From the Window SeatIf nothing else, the letter had the virtues of clarity and brevity: “Stop thinking -- just work.” The recipient of this advice was a 19-year-old college student, a pre-med molecular biology major who was trying to earn some extra cash handling luggage for Amtrak.

In the course of his job moving bags and suitcases around, he saw some ways that the system at the local station in San Diego could become more efficient, and he passed his observations on to his supervisor. He was told that everyone was quite satisfied with the present system, thank you very much. So the young man went to his supervisor’s boss and repeated his suggestions for ways the system could be improved. He was told that the current system was the way it had always been done and always would be done.

Stunned as only a 19-year-old can be that a manager would not welcome new ideas from a 19-year-old, he wrote a letter describing his ideas to his boss’ boss’ boss. In reply, he received a note with just the four words: “Stop thinking -- just work.”

The student, however, was incapable of non-thought, so he wrote a letter explaining what had happened to both the president of Amtrak and the head of the congressional committee that had oversight of the railroad.

The reply he received contained an expression of interest, not so much about the luggage system in San Diego but about his personal ambitions. He was told he had a future with Amtrak and was offered assistance with college if he would be willing to commit to returning to the railroad after completing his studies.

The young man declined, and somewhere over the next year or two he saw that his ability to recognize patterns and his desire to make the world more efficient were his greatest strengths and strongest interests and that there would likely be more opportunity for him in business than in medicine. He switched his major to finance.

That young man is now in his mid-50s and reckons nothing he learned in any of his business classes was quite as valuable as what he learned while working for Amtrak: “One of the most important things you can do to lead is to listen,” he told me last week over breakfast.

He has applied this central philosophy to help build one of the most interesting and successful agency models operating today.

Van Anderson is still looking for patterns that can help him increase efficiencies, and with his brother, Brad, he applies technology and motivational psychology to their business, the host agency America’s Vacation Center. It is growing phenomenally by any measure, moving up four notches on Travel Weekly’s Power List this year, from 52 to 48, by raising revenue 50% in 12 months’ time (from $100 million to $150 million).

It has garnered Agency of the Year honors from Carnival, Norwegian, Oceania and Royal Caribbean cruise lines, and it has been inducted into virtually every high-producers’ club offered by tour operators.

The search for efficiencies is crucial for agencies today, Anderson believes: “Will suppliers raise commission levels? I don’t think so. Will yields go up so much that it will lead to significant growth in revenue? I don’t think so. You need to work relentlessly toward greater efficiency.”

In many companies, an unwavering focus on efficiency makes workers nervous because it suggests a desire to get by with fewer people. But Anderson says he experiences the opposite: The more efficient AVC becomes, the more people he needs.

“Through our marketing, we generate new client leads very efficiently,” he said. “When agents first join us, they may want to build their client base entirely through the leads we send them. But as their businesses mature, an increasing percentage of their sales come from repeat business and referrals, and their need for new leads diminishes. That requires us to seek increasing numbers of people to feed leads to.”

Though AVC provides training and mentoring programs for its member agencies, it does not demand that agents follow specific methods of selling. Its only rule, Anderson said, is that agents must act “professionally and with integrity.”

Anderson nonetheless finds himself poring over the company’s statistics looking for what methods work best for his agents, so he can pass them along. “The data is gravy,” he said. “In my free time, I really enjoy looking for patterns.”

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, choose a job that you love and you will never work again. If that’s true, Van Anderson makes a living in a way that’s antithetical to the advice given to him in his youth by the anonymous Amtrak supervisor. He has stopped working, and just thinks.

E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].

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