Core Values

Core Values

When the pandemic forced tough corporate decisions,
this CEO leaned into his Jesuit education

By Eugene Curtin

As the COVID-19 pandemic tightened its grip in the spring of 2020, doctors and nurses at CHI Health Creighton University Medical Center-Bergan Mercy in Omaha braced for a flood of critical cases. Unknown to them, barely a stone’s throw away, in a neighboring office tower at the intersection of 72nd Street and Mercy Road, another kind of pandemic-related struggle for survival was underway.

Like the medical professionals just up the street, Creighton alumnus Kevin O’Malley, BSBA’90, was worried about people — his people, the people who for more than 70 years had built Omaha-based Travel and Transport — one of the world’s largest travel management companies — into a top 100 employee-owned company and who were now seeing generations of effort erased by a stubborn microbe.

O’Malley had been chief executive officer of Travel and Transport since 2015. It was a big responsibility, although one for which 17 years as the company’s chief financial officer had prepared him. With more than 1,800 employees scattered around the globe and 2019 sales of $2.8 billion, the company was highly regarded for its ability to arrange personal and corporate travel. Since its founding in 1946, Travel and Transport had become an industry behemoth, and a civic icon, with its sign dominating the top of Omaha Tower and its office lights cleverly arranged to present a Christmas tree during the holiday season. A major industry player it might be, but being entirely employee owned, T&T was also something of a family.

O’Malley was entirely aware of that.

“I have been here 27 years,” O’Malley says, during an interview at his office. “I don't know every employee, but I know a lot of our employees, and so it is a very difficult and personal thing when you have to make decisions about reducing your workforce.

“What I said to our employees was that this was gut wrenching. We know we are affecting people's lives, and we don't take anything lightly. There will be a time when the world gets back to normal, there will be a time when we bring our family back together, but in the interim we have to make really hard decisions.”

With business dropping off 97% from the banner year of 2019, those really hard decisions called forth instincts and empathies O’Malley says were ingrained though eight years of a Jesuit education — four years at Omaha’s Creighton Prep High School, and then four years at Creighton University where he graduated in 1990 with a degree in accounting.

“A lot of who I am today emerged from those eight years,” he says. “Thinking about others, which is the essence of Jesuit philosophy, was my focus through the duration of this pandemic. We were all going through things personally and professionally, but my first concern was to try and help people work through it all, whether they were dealing with a reduction in force, a furlough, a pay cut, whatever.

“Those things are absolutely a part of who you become under Creighton’s Jesuit influence. You don’t sit and think, ‘What are the values that I want to adhere to?’ They become part of your core, what you value, how you hold yourself out, how you carry yourself, how you treat others, how you think. They absolutely become a core part of who you are.”

Even so, O’Malley had much to ponder beyond the welfare of his employees. Among the many industries affected by the shutdowns and restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, few were hit harder than the travel industry. Once borders began closing, and the impact on T&T’s business in Europe became apparent, O’Malley and his leadership team braced for impact. And when COVID hit, it hit hard.

“All of a sudden we found ourselves going from 100 miles an hour to three miles an hour. Ninety-seven percent of our business was gone in about a three-day period, and it stayed that way for months and months,” O’Malley says. “April was that way, June was that way and July was that way. A good month was if we were only down 93% to 95% over the prior year.”

Pay cuts were instituted across the board. Executive officers went without pay.

It would be a long haul. Today, almost 16 months after COVID-19’s first impact, business remains just more than a third of what it was in 2019.

It wasn’t just the loss of income. The employees were, after all, part owners of the company and had watched the value of their T&T stock plunge to a small fraction of its worth, a loss in some cases representing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This, too, weighed heavy, so O’Malley began to think more seriously about occasional conversations he had had with corporate travel executives 8,500 miles away in Brisbane, the capital city of the Australian state of Queensland. Along with similar corporate entities, Brisbane-based Corporate Travel Management — like T&T a global manager of corporate travel — had occasionally approached O’Malley about the possibility of an acquisition. His response had always been a polite thank-you-for-the-interest-but-we’re-happy-as-we-are.

Now he began to reconsider, and in that reconsideration he found a solution.

It was hard, he says — very hard — but the completion of a $200 million sale to the Australians in October of 2020 preserved the value of employee equity and put the company back on a growth track that O’Malley is confident will revive the happy days of not so very long ago.

The hard reality, O’Malley says, was that his desire to help his people was severely constrained by circumstances.

“There was only so much I could do to help,” he says, “and only so much I can do to help, because this has been so hard on everybody. So getting the employees protected, getting the value that they built protected, was absolutely the right thing to do. It was hard to take one of the 100 largest employee-owned companies in the United States and sell it, but given the circumstances I think it was absolutely the right thing to do.”