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Cruising from high tech to the high seas

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Friday, February 01, 2008

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Many people dream of escaping the corporate world, though few are brave — or crazy — enough to actually break away. Steve Levich spent more than 20 years in the computer marketing business, working his way to the upper management at Intel. When Intel downsized in 2000, it offered severance packages to employees who volunteered to leave. Levich saw a way out.

“I was getting burnt out with the corporate environment and working 10- to 12-hour days,” he says. “You’re not really in control of your destiny.” News of the departure didn’t go over well with Levich’s wife, Beth, a veteran insurance claims adjuster; major life changes weren’t in her plans. But Steve was  already scoping out franchise options, ready to start up his own business.

It didn’t happen right away. Levich remained jobless for a year and considered everything from making pizzas to a muffler shop as his next business venture. Finally he found Cruise Holidays, a Portland-based cruise vacation planning company with 140 franchises in the U.S. and Canada. Levich knew Cruise Holidays, recently purchased by Carlson Companies, had deep pockets and was a stable investment. He also saw that the job would need technology and marketing skills, which he had. In addition, Beth was a pro at sales.

Admittedly, Levich knew nothing about the travel business. But a benefit of working in the industry, he explains, is that clients and cruise lines want you to have first-hand experience with the products before you sell. “When people walk in, they want someone who has experienced it all,” he says. And the Levichs have that. Steve estimates they spend three months on cruise trips every year.

“Once you become a major player in the industry, you’re invited to every inaugural,” Levich says. During a “cruise to nowhere,” professionals learn about new ships over the course of a three-day party. Cruise Holidays is now a $4 million business after just six years and has won several awards from the parent company. The Levichs employ nine people, including their oldest daughter, at their northwest Portland office near Beaverton.

Of course, the franchise began as a gamble. Levich points out they don’t get paid until the travel happens, so in a business that revolves around pre-booking, there were no profits for the first year or so. While he felt more in control than when he worked for a corporation, Levich knew he was working against the market. “But it gets you up early in the morning to go out there and get clients,” he says. They focused especially on group sales, which have become the core of their client base.

Does Levich ever tire of cruises? Hardly. “I have a list of destinations I’ve never been to, and the list is long,” he says. Having escaped the corporate world, he doesn’t dream about retirement anymore.


AMBER NOBE


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