Mary Stange left a career as a flight officer with the U.S. Navy to join her Foreign Service husband overseas. Frustrated with long clearance delays for embassy jobs and the lack of employment continuity between posts, Mary dreamed of a job that she could take with her from post to post.
After listening to a podcast about investing in small businesses for passive income, she started researching businesses for sale. That led her to purchasing a boutique travel company, Ponte Travels, right as the global pandemic shut down travel worldwide.
In this interview, Mary discusses:
- her thought process behind purchasing a small business and how she went about evaluating whether the business would be a profitable venture
- the steps required to purchase a business, including doing due diligence, enlisting experts, and how to navigate Small Business Administration (SBA) loans
- having the courage and vision to open a business that was severely affected by the pandemic
… and much more!
You can find out more about Mary and Ponte Travels here: https://www.pontetravels.com/
Music: “Higher Up” by Shane Ivers
Read the interview:
Tanya: Today. We’re very lucky to be joined by Mary Stange, who has done a lot of very cool things. She got her start in the Navy as an aviator, serving on an aircraft carrier, electronic attack squadron. After she separated from the Navy in 2015, Mary joined the foreign service community as a family member and started searching for a way to make a meaningful impact while moving from post to post.
And that brings us to her latest adventure. Recently, Mary became the owner and operator of Ponte Travels affirm that specializes in off the beaten path, cultural experiences and travel to countries around the world. She’s joining us today from her family’s current posting in Cyprus, where she lives with her husband, two kids, and a Colombian dog. And of course a Cypriot cat, Mary, welcome to the show!
Mary: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me.
Tanya: Yeah. Thanks for coming. Thanks for joining us. We’re curious if you want to start off and tell us your business. How did you become the owner of Ponte Travels and during a pandemic?
Mary: Yeah. You know, it’s been a real whirlwind of a year. So, I guess I’ll back it up a bit. So like many EFMs, I left a career in order for my spouse to join the foreign service. I was a flight officer in the US Navy, as you mentioned, , which means that I operated the communication navigation and operational systems of the EA six B Prowler.
, went on a few deployments, , had a few carrier launches. It’s pretty cool. , fast forward to our first overseas post and life just, you know, it just wasn’t so fast paced. I just wasn’t used to it. , so I tried EFM jobs within the embassy, , and this was before the whole family reserve Corps thing. And I just got really discouraged with the long waits, the clearances and even the job availability and continuity from post to post. It got to a point where I realized that I needed to have something that I could bring with me wherever I go. So fast forward again to one random podcast that my husband was listening to about investing in a small business as a means for passive or semi-passive income.
This is a brand new concept for us. We had dabbled in real estate here, there. So we started to look into it. There were a ton of business sale aggregator sites, and we’ve just stumbled across one small business for sale that was Ponti travels. And then with no intention of actually buying it, we just inquired and , just out of sheer curiosity, we were just curious, okay, well, what would this look like?
So we received some extended information and we realized pretty quickly that this is not only something that we could manage, but that I could be really good at. So at that point we really didn’t know what would be needed to make this happen. But we figured, you know, what? We are smart people. We’re competent people, whatever it is, we can figure this out.
And so we started down the road of actually going through the sale with this.
Tanya: So Marriott. I think there’s a huge part of the story that our listeners need to hear about. And that is the timeline of when you started looking at this business and then what happened Right. With the COVID pandemic. Right. So tell us a little bit about, so, so where did you find this business? Was it like on a website or, you know, did somebody tell you about it kind of, where did you find it?
And then after that kind of, what were the steps leading up to. You know, like how did you evaluate this business? How did you know it was going to be something that was going to be profitable or something that you could manage? Did it have employees? I mean, I have so many questions, but we’ll start with the timeline.
So around, what point were you starting to consider this a small business and then what exactly happened after.
Mary: Right. He listened to this podcast and started casually looking, I guess it was December, 2019. We got the information back probably early January, made the decision mid January to really move forward with this. We had a few initial conversations with the owners and we all realized that we really liked each other, that this was a very good match for us, for them.
