Heeding the Call

Kate Reid, MBA’06, blazes a new trail at Call of the Wild

From the Spring 2009 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Reid has found her true calling as the owner of a women’s adventure travel company.
Reid has found her true calling as the owner of a women’s adventure travel company.

When Kate Reid graduated from Owen in 2006, her path was laid out before her. She had an MBA in hand and a job in the financial industry waiting for her on the East Coast at the end of the summer. But as is often the case, life has a funny way of intervening. Before reporting to her new job, she took a trip to California, which was supposed to last three months. It’s now been three years, and she still hasn’t boarded that return flight.

Today Reid is far removed from the corporate path she had envisioned for herself and blazing a trail of her own as an entrepreneur in Northern California. In 2008 she purchased Call of the Wild, the longest-running women’s adventure travel company in the world. Reid’s journey from Owen to entrepreneurism has been, appropriately enough, much like one of the hiking trips her company specializes in. At times it’s taken her out of her comfort zone and challenged her perceptions, but it’s also rewarded her with a profound sense of accomplishment.

The Fire Inside

What prompted Reid to stay in California? You could say that she heard “the call”—or more precisely, the phone call. Reid explains: “I had every intention of going back to the East Coast, but four days before I was supposed to return I got a phone call.” On the other end was an HR representative, with whom she had submitted her resume nine months earlier. Another financial services company had decided to offer her a position there in California within its marketing division.

After much soul searching she did the unthinkable—at least in the eyes of career counselors—and reneged on the original offer back East to accept the new one in California. As difficult as that decision was, she says she’s never looked back: “Lo and behold, it was the sun and moon and stars all aligning, and it’s really been something that I’ve never regretted once.”

Reid’s decision was influenced by the fact that her boyfriend (now fiance), fellow Owen alum Chris Tulley, MBA’05, was already living in Northern California at the time. But something else stirred within her when she considered the possibility of remaining out West. She and Tulley had spent the summer exploring the natural wonders of California, and deep down she longed to be closer to the great outdoors. What better place to settle, she thought, than the San Francisco area, where the ocean and mountains are both at her doorstep?

Reid’s interest in the outdoors had taken root years earlier while growing up in Richmond, Va. As a Girl Scout she had been exposed to hiking and camping, but it wasn’t until she was an undergrad at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., that she really began to embrace the outdoors. “I put the backpack on my back and started spending my days trekking around the wilderness. That’s when I really felt the fire inside burn and knew that I had found something that I’d connected with,” she says.

Once settled out West, Reid began seeking new backpacking adventures on the weekends. While planning a trek to Big Sur, she stumbled upon a piece of information that would forever change her life, although she didn’t realize it at the time. A Google search of trail information pulled up a Web site for a company called Call of the Wild, which was located in nearby Mountain View, Calif. The company was offering women guided wilderness trips in California and other western states, as well as overseas. Reid took a closer look and noticed that the owner, Carole Latimer, who had started the company in 1978, was interested in selling it.

“I didn’t do much with the information other than think it was interesting. I had it in my head for about five or six months, and it sort of just chewed on me. I kept thinking to myself that I should give that woman a call,” she says.

Owen’s Influence

Curiosity eventually got the better of Reid. In her spare time she started researching the travel industry and running the types of valuation models she had learned from working in finance. After doing her due diligence, she was satisfied with what the numbers were telling her: If the price were right, she could make this business work.

“I had a pretty good idea about what her margins were,” she explains. “I went in expecting to hear certain things. When I finally did give her a call, I found I wasn’t that far off the mark.”

Reid and Latimer continued talking over the ensuing weeks until a deal was reached. With a mix of funding from family, friends and her own savings, Reid agreed to purchase Call of the Wild in July 2008. She then assumed 100 percent ownership on Sept. 15—not the most auspicious time to be making a career change, she admits. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy that very day, and the looming credit crisis was grabbing all of the headlines.

“Yes, there was a ton of excitement for me, but at the same time I was thinking, ‘What have I done? I’ve taken on this amazing amount of risk, and I’m watching the financial system of the United States come crashing down,’” she says.

As I transition into the world of business ownership, I pull from the Owen curriculum on a daily basis. It has really blown me away how much I’m finding myself thinking back to what I was learning in the classroom.

~ Kate Reid

Nevertheless Reid was not easily discouraged. Financial crisis or not, she is pursuing her passion, having fun and building her company for brighter days ahead. She credits her experience at Owen with giving her the knowledge and skills to succeed, even in these tough economic times.

“As I transition into the world of business ownership, I pull from the Owen curriculum on a daily basis,” she explains. “It has really blown me away how much I’m finding myself thinking back to what I was learning in the classroom.”

The Owen School has played a hand in Reid’s success in more ways than one. Last fall she enlisted two students—Margaret Foster and Sophia Xiao—to help her with marketing and business strategy. Foster and Xiao were both in Professor Michael Burcham’s Capstone Project course, which lets Owen students apply their management skills in real-world situations. Reid had reached out to Burcham about including Call of the Wild as one of the projects for the course, and both Foster and Xiao jumped at the chance to work with the company.

“I’m very interested in the travel industry, and the fact that Call of Wild focuses on travel specifically for women made it appealing to me,” Xiao says. Foster shares Xiao’s interest in travel, but she was also drawn to the excitement of being part of a new business venture—albeit at an older company. “Call of the Wild has a 30-year history, but with a new owner it was almost like it was in a startup phase,” Foster explains.

The project, which lasted two mods, gave Foster and Xiao an opportunity to tackle a variety of initiatives, from making the company’s pricing more competitive to launching a new Web site. Many of their recommendations were put into effect almost as soon as they suggested them. “Much of what Margaret and Sophia proposed was implemented real-time. They could say something on Monday, and it very well might happen by Friday,” Reid says. “Unlike other projects where you might leave the report on the desk and hope the company reads it, they were sharing ideas with me that I passed on to my marketing person or my Web person.”

The Right Path

Today Call of the Wild is continuing to evolve as a company. In the coming year Reid looks to add new destinations east of the Mississippi River, in places like the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Adirondacks. There are also plans to offer trips in urban areas for those clients who enjoy being active during the day but sleeping in a hotel at night.

However, she is careful not to get ahead of herself.

“I would love to flip the switch on the long-term plan tomorrow, but I know if I do that, I’m sacrificing many things,” she says. “Loyalty of our current clients and guides would likely be lost if I were to go straight to the end of the story rather than chapter by chapter.”

Reid also knows that skipping to the end would rob her of something even more important—all of the experiences and moments of accomplishment along the way. As she can attest, life is about the journey, not the destination. And it’s also about choosing the right path.

The writer Joseph Campbell perhaps says it best: “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take.”

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