Wido Schaefer Featured

8:02am EDT June 30, 2006
After 30 years of piloting TravelStore Inc., Wido Schaefer, founder, president and CEO of the travel agency, is beginning to turn over the wheel to his employees. Schaefer began his trek to retirement last year by selling 10 percent of the operation to his employees through an employee stock ownership plan. He’s unsure if he’ll take the full 10 years he plans to give up complete control of the company, which produced about $180 million in revenue last year, or if he even will give it up at all, but he is in no hurry to spend more time on the golf course. For now, he remains focused on his employees and on leading the company forward. Smart Business spoke with the former Lufthansa executive about the importance of trusting employees, adapting to change and planning for the long haul.

Keep employees informed.
We pretty much run open book. All managers see the financials every month. Branch managers have a vested interest in the results because, in addition to earning a salary, they share in the profits of their branch.

We keep (profit and loss) statements per branch. They’re directly involved. That creates a culture that empowers people. It translates into the way our agents treat customers, because they’re empowered.

Hire the right talent.
When we look for new employees, we look for attitude and talent. We’re not looking for skills. Skills can be taught, but attitude and talent are things that you have or you don’t.

In the past (an executive) would do interview. We’ve started to let the team members into the interview process. If you want to be a corporate agent, we will invite a couple of the corporate agents into the interview process and let them interview separately.

Do they want this person to be on their team? It’s based on simple things — can they look you in the eye? If somebody cannot look you in the eye, they’re out; we don’t even proceed with the interview process.

Treat your people well.
People want to do an honest job and get paid for it. I always paid above-average wages to attract above-average employees.

Our turnover is very low, so we’re holding on to good employees. Employees who don’t work out usually leave within three months. We don’t even have to let them go because the team will say, that new hire really doesn’t fit in; we made a mistake.

Plan for the future.
I always believed in doing things for the long run. Everybody can make a quick buck, but to create a relationship with a client or an employee is really more important.

The basic philosophy is unchanged. Basic honesty, looking people in the eye and not having hidden agendas, all these basic principles.

Reward those who got you there.
I’m in the process of turning the company over to the employees. We have an employee stock ownership program, so employees are shareholders of the company.

We have a corporate culture that is a lot more effective to communicate because now they are owners, and with ownership comes responsibility. That’s a concept that everybody grasps. Overall, it has a very positive effect. There is a message there that has meaning.

Assume the best.
You have to trust people. You have to start off trusting people. Then, if they disappoint you, you change your mind — instead of doing it the other way around, (where) they have to earn your trust.

Let people fail.
Leadership is innate. Skills can be learned. Middle management you can train somebody to do. You can train somebody to establish a schedule, and this is your routine. This is what your agents need to produce, and you need to manage them that everybody does 200 transactions a month, keep your computers running, open on time, close on time.

That can be taught. Decision-making is a lot harder. You have to empower people to make decisions and not get too hard on them if they make a mistake. You have to encourage them to make mistakes and then you’ll see if they use their power wisely or if they make too many mistakes.

Take a chance.
In any business today, the days of being stagnant, they ended in the ’80s. Today, if you’re in business, you have to be No. 1 or 2 in your city and your business, or you’re probably not going to survive.

You can grow two ways — one is organically, but most people have to grow through acquisition. The minute you go through an acquisition, you take risk. You make big advertising decisions — buying a full-page ad in the newspaper, when you’ve never done that before, sign a contract. All of these involve some degree of risk.

Don’t be discouraged by setbacks. Stick to what you believe in. Stick to your guiding principles, even if you have setbacks.

Seek mentors. Listen a lot. Listen more than you talk at the beginning and take risks.

Find a mentor.
I had to make difficult decisions that really exceeded my experience or my financial resources. I had somebody that I could rely on in both cases. That helped me tremendously.

That was not someone who second-guessing my decisions, it was somebody who, 95 percent, said, ‘Just go for it.’

There was not a lot of discussions and criticism. It was just, ‘I think you made the right decision. If that’s your gut decision, go for it.’

Stay the course.
Do you have a vision and stick to it? You can’t be wishy-washy and change directions. You have to believe the marketplace; the pendulum will eventually come back.

You have to believe in the people who work for you. You have to be honest in your relationships with vendors and with clients.

HOW TO REACH: TravelStore Inc., (800) 850-3224 or www.travelstoreusa.com