And so we started the legal process later that January. Now, I guess I’ll step through like what it really took to purchase the business, because I think there’s a lot of people who think that being an entrepreneur and being a business owner, you have to start it from scratch. And like I said, this was a concept that was new to us, that we could just kind of assume this existing business.
And like I said, it ended up being a lot of steps, but we quickly realized that even though it seems really intensive everything was completely manual. So the first thing we did was the legal, legal side of things, right? So we got in touch with a lawyer. And that was just as simple as searching the internet for a business lawyer in Washington state who was able to help us file the LLC paperwork, get your business license just making sure that we were doing everything correctly.
And at the same time, we’re also doing our due diligence. So this was making sure that the business makes sense, right. We’re checking the books with an independent accountant just to make sure that the numbers are going to make sense. Now we did these two things kind of concurrently, and that was probably through January, February of 2020.
And as an aside, I, you know, as we’re putting this together, I had had a planned trip to go visit my mom in California for a week at the end of January, early February. And we were thinking, oh, you know, while I’m here, I might as well just pop up to Seattle for a day. Go meet with some banks, just have a few in-person meetings since that’s where we were going to set up the business
Tanya: So Mary, my big question is you decide to buy a travel business and everything is lining up. You’re doing all your due diligence and then the pandemic hits. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like. Right. I mean, everything starts to close and a travel business during COVID right. I mean, there’s planes with no people flying in them.
How do you even run a business? With no one traveling. . And there’s all these restrictions. I mean, can you tell us a little bit about your thoughts about what happened after that and what you were thinking? I mean, did you think this is the craziest thing we have ever done and maybe we just lost our life savings in a business?
Maybe I’m overdramatizing it a little bit, but, but tell us that story. I mean, what an incredible time to buy a business and then have that happen.
Mary: Yeah, well, I, I guess I know exactly how absolutely ridiculous it sounds to buy a travel business while travel is essentially in a coma. You know, but we had seen the pandemic coming in the news of course, over the process of the sale. And this was something that we felt very strongly about at first, you know, this is something that I know that I know that I could do well.
I know that this is something that’s in our wheelhouse, that’s going to make us happy. And that at the end of the day, travel is one industry that will always come back, be it natural disasters, be it political abreast travel will never go away. And so what we decided to do is to plan for contingencies.
We didn’t know how long this was going to last. We didn’t know the extent of it. February and March when we were creating these plans. But we had to build in the long-term of this business and be able to carry it forward long-term with essentially zero trips being taken. We just know that we had to hang on until the end.
And luckily this business is modeled in a way that it’s completely remote and therefore there is very minimal overhead required. So we had to plan out ways that we can continue paying off her SBA loan even as travel completely dried up. And in the end, , now that I’m able to look back on and reflect on this past year while traditional travel, as we know it didn’t continue to happen throughout 2020.
And how is it looking 20, 21? This pause and travel has actually provided me a really great opportunity to understand the business on a real fundamental level, and to get to know our clients, get to know our destinations, get to know our overseas. I think that as an industry, it also gave us collectively an opportunity to assess the way that we do and to make trade, make changes, to make trouble or sustainable and how to do it more responsibly, how to kind of rethink
how we’re doing this. And pivot, you know, in this new way. I think what’s also interesting is that we’ve realized that in the past year, then man for travel has really built up almost to a breaking point. Travelers are itching to get back out there on the next big trip and given the current global situation they’re going to need a travel advisor and a professional to help them do it safely and know where the restrictions are and how to navigate the new world.
So I guess in one sense, you can kind of say that we bought low sell, you know, that concept of buy low, sell high.
Tanya: Wow. I’m really impressed with your vision, because I have to tell you that buying a business during a global pandemic was massively impacted by what happened. I couldn’t even imagine, like, I mean, I imagine you bought it and there were just crickets, did you have any people trying to track you?
Mary: Oh for sure. No, absolutely not.
Tanya: They said there was nobody, you bought the business, opened the well and opened the doors figuratively. Because it was already a running business, but then you, you, as new owners opened the doors and then
Mary: For sure. I mean, the first things that I was dealing with as the brand new owner of the business were, believe it or not, cancellations and refunds. Luckily the former owners set me up really well. As as, as mentors and and helping me with guidance throughout the entire process.
