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January 2019

Know Who You Are

Know-Who-You-Are.jpg

Boucher Family of Mission Inn remains True to Themselves

By Steve Eubanks

One of the greatest lines in cinema came from Clint Eastwood in his role as Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan when he said of some bad guy or another:

“A man’s got to know his limitations.” 

That quip applies to more than fictional characters. It’s sage advice for businesses. People who understand what and who they are, who grow their businesses while recognizing their limitations, prosper through good times and bad. Those who do not may end up metaphorically on the wrong side of Dirty Harry’s closing scene. 

Bud Boucher, the second-generation owner of Mission Inn Resort in Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida, understands that better than anyone.

“We’ve been here so long that we’ve seen oil embargoes; we’ve seen stock market crashes; we’ve seen a 21 percent prime (interest) rate; we’ve seen terrorist attacks, and then we’ve seen the greatest recession, if not depression, since the Great Depression,” Boucher said of his family’s 1,100-acre resort property in hilliest section of Central Florida. “We’ve seen a contraction in the industry that’s been a decade long. But throughout it all, we’ve been able to survive and grow by providing a quality product at a fair price. We’ve always been able to feed ourselves and pay our bills.” 

That is something that a lot of Boucher’s competitors cannot claim. In the boom years when suburban Orlando sprawled so far north that it looked like it might hit the Georgia line, opulent developments were the order of the day. Places like Lady Lake, Clairmont, Tavares, historically the domain of doublewide trailers and orange groves, became destinations. You could buy a golf course lot at a Bobby Ginn development for $200,000 in the morning and flip it for $400,000 by lunch the next day. 

Then the bottom fell out. Almost all of those developments went through restructuring or outright bankruptcy, sometimes twice. And throughout it all, Mission Inn, with a golf course that celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017 and a 176-room hotel that puts the “T” in tranquil, continued its steady march forward. 

“I’ve never bought $100 worth of groceries and gone back to the grocer and said, ‘I can only pay you $90,’” Boucher said. “There have been others (in the Florida resort business) who have paid their people more than we could afford to pay; who have had bigger offices than we could afford to have; who have bought newer and better equipment than we could afford to buy. But we’ve never renegotiated our debt, never defaulted on a vendor, and never broken our word. Our father taught us that your word is your bond.” 

Bud’s father, Nick Boucher, was a commodities broker in 1964 when he heard about a golf course for sale in what was described at the time as Middle-of-Nowhere Florida. Bud’s brother happened to be in the area and visited Howey-in-the-Hills with its Spanish-style inn and surprisingly hilly 1927 George O’Neil-designed golf course. Word came back to Nick that the golf course was great and the property was beautiful. But, as Bud put it, “It wasn’t quite at the end of the earth but you could see it from here.”

The Boucher family bought Mission Inn in 1964 and in 1970 they added their first hotel building. The banquet hall became meeting space and in 1975, they added more rooms. In 1979, a complete conference center went up. But never did they try to compete with the downtown hotels in Orlando or the theme parks of Interstate 4.
 
“We’ve always stayed true to our roots,” Boucher said. “Today, in addition to golf, we have a great tennis center, a skeet- and trap-shooting facility, four restaurants and a great bar with outdoor seating and some views unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else in Florida.” 

He also has a lot of repeat and word-of-mouth business because Mission Inn is comfortable. No pretense, no out-of-place opulence, and no hints of financial distress.

“Let’s say you have a beautiful wooden boat in a harbor,” Boucher said. “And on either side of it are two center-consoles with a forward cabin and state of the art systems throughout. They’re different animals. All of them are boats but that’s about it. The guy who owns the wooden boat doesn’t feel obligated to turn it into a center-console and the person who rents that wooden boat knows that he has options. He picks the wooden boat because of what it is. 

“We try to be true to who we are. Within that framework, we provide the things our guests need: golf, tennis, meeting space, nice accommodations. And for a 176-room hotel we do the food service of an 800-room hotel.

“We only have one (meeting) room in the entire facility that does not have windows overlooking a golf course or a courtyard. You don’t get that in downtown Orlando. Close the door in some of those conference rooms downtown, you could be in Minneapolis and you couldn’t tell the difference. Here you can.

“The way I describe it to people is, we’re very much like a cruise ship. Once you get here, your program doesn’t end at 5:00. Your attendees, when the meeting is over, they don’t scatter to dozens of restaurants. They are self-contained here. Customers tell us that they love our place because of all the things we offer within our self-contained facility. The leaning and team building and camaraderie continue for hours beyond the actual event.

“That’s the reason we are successful.”

Knowing who and what you are and being that has served the Bouchers for more than half a century. It’s a worthwhile lesson for everyone.   
 
Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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