It was 1979, and an enterprising, 23-year-old Charles Githler was in a sticky situation. He was more than two hours late for a critical meeting with the manager of two hotels in Miami's Coconut Grove. The founder of a fledgling investment-seminar company called Intercontinental Conferences, Githler had been rushing from one Miami hotel to the next all day, trying to find enough rooms for the unexpected number of people who had signed up to listen to the impressive financial experts he had lined up. The Miami event could be a breakthrough for his young company, but he needed to find rooms for his customers.
After waiting two hours, 21-year-old Kim Van Dyne, the smart and ambitious manager of those two hotels, was not in an accommodating mood. She decided to go home, where she'd already changed out of her work clothes when the hotel called at 8:30 p.m. and said that a Charles Githler wanted to see her. "So I got redressed, called him and said, 'OK, I'll pick you up at the Omni,'" she recalls. Then she added somewhat intimidatingly, "'I'll be the blonde in the white Corvette.'"
The pair roared off to a restaurant, where she ordered a club soda with lime, he ordered a double scotch, and they hammered out a contract for a block of rooms. "It wasn't the best deal I'd ever copped," Charles admits with a laugh today.
Maybe the contract didn't work out so well for him at the time, but the deal led to an almost 30-year love affair (they've been married 24 years) and a business partnership so close and so balanced that the couple has managed to weather two near-bankruptcies, adapt to roller-coaster changes in the investment market and grow their Sarasota-based InterShow from a faltering start-up to the largest investment-seminar business in the world.
Most residents of Sarasota are unaware of the company. It doesn't advertise locally, and aside from Wall Street Live, the Sarasota investment show the Githlers put on to raise funds for local charities, InterShow is invisible-although it's located in downtown Sarasota, on Palm Avenue. Charles is the more public of the two, affable, down to earth and outgoing, often involved in leadership positions in the local business community. Kim describes him as a Harry Potter type, a good-hearted guy in glasses who's idealistic and visionary. Ultra-organized Kim, with her fluffy halo of blond hair, is publicity-shy and extremely private, although her compassion for children in need is well-known to local charitable organizations. The couple are more recognized for their philanthropy, their mansion on Sarasota Bay, and their local condo and hotel projects than as the operators behind a $25 million global business.
But at last count, InterShow had amassed a database of 500,000 investors, 150,000 online traders and 50,000 financial advisors, plus a bank of such national celebrity investment experts as Steve Forbes and Harry Dent, who regularly speak at their seminars. They run 11 shows a year in addition to eight specially themed cruises (InterShow is Crystal Cruises' largest group booking agent). In June they launched a brand-new Web site, MoneyShow.com, which they hope will vastly extend their reach and profits. In the investment-seminar business, InterShow simply has no competitors.
None of this came easily. Both Kim and Charles were tossed into the "real" world before they were 18. Charles, who grew up in New Jersey, where his father was an adjunct professor of psychology at Princeton University, moved to Sarasota with his mother after his parents divorced. He was in a car accident that severely fractured his skull when he was 12, and at 14 was sent to school aboard a 154-foot sailboat that traveled around the world. (Called The Flint School and based in Sarasota, it was founded on the principles of objectivism, with a curriculum that stressed laissez-faire capitalism, self-interest and the books of Ayn Rand. Parents could not send money to their children, and the only way students could go ashore with pocket change was to work onboard.) Charles stayed on the ship for two years.
"It was like being in the service," he says, adding that both the accident and The Flint School shaped his life forever. The accident "made me more of a serious young fellow," he says, and The Flint School inculcated him in economics and self-motivation. "It sparked a lifelong love of learning," he says. When Charles was 16, his father died, and Charles was sent to a boarding school in New Jersey.
Kim's father, an Italian immigrant, was 58 when she was born in Miami. He fell ill when she was 15 and could no longer work, so Kim earned her high school degree early and immediately went to work to support him. By the time she was 16, she was already a manager at a Neiman Marcus store in Bal Harbour. (She kept her age a secret from her supervisors.)
Except for Charles' two semesters at Manatee Junior College (now Manatee Community College), neither Charles nor Kim attended college. "Charles and I are very similar," says Kim today. "We had to go on our own very young. When we met, we were already seasoned in terms of having careers and working."
For a year after their meeting in Miami, the couple kept in touch by phone; and Charles would fly or drive from his Bradenton office to the east coast to visit Kim. In addition to their instant chemistry, they discovered they were compatible when it came to intellectual interests and shared a fierce passion to succeed.
Then Charles asked Kim to come work for him. After his immersion in economics aboard the ship, he had started attending investment conferences on gold and stocks and had come up with the idea of starting his own seminar business, one that was academic and where the speakers wouldn't be tied to the products they were hawking. Charles wanted zero commercialism at his seminars. He quickly found partners much older and more experienced, and for their first seminar booked speakers including William Buckley, President Gerald Ford and William Simon, Ford's treasury secretary.