There were two women that owned and founded Ponti travel. And, grew it to what it is now. And fortunately I’m just so lucky to still have them in my, in my professional life to act as mentors for me, but they’ve been with me every step of the way to, to help me through this.
Mary: But like I said, it’s given me this really great opportunity to take a step back and really understand the core. And I feel like just now, just in the last couple of months, we’re starting to see the confidence come back to even begin to think about travel again, just to be able to put something on the calendar.
Tanya: And I think you’re right. The comment that you made about. Travelers itching to get out. And there’s this huge demand that’s pent up. The same thing happened with the real estate industry, right. I mean, where I work and it just came roaring to life. People were like, we need a house now. Like we have been stuck in this small little place and I think we’re going to see the same with travel and I’d be so curious to see.
You know, at what point is the tipping point? When people just decide, I am tired, I am getting on a plane and going, I already know people that are traveling internationally right now and are like, I’ve got my vaccine and I’m going. So I think, like you said, buy low, sell high. There is going to be a huge demand for travel.
And I think all of the business that you didn’t see in 2020 is going to come back to you in some form. But I mean, what nerves of steel Mary, I’m very impressed because I don’t know if I have made it through a whole year with nothing going on, especially at the start of a business. That’s sort of a crucial time where you’re like, am I going to make money?
Is anything going to happen? I mean, kudos to you.
I mean, we definitely, like I said, we built that into the plan we built, we built in knowing that it was going to be you know, that we’d have to weather the storm. And I’m not saying that there weren’t those moments of, oh my gosh, what did we do? But Well, we’re very confident that it’s going to come back this year.
I deal with the industry news every day. And so when you see countries trying to. Deal with this and have massive tragedy stories come out of some of these destinations. It really breaks your heart. Knowing that for a lot of these countries, that depend on tourism as a, as a soul, as a source of economic stability, but that’s not going to return for a very long time.
It’s one of the reasons why I’m working. The travel advisor is so critical and these coming years are for information like that. I being able to, to know the current restrictions you know, yes, there are places that you can go right now that are open to both vaccinated travelers and non-vaccinated travelers, whether you need a, a test or a quarantine, I mean, travel is available.
Of course, it just, it matters on your own personal comfort. And I think that I do confidently think that we’ve seen the worst already in terms of travel restrictions, I’ll caveat that in terms of travel restrictions, we’ve seen the worst already. And it’s just a matter of monitoring.
Tanya: So Mary, I’d like to ask you a little bit more about, you know, there’s a lot, a lot of EFMs out there who would be interested in starting their own business. Right. Can you talk a little bit more about sort of the nuts and bolts of, of actually doing that, Right. Like, so where did you find the business and sort of, how did you go about the process of buying it?
How did you determine? Whether it was a profitable business to buy because not something people do every day. Right. And so, you know, did you pull in an expert, did you talk to somebody who had already owned a travel business? Like how did you do your due diligence when you went to.
Mary: Right. So there are, there are actually. Sale business sale aggregator sites such as us.business for sale.com and biz buy, sell.com B I Z B U Y sell.com. And they list businesses for sale. And that was actually how we found Ponti travels. I’d say the mechanics of it really boiled down to two to three main parts, and that would be the legal.
That’s getting yourself incorporated filing the paperwork with your state. And, you know, we found a lawyer to help us file the LLC paperwork and to get our business license, just to make sure that we were doing it all correctly, then there’s the due diligence. And that’s making sure that the business you’re buying makes sense.
We searched for an independent accountant, and we had them review the books and give us an opinion. So both those things. We did at the same exact time, they kind of haven’t concurrently. But we didn’t finish the legal incorporation until the due diligence resulted in a green light. So once everything looked accurate, once we’re confident that this is something we could do, we wanted to move ahead with it and then we started looking at financing.
Obviously this is an investment and we were going to have to figure out how we were going to buy the business assets. As you can imagine that turned out to be the most involved part of finding a loan for this. But we were able to accomplish it with a combination of a loan from the SBA and seller financing and about 20% of our own funding, which is usually required to have equity in the game.
