The world of entrepreneurs lost one of their greats today, my uncle and mentor, Ralph Bahna, who passed away this morning. For those of you that don't know him, here is his quick bio:
Ralph M. Bahna, age 71, served as a Director of Priceline.com from July 1998 to June 2013 and Chairman of the Board of Directors from April 8, 2004 to January 1, 2013 (leading their stock price growth from $27 to $620 per share, a whopping 43% annual growth rate over that nine year period). Since 1992, Mr. Bahna served as the President of Masterworks Development Corp., a company he founded to develop an international group of hotels named Club QuartersTM. Club Quarters are private, city-center facilities designed for the business travelers of cost conscious organizations, operating 17 hotels in major U.S. markets and London. Since 1993, Mr. Bahna has served as the Chairman of Club QuartersTM. From 1980 to 1989, Mr. Bahna served as the Chief Executive Officer of Cunard Lines, Ltd., and the Cunard Group of Companies, where he led their impressive turnaround and re-launch of the QE2 cross-Atlantic luxury liner. Prior to Cunard, Mr. Bahna was a senior marketing executive with Trans World Airlines, Inc., where he developed and launched their highly successful Ambassador Class, business class seating service. Mr. Bahna received his bachelors degree from the University of Michigan, where he was a Big Ten champion wrestler in 1964, and his masters degree in business from the University of California-Berkeley in 1965.
Many successful entrepreneurs, have had great mentors who made a material impact on their business and success. One of my mentors was Ralph. He always called it like he saw it, delivered advice in a direct way and never took it easy on me, even though I was his nephew (which I always respected). He taught me how to synthesize complex problems into digestible bite-size nuggets, and how to clearly define your business in a sentence or less, for maximum impact. Most importantly, he helped me save my first startup, iExplore, from the brink of failure, after the negative impact of 9/11/01 on our business. For that, I am eternally grateful. Here was that story.
Back at September 11th, 2001, the impact of terrorism was far reaching on our economy, and the travel industry took it especially hard, as travel demand plummeted for months thereafter. Which was very unfortunate timing for iExplore, which had its last venture capital financing scheduled to close on September 15th, four days later. As you can imagine, the investors went "running for the hills", iExplore got caught in a tailspin, with no cash in the bank, a large amount of debt, no revenues coming in and our employees looking to me for an answer about their future.
I made hundreds of venture capital calls, to everybody I knew and beyond, and nobody had interest in iExplore, given the situation. But, all you need is one investor to step up, and that one investor for iExplore was Ralph. He had been following our success up until that point, and knew the travel industry would eventually rebound. He told me, if I could: (1) build a new financial plan in a low revenue/low cost environment; (2) settle historical debts; and (3) cobble together another round to fund our new, lower burn rate plan; that he would finance us month-by-month, as long as we were continuing to make progress on these objectives.
We built a revised financial plan, lowering our employee base by two-thirds. We settled our old debts, largely due to Ralph's learnings about how Priceline had settled their debts for one of their failed divisions. And, we pulled together a new $1MM financing by January 2002, largely due to Ralph making some calls to his friends and colleagues that he thought would have an interest, which helped stimulate interest from other investors that were sitting on the fence.
If it wasn't for Ralph, iExplore would not have had a chance of surviving and eventually becoming the #1 ranked website for adventure travel. And, instead of iExplore being one of my personal success stories (selling in 2007 to TUI Travel PLC, at a good return for our investors who saved the business), it would have been my biggest failure. Every entrepreneur needs their "Ralph", to get them through those difficult times.
Uncle Ralph, you left this world way too early, and you will be missed. You taught me a ton of great lessons over the years, and I have tried to pass along that wisdom, to all of our readers here at Red Rocket.