Success Forced Me to Change
Paul S. Mears III, Hello! Destination Management
April 02, 2018
For the past 20 years, I’ve steadily grown my family’s Evergreen company, Hello! Destination Management, by being flexible and making changes as needed to promote growth. But what I didn’t realize until just a couple years ago was that this also meant my leadership style — the one I had practiced and clung to for decades — needed to grow and adjust. That’s been a tough mental adjustment for someone with a nasty control streak and a tremendous fear of failure.
My first job upon returning to our family business was driving a cab for my father’s Orlando-based company, Mears Transportation Group, in the early ’90s. My father had inherited what was originally a cab company from his father (who founded it in 1939) and expanded it into all forms of passenger ground transportation and destination management — providing services like tours, team building and special event planning to corporate meeting planners.
After I’d put in a convincing stint, my dad released me from my taxi-driving job and I was recruited to various positions within the company. I helped him grow the business first as a sales manager and later as director of convention sales. In 1998 we purchased Hello! Florida, the leading destination management company in Orlando at the time. Following the integration of our destination management division into Hello! Florida and the untimely departure of a key leader, I became the president of Hello! Destination Management and put my micromanaging skills to work while adding employees and opening new offices.
As a conscientious third-generation manager, I felt deeply responsible for protecting the investment and making the new business succeed. I put incredible pressure on myself to make sure it didn’t fall apart. And it didn’t. In fact, we grew like crazy over the years, adding offices in Florida and Arizona. Even through 9/11 (when people stopped traveling for many months) and the recession of 2008 (when our revenues were down 45 percent), we remained aggressive but prudent.
By 2011, we had five offices total, all located in popular meeting destinations such as Orlando, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. Each of these offices had between six and 60 employees and a general manager who communicated with me regularly, sometimes multiple times a day. My day-to-day responsibilities were very tactical. I was the answer guy. I talked to every GM about whatever problem they encountered: whom and when to hire, what the financial plan should look like, unique needs of customers, how to refer a client from one office to another.
But it was like these offices were each little independent businesses — they didn’t share a coherent, fully developed strategy. I’ll admit I kind of liked it this way. It was working financially, and I enjoyed the hustle and hard work. I loved making thousands of decisions a week that created the foundation for the culture of the business.
Then two years ago we opened an office in Dallas. It was a tipping point for me. It was just too much work for me to handle. Suddenly emails and phone calls were not being answered on time. I just couldn’t keep up with everyone’s demands. People were waiting on me — and I hated that feeling. I realized I was slowing down my general managers’ progress. The requirements of my job had grown beyond my ability to serve them quickly enough.
My dad (who is still CEO) had always told me that if you create an environment where you are making all the decisions, your business will never be very big or great — in that case it can only be as big as your own reach and as good as your own talents. You have to attract and retain talent and give them autonomy if you want your business to thrive.
While I thought I was following his advice, I really wasn’t. I realized I had to change my leadership style. I needed to focus on larger-picture strategy, pursue new opportunities for our business and get better at delegating responsibility. I needed to put my People First, and have more trust in my leaders.
I promoted someone internally to executive vice president and asked all the GMs, except the one in Orlando, to report to him. I promoted another longtime employee to head up creative services nationwide, an area with great opportunity perfectly suited for his talents, not mine. Those two men created the foundation for a steering group of five key leaders to further delegate responsibilities and innovate — and to disagree with any decisions I might throw in there because I sometimes act like a dictator. This steering committee has been a wonderful addition.
This shift in operations has been great for the company but tough on me. It’s taken me two years to really adjust to letting go. I hate feeling like I’m removed from the front lines, so I’ve had to find a balance. It took a while, but I am now intimately involved in business building. I went from working primarily in the business to working on the business. Since I am no longer tied to my desk answering emails, my time is dedicated to key client relationships, new office openings, acquisitions (two), launching a national sales team, and collaborating with our leadership team rather than issuing directives. And I still have the GM in Orlando report to me because this is where I live with my wife and four children. I think staying close to the details in one office helps my perspective … or maybe that’s just an excuse to satisfy my weakness!
All of this has paid off tremendously. We now have nine offices and our revenue will exceed $110 million this year (last year it was $96 million). We have about 215 employees. There is no way we would have had this kind of growth if I hadn’t handed off my responsibilities and empowered my managers.
It’s not easy to change your leadership style after so many years. But I sure didn’t want to disappoint my colleagues who had a great vision for our company. And I didn’t want to be the one to make this 80-year-old Evergreen company grind to a halt because I was stuck in my ways.
Paul S. Mears III is the president of Hello! Destination Management.