Tanya: Very, can you talk to us a little bit about the SBA or small business administration financing? How, what did they look for? You go to the bank and they look at your credit and how is that process different from any other loan that you might take out? I know the small business administration has a specific process and also too, you were getting a loan at a time that, you know, Technically speaking, it was sort of pre pandemic when you were looking and doing your due diligence.
So the SBA was kind of operating on a sort of regular schedule. I know when the pandemic hit, the SBA was overwhelmed at a certain point because, as you know, Congress had rolled out money through the PPP program and the SBA was helping with that. And it was just, it was, there was a lot going on.
So. Tell us a little bit about, you know, for EFMs, who are interested in starting their own businesses and want to look into financing through the SBA, what are the requirements of something like that?
I didn’t know before going into this process that the SBA has a completely separate entity than the bank. When you go for a traditional loan for any other type of investment you’re just working with the bank. But in this case, you’re working with a whole different set of requirements.
And what we had to do is essentially prove to them that we can handle this. So , we did our homework. We wrote up a very thorough business plan. Just to prove that, we have thought about things that we can handle contingencies. There was a little bit of trepidation at first, you know, obviously, cause this was say March or April of last year.
And obviously, you know, that the first question we’ve already talked about was why are you buying a travel company in the middle of a pandemic? But once we were able
Tanya: I can only imagine them asking that question. And yet they still funded you, which was
Mary: We because we were able to prove that even if we had zero business for a year, that we could still survive and we have.
We have very little overhead. Is something that we tried to minimize as much as possible. As long as I have an internet connection and a few online services, I can do the business. You know, we’re not dealing with a brick and mortar business. We’re not, we don’t have lives.
Luckily we don’t have any employees. So it doesn’t, it doesn’t cost a lot to keep in business every month. We don’t have physicals. Inventoried upkeep machinery. And you know, this was actually a discussion as part of the sale was what is the value of the business? What are you actually buying?
Because potty troubles don’t have any physical assets, right? There is no building. There is no inventory. What we’re buying is essentially called Goodwill and intangible assets, such as the website, the client list, the branding and reputation you know, non-competes being previous owners. These are all the intangible things that you had to put a price on.
To tell the bank, no, I’m not buying three company cars and an attractor, you know, I’m buying other things that can’t necessarily be valued.
Tanya: I think it would look a little sketchy by an attractor for a travel business, but that’s just me. I’d like it not to be approved. Oh goodness. So that SBA process, how long did it take from the time that you applied to the time that they actually gave you the.
Mary: So we began our financing journey, probably the beginning of February 20, 20. We got approval for the loan in the middle of March. And we transferred ownership early may.
Tanya: That’s not bad. That’s actually faster than I thought it would be.
Mary: I think everybody was trying to accelerate as much as possible knowing that. Things were slowly locking down. And you know, just adjusting, remember that that giant adjustment of working from inside offices to now doing everything over zoom which is actually how I signed my final documents with the bank representatives over zoom.
Where we normally would, I would have had to fly all the way to Seattle and sign the documents in their office. But obviously that wasn’t a possibility. So
Of course we lean a lot on our existing suppliers and, and maintaining that network of You know, we make sure that all of our suppliers have proper liability insurance that they’re practicing in ethical, ethical, and sustainable ways. And that I said during this, this downtime I’ve really had a chance to have one-on-one meetings with each one of our representatives.
Representative from each one of our partners. I got to know them with the help of the previous owners who are still my mentors in this journey and really built a network that would have taken years from scratch. And it’s not just the tour operators, right? I’ve gotten to know the bookkeepers, the insurance providers, everyone that has experience in supporting my particular business.
And of course, I’ve added my own experience to the mix, especially when it comes to the social media and the marketing aspect of it. We recently went through a large rebranding with the help of another highly talented DFM who was able to help me with the website and logo design. So I mean, yeah, it is a big operation when you look at it from that global scale of 23 plus countries and five continents.
But you’re dealing with one-on-one personal interactions.
I knew that when we were forming our plans for Ponti travels, that the experiences we provide and the partners that we work with needed to be ethical and have respect for the communities, the wildlife and the environment. And fortunately, the former owners felt the same way. And , this concept of giving back was already a big aspect of the brand and the business model.