But the trade-show business is detail oriented and difficult. Charles could see his company was faltering for lack of a good manager. He was passionate about investing and developing the programs for the shows, and his engaging personality made him adept at lining up speakers and selling the seminars, but he couldn't monitor the complicated day-to-day operations and expenses, and his partners didn't want the responsibility. The company was $500,000 in debt. Filing for bankruptcy went against Charles' principles; plus, he believed the business had a future.
Kim thought about his offer and countered: "I don't want to work for you. You have these other partners, and they're really not interested in the business and it's struggling." Instead, she suggested they dissolve the company, assume the debt and start their own.
Kim sold her Corvette for $11,000 to help with cash flow ("He had to drive me everywhere for a while," she says), and the couple started Investment Seminars Inc. in 1981, spending the first five years paying off the debt. (The company was renamed InterShow in the mid-'90s.)
"Charles and I had to learn the hard way," says Kim. "The seminar business is a hard business. You have to always fine-tune your expenses, because they quickly get away from you and your income can quickly move into deficit. We had to learn how to be practical. When you didn't get as many customers as you thought, you cut your expenses."
United in their desire to build their company, they each brought separate-and essential-qualities to the business. Kim is the fast-thinking decision maker who can keep things running smoothly. Charles, more visionary and big-picture, likes ideas and loves being around people. At shows today, Kim hangs out in the back rooms discussing logistics while Charles sits in on the seminars, networking and taking notes.
In those early years, InterShow would send out hundreds of thousands of brochures to investors, advertising its seminars and upcoming speakers such as Ronald Reagan and Alan Greenspan. No vendors were allowed to attend to promote products. The price of admission was $300 to $500 per person. But just as Kim and Charles started to climb out of their hole, the climate of investing began to change. Mutual funds were hitting the market, and their managers were providing free seminars. Money magazine, a how-to publication for individual investors, hit the newsstands. Cable financial shows started filling the airwaves. With all the free advice, investors weren't so interested in the Githlers' $400 seminars.
Once again, Kim and Charles faced the idea of going broke. They were mailing out half a million brochures, and they couldn't bring in enough conference attendees to pay for the postage. "Our formula for seminars was disintegrating," Charles remembers.
"Nineteen eighty-six was a tough time," says Kim. "I remember we were sitting out by the pool at our house, and we decided we had two choices: We could reinvent the business or go into another one. That's when we came up with the idea for the Money Show. It's also what caused Charles to go into real estate. He was still 100 percent of the business then; and he said, 'Honey, we need to diversify.'"
Charles handed over the president's position to Kim and jumped into real estate, which has become a significant part of the couple's financial statement and now takes up the majority of Charles' time. (The Githlers are general partners with Stanley and Daniel Kane in the Hyatt Sarasota; together they also developed the adjacent luxury condominium Beau Ciel. The Kanes and Githlers also owned Half Moon Beach Club on Lido Key. At one time, Charles also owned the Palm Tower Building, with Doug Morris, the former chairman of Time-Warner Records and now the chairman/CEO of Universal Records, where Sarasota News & Books is located. Morris and Githler also developed and owned the building where Café Epicure is located. Currently and also with the Kanes, he's developing the Sarasota Harbor Yacht Club and a 185-room Embassy Suites on North Tamiami Trail.)
Kim, meanwhile, worked on transforming the formula of InterShow from paid seminars to free events in their new model, The Money Show. Investors now could attend three- or four-day conferences, which offered a blitz of seminars, exhibits and experiences, for free, while the brokerages, banks and financial service companies, such as Citibank, Vanguard Funds, NASDAQ and J.P. Morgan, that wanted to reach these investors paid anywhere from $2,000 to $60,000 to exhibit.
InterShow's revenues now come 75 percent from exhibitors and sponsors. The other 25 percent comes from attendees, who participate in special paid programs-maybe a dozen such offerings out of a total of 350-such as a lunch with PBS's Nightly Business Report anchor Paul Kangas. The Githlers also created partnerships with the major financial media, such as Barron's, BusinessWeek, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. InterShow receives free full-page ads in the publications serious investors are most likely to read. In return, a Barron's or Wall Street Journal editor might get a spot as a keynote speaker. The Githlers also will be the exclusive Webcast partners for these media giants, sharing and distributing all of their content online.
Richard Burns, a partner in ISIS Venture Partners, a media investor familiar with the trade-show industry, has watched the Githlers with interest for years. They have developed "a very simple model," he says in his crisp British accent. "Trade shows are only as good as the bums you can get into your seats. It's not outrageously complicated, but it's easier said than done. You have 10,000 people and you need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get people in those seats. It has a lot of moving parts. But it's also highly profitable. A good trade show will make 60 to 70 percent gross and 20 to 30 percent net profit, about 10 to 20 percent for a consumer market." Kim Githler did not want to release her profit margins.
