Management & Operations

Operator of the Year: Family Business Rolls Through Three Generations

Posted on February 1, 2003 by Rebecca Christiansen, editorial assistant

A popcorn popper and hallway golf tournaments are cousins Mike and Rick Hillard’s secret weapons to running a successful motorcoach business. “We have a commercial popcorn popper like you see in the movie theaters. Pretty much every afternoon somebody will make some,” says Rick Hillard, co-owner of River Trails Transit Lines/Tri-State Travel of Galena, Ill. “We might have a little golf tournament going up the hallway or something, you know, just goofing. We just enjoy each other’s company and have a good time.” The light-hearted philosophy must have paid off, since the company, which Rick co-owns with his cousin Mike, has been successful in the motorcoach industry for more than 60 years. In 2000, Tri-State Travel won a United Motorcoach Association (UMA) Vision Award, and Rick was elected chairman of the UMA’s Board of Directors. That dedication and long-term commitment to the motorcoach industry is what earned Mike and Rick Hillard the 2003 METRO Magazine Operator of the Year Award. “We feel very humbled and honored,” Mike says. “Being in the business over 60 years as a family business, we have great pride in the fact that we have endured a lot of ups and downs to still be doing what our fathers started doing many, many years ago. And even though right now is a difficult time for all of us in the industry, we feel that based on the fundamentals that we were taught as young men by those gentlemen we’ve been able to prevail [during] these hard times, so we’re quite proud.” Joining generations Tri-State Travel originated as Rocket Lines when Mike’s father, Jim, began providing transportation for workers to the Savanna Ammunition Depot from southwest Wisconsin and northwest Illinois in 1939. After World War II, Jim’s brother (Rick’s father) Lew, came onboard and the company began to focus on charter movement and school bus operation. In the 1960s, the Hillards purchased a tour broker license and started their ascent into the tour package business. They began providing vacation tours to travelers from Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin and, thus, changed the company name to Tri-State Tours. In the early ’70s, the company moved to its current location in Galena, Ill., after the Hillards purchased a Dubuque, Iowa, bus company called River Trails. Mike and Rick joined the company in 1973 and started to expand it into what is now one of the largest motorcoach operations in the Midwest. A full-service motorcoach tour facility was added in Davenport, Iowa, in 1982. The Hillards purchased Charter Coaches Inc. and opened a full-service travel agency and motorcoach facility in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1986. The cousins ventured into the bank club tour business in the ’90s and placed the company’s many holdings under one umbrella company, Tri-State Travel. “River Trails Transit Lines is the parent company, but it’s kind of a behind- the-scenes name,” Rick says. “It holds the operating authority for the motorcoaches, but Tri-State Travel is the trade name that we’re doing business as.” Today, Tri-State Travel operates 44 coaches, two minicoaches and 10 vans, has 130 employees and carries more than 500,000 passengers annually. A simple philosophy “Give it your best effort each and every day and make sure you’ve got some great people working for you,” Mike says about Tri-State’s philosophy. “We hire based on personality and attitude, because that’s something you really can’t teach,” he says. “I can teach somebody how to drive, fill out paperwork and all the requirements that the U.S. Department of Transportation sets forth for us to follow, but they’ve got to like people. We try to hire people that are light-hearted and don’t come to work with a frown on their face — and that transfers to the public.” Ultimately, satisfied employees lead to satisfied customers. The Hillards strongly believe in treating each employee with the same respect and value as each customer since employees, drivers in particular, are on the front line of any company and are an operation’s most visible marketers. “The secret to our success can best be described as building relationships,” Rick says. “Relationships between the management and the employees, relationships between the company and vendors and relationships between the company and customers. Those positive relationships create a revolving word-of-mouth network which works to spread our reputation as a company that cares — which in turn creates new relationships.” Reinventing the wheel Tri-State Travel delivers a quality product by going against the trend that says a tour will operate only if there are 30 travelers or more. Even though the Hillards own 55- to 56-passenger coaches, they also purchased a couple of minibuses and 36-passenger coaches because of the increasing demand for such vehicles in their area. “The baby boomers in particular aren’t really interested in traveling like their parents or their grandparents did, with 40 or 50 people going to New England,” he adds. “They like smaller groups, they like more activity in their tours, and we’ve developed some tours that are more high end.” Tri-State is acquiring smaller coaches that will provide tours more directed toward activity and entertainment. Those buses will have galleys and portals for computers, as well as an opportunity for people to get refreshments and to stretch their legs in living room-type areas in the back of the buses. Tri-State also has some school bus contracts and runs a couple of minibuses and two 36-passenger MCI F models. The remainder of its fleet is all MCI D, DL3 and J models, with the oldest coach built in 1992. Foreseeing the future Continuing in the family tradition, the third generation of Hillards has made its way into the business. Rick’s daughter, Angela Distler, manages the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, location and Mike’s son, Andrew, is a member of the Galena, Ill., sales staff. “Hopefully we can groom them well enough to succeed us in the business and take over,” Rick says. For now, Mike and Rick are concentrating on the 2003 season, hoping it will not veer from the company’s traditional growth trend. “We’ve been on a pretty good roll for several years of steady increase and steady growth, and last year just kind of flattened out,” Rick says. “Business has been down a little bit, but overall I don’t think we’ve suffered. We’re actually looking at this year as being possibly the real telltale year.” That’s because people are slower than normal to book into anything, Rick says. “Whether it’s the war looming over our heads or the economy that we’re fighting right now, it all seemed to have caught up to us right here,” he says. Tri-State Travel’s industry involvement, particularly through Rick’s serving on the UMA board, is an advantage, however. “It really hasn’t changed how we operate, [but] it’s given us more ammunition when we’re going out into the marketplace to sell our services,” Rick says. “People, our customers in particular, know that we’re involved in the industry and not just worried about our own company.” “As are most operators and family businesses, we are always very optimistic,” Mike says. “If we can finish anywhere from where we were last year to a little bit ahead, based on what we see in the horizon, we’ll be very happy.”

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