Bill and Gail Heig have been partners in life as well as the resort business for years. They’re very certain about what makes their resort, Bowen Lodge on Lake Winnie, successful: relationships.
“Our guests come to Bowen Lodge for many reasons, and they have many other options for where and how they take their vacations,” said Gail. “We have a lot of gratitude that they choose to spend their precious time with us.”
“Ensuring that our guests come first in the hearts of everyone who works here is really critical to the success of our business,” Bill agreed. “Generating revenue from our guests is third or fourth down the line of how we view the folks who stay with us. They have to feel that we have their best interests at heart, and when they do, we build a positive relationship.”
Spoiler alert: you’ll see the word “relationship” a lot in this story; Bill and Gail are emphatic that paying attention to relationships is a key ingredient to a successful resort operation. But running resorts wasn’t the career path Bill and Gail had in mind early in their lives.
“I think we can thank the Subaru company for our relationship,” explained Gail. “I was driving cross country from Connecticut, where I had a summer job, back out west to Idaho where I was living at the time. Bill and I had met in Tucson and had kept in touch. I knew Bill was working in northern Minnesota for the summer, so I stopped at Bowen Lodge along the way home. That’s when the Subaru broke down. There were no Subaru dealers in Grand Rapids or anywhere north of Minneapolis, for that matter, so I had to order parts. A week went by, then two, and soon enough it was a month. So here I am, spending a month with this friend and his family, and I guess the rest is history.”
Bill had studied at the University of Idaho and the Hornocker Wildlife Institute to be a wildlife biologist, while Gail earned a degree from the University of Arizona to become a honeybee geneticist. Her job enabled her to travel the world with those credentials, but the broken-down Subaru changed things. Falling in love with Bill on the shores of Lake Winnibigoshish wasn’t part of the plan, but they’re delighted it worked out the way it did.
“My dad, Bob, began managing the resort in 1983, and we came onto the scene in 1985,” said Bill. “After a couple of years we decided to buy the business, but we had to work our way through three contracts for deed.
“We had a business checking account with a larger national bank, so naturally we went there first to ask about a loan to buy the resort,” Bill said. “I recall getting a call from their Duluth office to begin the loan process. They had no idea who we were or what the business was all about, and all the questions they asked made us realize we were starting from scratch with them.”
The process at GRSB was much different. “It was a mess until we met Steve Wilcox at Grand Rapids State Bank. He took a personal interest in us and what we wanted to do at the resort,” added Gail.
Steve Wilcox took Bill and Gail under his wing. Over the years Steve tutored them in financial management by assigning subjects to discuss with them: developing a business budget plan, managing cash flow and others.
“He was genuinely interested in helping us,” Bill explained, “and not just trying to sell us money. When it came time to make major expenditures in the business, naturally our first and only thought was to go back to GRSB.”
In early July of this year, Gail and Bill finished paying off almost all of their entire business loan; they left a $1 balance. They scheduled a meeting with Steve and presented him the final dollar bill to finalize the payment. “He took the dollar, folded it up, and put it in his wallet,” Gail said. “There were hugs and handshakes all around.”
Gail and Bill are gratified that one of their sons, Jens, and his wife Ashley have shown an interest in managing the resort.
“We are fortunate to have them around to pass on what we know about running the resort,” said Bill. “Jens learned the concept of the resort as a child; he loved fishing and boating and exploring. He knew about all the other amenities that make this place special. Now he’s learning the resort business from a different perspective.”
Building a resort business doesn’t happen overnight; there is a lot of depth to managing a business that attracts customers year over year. Advertising, investing in the facility and grounds, and tending to the relationships are all critical success factors. Bill and Gail hope the work they’ve done can carry on to the third generation of resort operators in their family.
Their resort legacy mirrors the legacy of the Wilcox family’s banking business. Gail’s and Bill’s other son, Dane, just purchased a home in the western Minneapolis suburbs. They are proud that Dane was able to secure a loan with Minnesota Lakes Bank, the Delano-based sister bank to Grand Rapids State Bank. “We are pretty proud of the relationship we’ve built with the Wilcox family and this bank,” Gail concluded.