Marie Mowbray, the head of programming for all of InterShow's seminars, says it takes a dedicated team to keep the shows humming along. Each show at a convention center runs three or four days and requires upwards of 17 rooms for all the different presentations. Travel and hotel rooms for speakers must be booked. Exhibitors' spaces must be reserved and coordinated. Each seminar room needs thousands of chairs and audio-visual equipment; at registration, each attendee gets a 20- to 60-page book published by InterShow. Then there's all the direct mail constantly being sent out. Everything is handled by InterShow's 70 employees; nothing is outsourced.
It's an exhausting business with a round-the-clock schedule, and the Githlers say they look for specific qualities in their staff.
It helps to be politically conservative, says Kim, since so much of their business promotes a conservative philosophy. More important is the employee's work ethic. The Githlers are perfectionists, and they look for like-minded employees who are willing to work long, hard hours. "If you're coming for a job, don't come," says Kim. "But if you want a career, we'll build a phenomenal career around you and support you and give you everything you need both personally and corporately."
Kim says they've helped employees buy homes, taken employees' children on cruises, sent employees out of state or the country to be with sick relatives, allowed mothers with young children to work from home part-time until they're ready to come back, and let a father telecommute to accommodate a child's special needs for out-of-state schooling.
"Our philosophy is and has always been that you're only as strong as the people around you," she says. "We're finding that in order to attract the right intellectual property you have be a flexible company."
Charles says he and Kim are a collective-thought company, involving employees in decision-making: "We put major issues to a vote."
Longtime employees say the Githlers are unusual in their belief and trust in staff, and it has fostered a team ethic.
"One of Charles' greatest gifts is that he always has time," says Diana Scargil, who has been Charles' assistant for more than 20 years. "He works with an open-door policy even if he's working on a large project. He's patient and knowledgeable. Both Kim and Charles are very special people. Kim manages from the heart. It's like one large family, and that can only come from the top."
"I've worked for them for 13 years," says Mowbray. "Kim is the smartest person I know, but she's also very nurturing. She has pushed me, pulled me, prodded me. I'd say, 'I can't do this,' and she'll say, 'Yes, you can.'''
Part of the screening process for employees is the Kolbe System, says Deborah Rossard, a 26-year employee and executive vice president for business development. The Kolbe System is a psychological test that focuses not on someone's intelligence or skills, she says, but on the core self and values. "It's more about finding out what you like to do," she says. "We look for the gold in people. We'll move people around so they can succeed and fit the job around the person."
Today, the Githlers are again busy reinventing InterShow, revamping its Web site to capture more customers on a global level. So far, they've invested $600,000 on MoneyShow.com, which debuted in June. The old Web site was show-specific; the new one offers a way for busy people-think baby boomers and Generation Xers who are still working and raising kids-to sit on their couch with a laptop and tap into mostly free programming, both live and prerecorded, through podcasts and videocasts, at any time. In July, investors could log on for free and listen to John Templeton talk about "the best places to invest around the world," Harry Dent discuss "the next great bubble boom," or Steve Forbes complain about "disarray in Washington."
"Our goal is a 24/7 virtual global show," says Kim. Ninety percent of the content will be free. "Our shows will become live communities through this Internet experience," she predicts. "With our live programs, you can log on at a certain time and ask a question and have someone answer that question."
As with their trade shows, the Githlers are banking on exhibitors and sponsors to pay to advertise on the Web site. They expect, at best, to break even this year as they improve the content enough to get advertisers to come to them. Next year, they anticipate spending $1.6 million on the Web site before it begins to make money.
Are they worried the Web site will cannibalize the trade shows? Not at all. If anything, they expect it to generate even more interest, since serious investors relish the opportunity to meet with their financial gurus face to face.
What's next? The Githlers were in San Francisco a month ago, where they recently bought a vacation home, to take a look at the future. Summer has always been their time for stepping back and formulating new goals. "We do this every year," says Kim. For now, their 11-year-old son, Charlie, is working in the business and occasionally at trade shows, but Kim says he'll be free to choose his own path.
However they modified their long-term personal strategy this summer, the two emphasize they have no plans to retire, even if they no longer run the company. Without constant reinvention, they say, you're doomed to stagnation and failure. "Keep your nose clean, get in step with megatrends, stay focused and, most importantly, do what you love," says Charles. "If you have passion, you'll never work a day in your life."
The Money Show-three shows a year in Las Vegas, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., for individual investors
The World Money Show, launched in 2005-two shows a year in Orlando, London and Hong Kong, for individual investors
The Financial Advisor Symposium-two times a year in Las Vegas and Chicago, for financial advisors
The International Traders Expo-three shows a year in New York, Chicago or Fort Lauderdale, and Las Vegas
Cruise Seminars-eight luxury cruises a year for the individual investor, on topics ranging from investments to health and political philosophy.
23 Web sites-including www.moneydhow.com