Allon Lefever says “business is in my DNA.” He has ample proof to support this statement. The former director of EMU’s MBA program has helped to start 22 companies, taken six of those public on the NASDAC, and currently serves on 11 boards, including three in Harrisonburg. Summit Community Bank, Virginia Poultry Growers Co-operative, and ComSonics, Inc, an electronics manufacturing company, are all benefiting from his wide range of expertise acquired from more than 35 years in the business world.
This month’s Royal Connections business spotlight focuses on the Hampton Inn in Woodstock, Virginia, an LLC started nine years ago by Lefever and his partners Gerald Horst, class of ’72, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Carl Harman, class of ’67, of Harrisonburg, Virginia. All three partners have strong EMU connections: Both Horst and Harman are former members of the EMU’s Board of Trustees, and their sons, Kyle Horst ‘02 and Hans Harman ‘02, earned business administration degrees from EMU. (Hans is also a current trustee.)
Lefever is managing partner at the Woodstock hotel, and shares the story of how he got involved in the hospitality industry below.
Among other mentoring that he seeks to provide, Lefever has hired EMU students to work as customer service representatives. Each summer, he also offers a three-month internship to a student from LCC International University in Lithuania. This is a “great experience for them, us and our guests,” he says, adding that interns gain professional experience, learn more about business ethics, and enjoy cultural exposure. (The connection with LLC comes from Lefever’s involvement as a former board chair and board member. LLC is also a host site for EMU’s Lithuania cross-cultural group).
To learn more about entrepreneurship in general and Lefever’s professional career, consider taking a look at his recent book, Launching the Entrepreneur Ship (FaithHappenings Publishing, 2017), a lively compendium using the metaphor of mariner as entrepreneur.
How did you become a business owner?
Prior to becoming director of the EMU MBA program in 2003, I had served as a senior executive in a couple of large family businesses, helped to found 22 companies, and taken six of those companies public on NASDAQ, including an internet company in 1999. Business is in my DNA!
One endeavor was a hotel company I helped start for High Industries, Inc., in Pennsylvania. In the process, I built eight hotels for them, four of which were Hamptons.
While serving as the MBA director, and liking the hospitality industry, I began to investigate if I could build a hotel nearby where I could oversee the operations. Two investors were interested in joining me, and we selected Woodstock as a location that did not have a Hampton Inn, and could support a Hampton. We bought three acres of land off Exit 283 on Interstate 81 and built the 92-room hotel.
What appeals to you about the hospitality industry?
I’ve served in management of agriculture, manufacturing, and internet companies. I like many types of businesses, but find those directly serving the customer to be the most rewarding. I like forming a company, building a strong team, setting vision, mission, and values, and then letting the team perform. The hospitality industry is especially focused on serving the customer, many of whom really appreciate a friendly, clean, and effectively run operation, so I love the challenge of building a great hospitality team and serving the customer!
Tell us a bit more about your hotel in Woodstock.
In our first full year of operation, our hotel staff (26 year-around and 30 in the summer peak months) earned the coveted Lighthouse Award, given to a Hampton Inn that ranks in the top 5% in customer satisfaction. Over the years, we have been the #1 ranked Hampton for customer service along Virginia’s Interstate 81 corridor.
We have recently won the best hotel award again, from the Virginia Daily News survey which they conduct annually. The hotel has consistently improved both occupancy, and revenue in our nine years of operation. This is the result of the outstanding, customer-focused team that has chosen our Hampton as their place of work and reward! We focus on values, caring for others and customer service.
Over the years, you have taught and mentored many entrepreneurs. What do you particularly value about sharing your expertise and seeing others succeed?
As an entrepreneur myself, I especially enjoy watching and helping emerging entrepreneurs. A number of my students have started successful businesses. In my consulting business, I continue to coach and mentor a number of entrepreneurs and CEOs. Even my board service has an element of directing and coaching a business, which I thoroughly enjoy!
At EMU, I taught entrepreneurship courses to MBA graduate students and undergraduates, as well as principles of management and management strategy at the undergraduate level. My own core values aligned well with those integrated into the university’s business curriculum: integrity, ethics and serving others.
Teaching provided many opportunities to share ideas about leadership and business with young aspiring students. I love seeing them get excited about a business or organization idea which they have developed, and the learning and satisfaction of preparing a business plan. My favorite class session was when students in my entrepreneurship class would present their business plan to their classmates.
How do your values affect your business practice?
My values absolutely drive the type of businesses I enter, the way I select and develop associates, and the policies and procedures I implement. I believe very strongly that values drive culture. I first think about the culture important for a business to be successful, and then emphasize the values that will build that culture.
For example, for the Woodstock Hampton, I decided the overriding culture should be “A Caring Culture.” In employee orientations, we spend time talking about this value and how we practice those values in organization:
- Always caring for one another as associates and employees.
- Always caring for our guests.
- Always caring for the community in which we operate.
- Always caring for the world we live in, contributing to a better world.
What are some of your best business insights?
- To always treat all persons with dignity, including employees, guests, vendors, etc.
- To do good planning, including a 3-5 year strategic plan and an annual plan;
- To clearly communicate both LT and annual objectives, so that the team knows the objectives and gets excited about delivering the goals.
- To think carefully about how those goals will be fairly measured and then communicate regularly to those responsible for the implementation.
- To find ways to give back, to make work rewarding and meaningful, and fun!