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Success through service Featured

12:29pm EDT September 21, 2006
Canadian poet Henry Drummond observed, “There is no happiness in having or in getting, but only in giving.”

It’s a philosophy that Elsie Blount, president of Uniglobe Travel Designers, has embraced in her business and her personal life.

“Success is not about money — it consists of what you have given back,” Blount says. “If you can leave this world knowing you have helped others and made a difference, you are a success. I am convinced that success is inevitable to those who concentrate on doing the right thing every day.

“So many people get it backward — the focus cannot be on money or prestige, but on serving others.”

Blount’s philosophy of giving back has worked — when she bought out the business from her former partner in 1996, it was grossing $800,000 a year. Now, annual revenue exceeds $12 million.

Smart Business spoke with Blount about the keys to being a good leader and the importance of taking care of your employees

How would you describe your leadership style?
It is inclusive. When we need to make changes, we don’t make them in a vacuum — we actively involve the employees. When travel agency business hit hard times after 9/11, a third of them did not survive.

I sat down with the agents and explained that my goal was to keep everyone employed and to stay in business, but we needed to make changes. For short periods of time, we lowered base salaries. These were not pleasant decisions, but they were bearable because everyone embraced and supported them.

It’s all about communication and honesty. Morale stayed high, and we not only stayed in business but also continued to grow.

I let the employees suggest and implement solutions to problems that affect the business financially. For example, there was a time we had a problem with absences. Based on employee feedback, we changed our policy to reward employees for not using sick time by writing them a check at the end of the year.

It was a positive way to deal with a negative situation. Absences were drastically reduced.

What qualities do you look for when hiring?
There are two qualities that are essential — compassion and maturity. Agents who are compassionate can understand (a) customer’s point of view. Maturity allows them not to take it personally when a customer calls us screaming due to travel frustrations.

In this business, there are so many things that can go wrong. It is fertile ground for stress and frustration. Excellent agents with compassion and maturity do not get defensive in these situations. They are focused on one thing — ‘How can I help?’

During the hiring process, I conduct situational interviewing. I ask the candidate what he or she would do under several scenarios in order to gauge their compassion and maturity. I can train someone to be a great travel agent, but I cannot teach these qualities. You either have them or you don’t.

What is the most common mistake leaders make?
Leaders often become consumed with success to the point they forget the humanity of the business. There are many instances of healthy mom-and-pop companies that get bigger and end up losing every aspect of what they were built upon.

If you get to the point where there is minimal or no concern for people and your priority is on making the next deal or dollar, everyone loses.

The other mistake that goes along with this unhealthy focus on the bottom line is that leaders forget employees have a right to a balanced and happy life. They begin viewing their staff as a means to an end.

I strongly believe that happy employees and a consistent practice of doing the right thing will naturally lead to success.

What sets your company apart?
I am a big believer in providing a healthy quality of life for employees. Happy employees will exceed your expectations.

For example, I allow some agents with young children to work from home. This arrangement allows them to better manage their personal and work priorities. Also, the company closes on weekends. When I made this decision, I was warned it would hurt our bottom line, but it has not.

I believe employees should be home with their families on the weekends.

Our business is built on personal service. It is essential for customers to reach a live person when they call us, so we do not hide behind voicemail. When a customer is at the airport in a time-sensitive travel situation, they need to speak to an agent right away.

HOW TO REACH: Uniglobe Travel Designers, (614) 237-4488 or www.uniglobetraveldesigners.com