The journey

Kenny Scherer was the consummate entrepreneur. He was a dreamer who flourished when confronted with challenges.

Together with his wife, Heather, Scherer founded and developed Association Travel Concepts, a San Diego, Calif.-based travel management company that provides travel and meeting services for association nonprofit organizations and their members.

The business was founded in 1995, with Heather as president.

“We’d get up at 2 a.m. and work until 5 a.m., and then I’d get the kids up and get them off to school and go back to work after,” Heather recalled. “We had to.”

Association Travel Concepts has grown over the past 15 years and currently manages travel arrangements for the American Society of Association Executives, The American Society of Health-system pharmacists, The National School Boards Association and more than 100 other associations across the country.

The company generates about $10 million in annual revenue, has 20 employees located all across the country and utilizes the latest in digital and mobile technology.

The sky literally was the limit for the Scherers and their company.

However, Kenny passed away on May 25, 2011, at the age of 51. He had received a diagnosis of stage four brain cancer a little more than one month earlier.

Suddenly without her husband and business partner, Heather reached out to her brother, Jim Burkee, a history professor at Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon and a former congressional candidate.

In addition to the fate of the company, Heather also needed to account for the future for her five children, ranging in age from 4 to 24 years.

Burkee flew out to California shortly after Kenny’s diagnosis. Burkee and a nephew, Josh Comer, who works for a major financial institution, spent those weeks running the business so Heather could spend time with her dying husband.

“It was a challenge, but something I knew we had to do so Heather could spend her time taking care of Kenny,” Burkee said. “Here is this amazing man. He runs this entire operation, he knows all the passwords for everything, the combination for the safe, the bank information; everything, and his brain is rapidly deteriorating.”

Watching his brother-in-law fade away was a painful ordeal for Burkee, as well.

“There were financial deals in the works that never got completed; bills that never got settled and other things that in a normal situation, Kenny the businessman, never would have neglected,” Burkee said. “There were days near the end where he would wake up and he couldn’t remember how to write. The optometrist would fix his vision and three days later would need to adjust it again. He could sit for 90 minutes and not realize he was saying the same thing over and over again in a conversation.”

Comer was able to secure time off from his job to assist in the restructuring of Association Travel Concepts.

Burkee and Comer renegotiated deals with vendors and restructured the business in a way that allowed for more growth.

However, it soon became apparent to Heather and Burkee that they needed to move the business to Wisconsin, where they would have a greater family support network.

“After Kenny was diagnosed, I think we knew immediately we needed to move Heather and the kids back to Wisconsin,” Burkee said. “Heather and I lost our father when we were very young, and it was absolutely crucial for us to have the support of family around during that time. We both wanted that for her kids as well.”

Most of their family, including their sister, Katie, live in the Milwaukee-area.

“For me, (moving back to Wisconsin), was the only thing that was going to work,” Heather said. “I absolutely love what I do, and relocating the company to Wisconsin made sense on a number of different levels. Many of my clients are in Washington D.C., so it will be easier to travel back and forth. Plus, having the support of family around during this time of transition will allow me to be more involved in the industry and help grow our company into other areas as well.”

Burkee continues to teach at Concordia but also will help run the business. He plans to help Heather form more partnerships and expand the company to include services such as hotel and site selection, educational travel assistance and leisure and consumer travel.

“Travel can be a very complex business. We’ve found that our extreme level of customization can be used as a teaching tool for our associations and their members in other areas,” Heather said.

The company recently secured a partnership with HelmsBriscoe, a global site selection company, and is negotiating partnerships with leisure travel companies, as well.

“There is a lot of room to expand in these arenas,” Burkee said.

The firm is reincorporating in Wisconsin.

“The company is still operating at full capacity,” Burkee said. “Existing employees, Heather and me, with the help of other family members, continued to keep the business going even through Kenny’s diagnosis. We’re just completing paper work for the reincorporation and looking for office space now in the Cedarburg area.”

Heather expects to add employees in Wisconsin and also is exploring options for a satellite office in Chicago, the second-largest association market in the country.

“It almost feels like everything happened exactly the way it was supposed to,” Heather said. “Our company is poised for rapid growth. Over the next five years, I see our company being five times the size it is now, if not more.”

Technology has allowed Association Travel Concepts to grow with very little expense.

“Kenny was very technologically savvy,” Heather said. “He moved the company to the cloud and started adopting new and different technology very early on. I realize now that he has left me perfectly prepared for this next step. He saw something in me, at 24-years-old when we met, that I didn’t even see in myself. He constantly pushed me to be better and I’m so grateful.”

Looking back, Heather is grateful she has been blessed with such strong family support.

“There was a lot of cleanup to do, but Josh and Jim have such a deep respect and love for Kenny that they could do it in a way that honored him and his entrepreneurial spirit. They both have a much deeper understanding of the business and how it operates,” Heather said. “It took Kenny to make the business what it is, and all of these people to see something even bigger. What a beautiful story. We’re hoping the next story is even more beautiful.”

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