“I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.” –Mother Teresa
This quote was often used by Milton Buehner and summarizes the paradigm he used to create Buehner-Fry in 1987, the company we know today as NAVIS.
“You can’t have walked through the history of vacation rentals without acknowledging Milton Buehner,” said industry veteran and revenue management consultant George Volsky.
Milton Tobias Buehner was born August 31, 1938 in Mitchell, South Dakota. After graduating from St. Johns High School in Winfield, Kansas, he served in the Navy from 1956 to 1959. He then built and ran several businesses, but during the recession in the 1980’s, Milton’s entrepreneurial life took a downward turn.
In his own words, Milton Buehner, whom his friends simply refer to as Milt, said in a 2012 interview with the ministry Generous Giving, “At the time we were living in a 21 foot camp trailer after having lost three different businesses, and I looked around in my camp trailer and out the window in the junk yard that we had to park that in, and I realized that whatever plan He had for me had to be somewhat better than the one I was living in. God provided everything. He provided the idea for a business that had to do with telecommunications.”
And what a business it became.
According to Larry Browning, President at Discover Sunriver Vacation Rentals, “Our company was Milt’s first ‘client’ way back when. Milt always referred to us as clients because clients -as opposed to customers -were folks that you cared for, helped and nurtured. The business started by providing an Amway phone – that oughta give folks my age a chuckle – that would allow long distance calls to be made from the vacation home and transfer those charges to the guest as opposed to having them show up on the owner’s bill. Believe it or not, this was a big deal in the 80’s. Buehner-Fry would take some profit, and their plan allowed for the property management firm to take some profit.”
Al Williams, Owner of Cabin Fever Vacations in Gatlinburg and previous President at ResortQuest SW Florida, added, “Prior to Milt introducing the phones, property managers had to hold a guest’s damage deposit for up to two months in order to receive the phone bill from the owner and deduct the charges from the guests deposit before returning the balance. His introduction of the phone to our industry helped solve a major problem for all vacation rental managers.”
Steve Fine, who joined Buehner-Fry in the early stages while the company was operating out of a garage, said, “We spent a lot of years trying to figure out how best to help the hospitality business. In hindsight, at the company we were simply living Milton’s core values with a little technology thrown in. We lived them so much they merely became who we were.”
In describing the company’s growth, Browning explained, “The use of the phones grew, and services expanded. Buehner-Fry developed a housekeeping monitoring system allowing us to track the comings and goings of our housekeeping teams and also help with the scheduling. They developed speed dial buttons that local vendors such as the pizza delivery and bike rental companies could buy into. Soon after, the service morphed into “free” long distance calling for the guests which was a really big deal! You need to remember at that time we were all still tied to land lines. Around this time they introduced temperature sensing devices that enabled us to monitor temperatures from our desktop…another big deal.”
“In the early years of my time at Buehner-Fry there were no core values written on the walls and taught to new employees, no strategic planning and barely any meetings of note,” said Mike Hollibaugh, Chief Innovation Officer at NAVIS, who joined the company in 1998. “There was just a way that we all conducted ourselves that mirrored the way Milton Buehner conducted himself. We were expected to act a certain way and treat our clients a certain way, and it was never even really spoken to or about. That’s just how we did it at this little company in Bend, Oregon that provided long distance service to Vacation Rental Companies.”
Steve Fine added, “Following the Golden Rule, always having integrity in anything we did or said, being innovative – it is so much fun, having a passion to help others succeed, and an attitude of being able to do what is necessary for success is who we had become. By helping others, we always help ourselves in the long run.”
With the introduction and widespread use of cell phones and web-based technology, many of the products were in danger of becoming obsolete. While several companies shut down with the introduction of new technology, Milton Buehner worked directly with his clients and his team to innovate and find better technology to improve the operations of vacation rental managers.
According to George Volsky, “As cell phones threatened the business, Milt began an exhaustive and relentless search for new products and services. He explored new ideas and spoke to everyone. Milt leveraged his company’s expertise in phone systems to accomplish what I believe to be the industry’s most remarkable transformation from one business to another. He laid the foundation for NAVIS’s current suite of products and services which today extends well beyond vacation rentals to hotels and resorts.”
Larry Browning said, “Milt surrounded himself with really good people and built a culture that I and tons of others trusted. They gained our trust by asking us about our businesses and applying what they learned to provide products that would help and nurture our businesses. I have fond memories of lunch with Milt and seeing his eyes sparkle when he talked out about his visions of what could be.”
