HERRIN - From bus driver to bus company broker, Bobby Don Sullenger has parlayed his knowledge of the bus industry into a lucrative career.
"I think the key to my success is that I was never satisfied with second best," said Sullenger, owner of Custom Tours and Travel Inc., the former Bailie's Bus Station in downtown Herrin.
"It also helped that I had a lot of confidence in my abilities and enough start-up capital to give the business a chance to succeed. I sold everything I had to make things work."
Sullenger knows how to market his name. Instead of using his last name, he uses his first and middle names together, Bobby Don, which rolls much more easily off the tongue than Sullenger. Few, if any of his clients, even know his last name. And "Bobby Don" said he much prefers the informal reference.
Sullenger opened Custom Tours and Travel in Houston in 1987. He didn't turn the financial corner, however, until the mid-1990s, when the number of professional sports franchises on his clientele list grew substantially.
Today, Sullenger assists more than 50 professional teams, including 24 National Basketball Association teams, all the WNBA teams, six National Hockey League teams and Major League Baseball's Florida Marlins.
As hard as it may be to believe, storied franchises such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Detroit Red Wings don't make a move without first letting Sullenger know about it in Herrin.
As a bus broker, Sullenger said each team he services faxes dates, times and locations to him that buses are needed to transport team members from the airport to the hotel and from the hotel to the arena and back.
He or a staff member then contacts the bus company in the city where the team is traveling and arranges to have a coach meet the team at the designated time and place.
"We act as the transportation agent for these teams," Sullenger said. "We contract with the bus companies in the United States and Canada to provide the ground transportation needs for the teams we serve."
Sullenger got the idea of bus brokering during his days as a bus driver in the Houston area.
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"My interest in driving buses goes back to my childhood days in Herrin when I used to ride my bike by Bailie's and watch the passengers load up onto those Greyhound buses," he recalled. "It mesmerized me. I thought driving one of those was the coolest thing."
A driver for 12 years, Sullenger said he built many friendships over the years - friendships that have led to business relationships.
"I was fortunate enough to drive and be around many great athletes. There were many times I would sit in on one of the shoot-arounds (practice sessions), for example, and watch a coach like McLeansboro native Jerry Sloan with the Utah Jazz shouting instructions at his players," he said.
"The most fun, though, was driving the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team to and from the Astrodome when Whitey Herzog was the manager," Sullenger said. "I got to know Whitey real well and some of the players, too. My favorite was Ozzie Smith. What a class act he was. I enjoyed visiting with him so much that I attended his retirement ceremony in St. Louis a few years ago."
Sullenger doesn't boast about it, but he possesses some wonderful sports memorabilia. His office walls are adorned with framed jerseys of NBA greats Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley, and a framed poster of Ozzie Smith. He even owns a pair of spikes given to him by Vince Coleman, a former St. Louis Cardinal and base-stealing specialist.
Some non-sports decorative pieces at the bus agency include two old-fashioned pinball machines, model airplanes and posters of 1950s icons Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.
"I'm living my dream," said Sullenger, now a multimillionaire.
Demonstrating his fondness for the community, Sullenger has donated thousands of dollars to many civic organizations and for the creation of scholarships for high school seniors. He also is a leading sponsor of the HerrinFesta Italiana Beauty Pageant, boosting the cash winnings to well over $1,500.
Son of the late Ray and Pauline Sullenger, Bobby Don has a wife, Fran, who works with him at the agency. Other staff members include Sherry Householder, general manager, Mike Murphy, agent, and Sonya Wharry, assistant accounts manager.