I think as world travelers, we can all point back to one experience where we look back on it and kind of cringe. It’s like, oh, I can’t believe I took part in that. And so I want to do as a travel advisor to my clients to keep them from having those experiences that you know, that when you’re traveling with Ponte Travels, it is.
You’re getting authentic local cultural, ethical experiences. It’s something that I take great pride in, and I think that really sets us apart from our competitors. We believe that responsible tourism involves supporting communities, wildlife and our planet.
And we do that in three main ways. We’ve talked about our partners and how we vet them to make sure that they’re running their operations in an appropriate way. The second is through getting back. So with every trip that’s taken with our company, we make a donation to a carefully selected NGO that works to improve local communities and wildlife conservation.
And the third way is something that we’ve just started doing this year is going to be through carbon offset. So it’s no secret that travel, in particular air travel, has a big impact on the environment. So we’re going to start contributing to environmental projects that work to offset the carbon tonnage that our trips produce.
So we take our responsibility as a travel company. Very seriously.
Tanya: I love that. I think there’s a lot of people out there that would say, oh, you know, travel agents went the way of the dinosaur and everybody goes on, you know, Expedia or whatever it is. But, you know, they say the same thing about real estate agents. Don’t need, you know, you can go on Zillow or, you know, one of these things.
And I disagree. Right. Simply because what you’re talking about is really customized, unique. Experience. And that is what travel is, is an experience. And so there is a design and a thoughtfulness and an intention when you plan something like this, that somebody who is an expert and who has the local connections on the ground, can help you with that experience and make it so much richer and more amazing.
Because if you’re just looking at Expedia, I mean, you don’t know what you know or don’t know. You don’t know what there is to see. I mean, you can read books and stuff, but I mean, I think it’s really great. Concept of what you’re doing and also giving back and making sure that travel is sustainable.
Right. I think it’s fantastic. I guess a question I have also is when you were looking at this business, I mean, it is very boutique and customized. Like who are your clients? How did they find you?
Mary: Yeah. So , like I said before buying a business rather than starting it from scratch was really great to have this database of loyal legacy clients who have repeated trips with us you know, going back several years, but. I’d say in general, Pani troubles, clients are people who enjoy authentic cultural experiences.
They want to see the world from a different perspective. Sure. Yeah, you can go on Expedia and you can buy the packet, the mainstream package, and too many destinations. But you’re not going to get that customized. That customized experience. So we build trips for couples, families, and small groups. And those could be anywhere from NGO donors to even special interest groups like yoga or culinary trips.
And when I, when I’m working with a client. I look at many different factors, try to understand their needs and their wants. So I look at the size of the group. Do they have kids? Are they multi-generational? Are they retired? What’s their activity level? And most importantly, I want to know what is the emotional memory that they’re going to be taking away from this trip so that I can create that unique itinerary.
Rather than just looking at the big hotel or resort packages. So, you know, in a way that I am, I am a bit different than a traditional travel agent because I, I really try to hone in on the experience of how they’re going to feel and what they’re going to be taken away from them.
Well, it’s going to be different for every person. You know, if it’s a multi-generational family and I can understand that, say the grandparents after the pandemic, grandparents and parents and children are all traveling together, maybe they haven’t spent time together in the past. So I’m going to try to look for activities where those two generations, maybe the grandparents generation and the grandkids generation are able to spend a little more time together.
I’m going to look for ways to not, cause I don’t want to say, okay, I’m going to put you, I’m going to put you at Machu Picchu and you’re just going to feel the magic because everybody’s going to feel that differently. It may be spiritual. It may be, you know, the weather. It may just be whatever it is.
I’m not going to say that I’m going to send you to this restaurant. You’re going to have this dish and you’re going to have this memory of me. Travel is. Like you said all about the experience, it’s about feeling that change within yourself and having it transform you in a certain way.
When we look back on some of your trips that you’ve taken in the past, you don’t necessarily look at the t-shirt or the coffee monkey bot it’s about that Neal I had at that one restaurant, that one glass of wine that you know, the one pasta with truffles And so it it’s, it’s little moments like that, that I’m trying to create.
And no, I cannot predict what that’s going to be for any person. But it’s just, it’s giving them the opportunity to experience that.
