Running a small business can be a little like riding a roller coaster. There are some exciting climbs and some heart stopping plunges.
Just ask Bill Frank. In 30 years running his business, Travel Brokers in Homewood, he has seen his share of both.
Frank got his start in the travel business shortly after getting out of the Army. He and his wife, Beth, were living in Springfield, Mass. He had done some traveling during his service, so he walked into a travel agency and said, “I can do this.” The owner gave him a try, and it turned out he could indeed sell travel.
The Franks soon made their way to the South Suburbs to be closer to Beth’s family.
His career ride took its first big plunge when he lost his job at a local travel agency. But it was a relatively brief dip in his fortunes. He stopped by a Hazel Crest grocery store soon after. The store was owned by Homewood businessman Carmen Triumph.
“I walked in there airing my tale of woe. Carmen hears it. He says, ‘Hey kid, so you’re not working? Why don’t you open your own business?’ I said, ‘I have no money. I have nothing.’ He said, ‘Get in the car.’”
Triumph took Frank to a former tobacco shop he owned at 2041 Ridge Road and told him to set up shop.
“He said, ‘Pay me when you got it,’” Frank said. “He was a nice guy who saw an opportunity to help somebody.”
He set up the office and hired a staff. His experience in corporate travel helped the company grow quickly. Travel Brokers specialized in consolidating companywide travel arrangements.
In 1991, he moved from the first office into a 2,000 square foot space in the same building at the corner of Ridge Road and Martin Avenue. He hired more people and kept growing.
Another big plunge came when Delta Airlines announced it would no longer pay commissions on ticket sales to travel agencies. Frank’s business was built on those commissions.
“When they did it, every other airline followed for domestic tickets,” he said. “The million dollars-worth of tickets we sold? Now we got nothing.”
That required a change in approach. The company had to start charging customers the fees that used to be paid by airlines. That meant a loss of some business initially.
“Those we had good relationships with, they stuck with us,” he said. “They didn’t mind paying because they knew we could take care of business.”
The company soon rebounded, growing again but at a slower pace.
The next downturn was even worse: 9/11. Immediately after the terrorist hijackings in 2001, air traffic was grounded for weeks. And even when planes were allowed back in the air, many people were not inclined to fly.
“The world fell apart. My business was dead,” he said.
The death proved to be temporary. Frank finished the process of purchasing the building at the corner of Ridge Road and Dixie Highway, where the business is still located. That gave him some rent income.
He cashed in retirement accounts, sold property and managed to limp along until the travel industry slowly recovered. At one point, the business had five offices and 49 employees.
Building and rebuilding the business took commitment and hard work, but Frank also cites goodwill among local businesses and the help of generous people. Triumph was not the only businessman to provide a boost.
Frank told the story of how during one expansion period he offered to buy the Key Club in Homewood. He had been working in his Glenwood agency for some time and wanted to bring the business home.
He was able to reach a deal on the sale, but he had very little time to get financing. He went to see Bill Addy, president of the Bank of Homewood. When Frank said he needed a loan, Addy told him to bring his paperwork back at the end of the week to start the process.
"I said, 'The closing's Friday,'" Frank said. "It's like Wednesday. I can't count on getting the paperwork done on time.' Then he (Addy) put his hand out, shook my hand, and said, 'Go to the closing. Do what you gotta do. The money will be in your account Friday afternoon.'”
"They don't do things like that any more. Bill Addy ran the bank like you saw on 'Its a Wonderful Life,' like the Bailey Building and Loan," he said, referring to the classic Christmas movie about a small town lender starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.
The loan came through for Frank. The business grew. Over the years, there were other high points, including diversifying into teleconferencing technology, buying other area travel agencies and adding insurance to the mix.
Frank spent a number of years as one of the most active leaders in the community, serving as president of the Lions Club, leading local and regional chambers of commerce, organizing the Homewood Days festival and serving on a number of boards, including the Homewood Plan Commission and the board of trustees.
All along he has remembered the kindness of benefactors like Carmen Triumph and Bill Addy and tried to follow their lead.
“I tried to be that helping hand, too,” he said. “All along the way, I’ve tried to give back to the community.”