being proactive. Keeping costs down for a company. Making sure you're following their travel policy.

What metrics do you use to judge the success of your business?

Longevity of clients. If you look at our agents, a lot of my agents have at least 15 years' experience. The only time we lose an agent is when their second child comes, they usually stay home.

What we have done to keep some really good agents, we've set them up at home. With DSL lines and everything, people don't know where they're calling. You can only do that with someone who has self-discipline.

Why did you open a second office in Las Vegas?

Time change. Looking at the growth Las Vegas was having, we have a lot of nationwide accounts, and we needed that three-hour time change.

Will your primary growth come organically, with new customers or through acquisition?

It will be clients growing with us and also bringing in new business. If a small agency came along, I'd be very interested. Our growth (to date) has been strictly from bringing in business and keeping the business.

It was the dot-com companies that changed the industry because they didn't care at that point what they paid for a ticket. The kinds of customers that we go after and we keep, they really care about what they're spending.

We have a telemarketing area that does some cold calling, reading up on companies moving into town or even out-of-town companies, and looking at the size. Whomever we go and get, it has to be a good fit for our company. There's no point going out and bringing in a $30 million account. We're not going after an IBM.

How do you differentiate your organization from others?

We all have the same tools. Keeping the clients that we have by giving good service. In our sales presentations, hopefully doing a really good job to win the account and giving good customer service.

And listening to your clients -- like we tell our agents, don't be order-takers. If they can leave an hour earlier, tell them, and you can save $100.

We have ongoing training. You have to stay educated all the time. You can't go to sleep on what you have today.

HOW TO REACH: Teplis Travel Service, (404) 252-6696 or www.teplis.com