If it’s somewhere we haven’t been already. We do not operate yet in the Nordic countries. I think if I were to expand a bit and to bring my family along, which hint, hint I might be doing in the next few years I’d love to get them north of the Arctic circle, you know, show my kids Northern lights and to get them that experience.
Another part of this business that I absolutely love is that we try to put together annual schedule departures. So I know a lot of the times you feel like, okay, I have , my allotted couple of weeks a year, either for RNR or regular vacation. To go take a, to take a trip by myself or with my family.
But I put together a scheduled departure. And in fact, this October, I’m going to be leading a small group trip to the history of the peninsula of Croatia which I’m really super excited about. So I think everybody knows Croatia mostly for its big cities like Dubrovnik and Split . But Austria has always really fascinated me.
It has such an interesting history and culture has really deep Italian and Slavic influence. So I’m super excited about this site. Very, there’s going to be a cooking class. There’s going to be hiking. There’s many private city tours. There’s going to be truffles. I’ve mentioned truffles more than once now.
And so I think, you know, my motivations for going on this trip.
Tanya: I don’t know, just as you were talking Mary, I was like, salivating and thinking, wow. It would be so nice to go on a trip like that. Right. I think so many of us have been in our houses wondering when on earth, can we get back on a plane and go over to S you know, overseas to somewhere amazing.
And I think, you know yeah, I can’t even look at the pictures Right. now at places like that, because I’m just like, oh no, I want to be there Right.
Mary: I know. Well , one really good thing in our favor is Croatia. Despite this, all have been very open to visitors and tourists. Right now I think their current restrictions are that you can enter either with a positive vaccination or with proof of a test, or I think even with I think proof of having it within a certain amount of time.
But Tanya, there’s still a few spots left available for the trip and she wants to come with this in October.
That’s pretty much been my philosophy on life is I’m going to do something until it’s not fun anymore. I mean, I think travel is something that I love deeply. It’s something that I don’t ever see myself getting tired of. It’s something that I can see myself doing for probably the rest of my working years until I don’t know who knows what it’s gonna look like.
And until then you know, my husband jokes sometimes about that. It should become a family business and I should get my kids involved and take pictures and blog for it. Granted they’re four and seven, but I guess it’s never too early to start a blog these days. In fact, that’s not a bad idea.
Tanya: Mine are three and five. I don’t think they are blogging much of anything, but , I feel you because you know, even in the real estate business, I’m like, oh, I’m going to teach these girls and they’re going to be great. And, you know, they might be, and they might not. So I think they’ll definitely have a great experience about having a mom who is running her own shop and doing her own thing and creating amazing experiences for other people.
What a great business and, and the fact that you were able to hang on through last year, I mean is a testament to just your courage and your vision to see something that you’re like, this will not go away. And I’m just going to hang on until the point where everything opens back up again, because I have such faith in the fact that when you travel, people can have amazing experiences and that isn’t going to go away.
Mary: Oh, absolutely. And you know, you mentioned having your children involved and, and instilling this. Not just a business sense in them, but just kind of a, also a passion for what, for what you do. It’s been great that my son who is seven he’ll ask me when he comes home from school, he’s like, mom, what did you plan today?
Where, you know, where are we going? And I was like, oh, you know, I was planning a trip to Tanzania or planning a trip to Costa Rica and he’s like, great. Can I go, oh
Tanya: So cute. Do they know where all the countries are? My daughters get really excited. They have a little
globe and They’re like, mommy, look, it’s Kazakhstan. And I’m thinking you’re three. How do you know where Kazakhstan is? You know, foreign service children.
Mary: The best aren’t they?
Tanya: They are, they
Mary: The first question is when they hear about a new country they haven’t learned before. It’s like, let’s go look at it on the map.
Tanya: My mine is always in the Home Depot. They, they, for some reason they like the toilet seat selection, but I don’t know why they’re always poking around in there. I have some very funny pictures, but anyway, Mary it’s been really wonderful having you on the show.
Best of luck as travel opens back up again. And we’re all going to be very excited to say goodbye to this pandemic and get on planes once again to amazing destinations around. And we are so glad that you were in business to help do that.
Mary: Well, thank you so much. This has been a really great chat.