Browning continued, “Then the big changes came. These guys figured out a way to provide us information about our guests that before, was only available to large corporations with huge budgets for market research. All of a sudden we were able to monitor calls coming into our offices, track those calls, get a profile of the caller, create a data base of the caller and break that data base down into finite groups allowing us to spend our marketing dollars more efficiently. Narrowcast! I remember when Milt was explaining the Narrowcast concept to me and that sparkle in his eye appeared bigger than ever. He used several analogies from broadcast, as in radio or TV, to fishing, to mining to explain the concept to me. ‘What if we can take the information we have and find that pocket, that sweet spot, that vein of gold that had been overlooked before? What if we can coach our employees to fine tune their skills to enhance even more, our ability to capture more business?’”
Handing Over the Reins
In 2006, Milton Buehner turned over the reins of the company to his son Kyle Buehner. George Volsky said, “Milt knew when it was time to hand the reins over to others. He exited to focus on other interests, enabling his son to build upon the original foundation of expertise and capital.”
In the 2012 interview, in his own words Milton said, “He (Kyle) is carrying it on partly because his values are similar to mine. And he watches me like a hawk so it isn’t so much by what I say, but what I do. And I believe he understands who is the Provider for our ideas. What that is doing is meeting mine and Donna’s fondest expectations, which are that we have the opportunity to find a home for what God gave us.”
Mike Hollibaugh said, “After we had moved away from long distance and became a software company and the company was rebranded as NAVIS, we began to start doing things like strategic planning, exploring our purpose and deciding on our core values. Although Milton wasn’t at the helm when we did these things, it is astonishing in retrospect how he shaped each of our values that are now posted on our walls, including the Golden Rule, integrity, innovation, passion and attitude.”
Browning added, “I think it’s important for folks to understand the transformation that Buehner-Fry/NAVIS went through. It’s nothing short of amazing. Think about it, the business was built around a piece of hardware and technology that is obsolete today. It would have been so easy to say ‘we had a good run’ and that would have been the end of it. What NAVIS did was totally transform from what they started out as to something that is totally different today. The cool thing is every step they’ve taken is relevant to all of us in the Vacation Rental business.”
John V. Kjellman, President, and Victorex, Inc. and founder of the Vacation Rental Managers Association (VRMA) said, “Milt’s big impact on the vacation rental business was in the products and services he made available to vacation rental managers, and the way in which he evolved his business over the years as technology and business practices changed. His impact on the vacation rental industry was huge.”
According to Browning, “NAVIS and others such as First Resort Software (FRS) really helped build the VRMA. While the idea thankfully stemmed from another visionary, John Kjellman and a handful of his clients, NAVIS and FRS saw the importance of our industry getting together as well, and they aggressively encouraged us to join this new group. Every new client they gained was encouraged to join the VRMA. NAVIS has been a supporter of the VRMA ever since I have been involved, providing financial support, hosting seminars and classes, acting as cheerleaders for the organization and gathering and providing data about the industry as a whole.”
Kjellman added, “I can’t think of a single person who more influenced the ‘industry,’ over a span of many years than Milt. I’m happy to take credit as the VRMA founder, but I was simply the spark that got things rolling, it was the folks like Milt who developed the industry into what it is today, and while there were many significant contributors along the way, I can’t think of anyone who tops Milt on the list.”
Michelle Marquis, VP of Sales and Marketing at NAVIS, said, “At NAVIS, we get a piece of Milton every day. His vision for our company permeates how we interact with our clients and with each other. People that never met Milton Buehner won’t even know that we got that from him, but in the way we grow as a company, Milton’s mission, his values and his passion live on in everything we do as an organization. He’s still here.”
Larry Browning attended Milton Buehner’s memorial service. “Milt had an impact on folks from all walks of life. Neighbors who met ‘this smiling man who always waved as he walked by their home on his morning walk’. NAVIS employees ‘who sincerely and honestly knew that a piece of Milt would always be with them.’ Former NAVIS employees who appreciated the fact that he was a part of their lives and remembered his office did not have a door, recovering alcoholics that ‘couldn’t have made it’ without Milt. Missionaries from Uganda and Mexico that have been able to help hundreds upon hundreds of orphans and widows because of Milt and Donna’s support, a Naval honor guard, business associates who Milt helped succeed, church members, restaurant staff from places Milt used to get breakfast and of course the family and close friends. I think one man put it best when he said, ‘I thought I knew Milt, but after being here and listening to all of you today I know I only knew a small part of the man.’”
In his own words Milton Buehner said, “I believe that you can be a generous giver without having a lot to give. If you have a heart that follows God’s direction for you, you are a winner if you obey his commandments. I don’t believe God is at all impressed with the numbers. I believe with all of my heart that God is impressed with obedience and blesses obedience.”
Speaking for the employees at NAVIS, Hollibaugh said, “The one thing Milt taught us all was servant leadership. Our employees and our clients are under our care and protection, and our job is to serve them both with grace.”
by Amy Hinote