Ten years ago, Rob and Laurie Lee had a powerful ingredient when they launched their Chicago-based passport and expedited visa services firm: nothing to lose.
Today, with Swift Passport Services celebrating its 10th anniversary in early December, the Cary couple is at the helm of a thriving enterprise that has helped over 100,000 individuals gain peace of mind and ease of travel.
At first, they worked out of their tiny apartment in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood. Within a year, they began renting office space. For the past six years, they have operated Swift out of a bustling fifth-floor space at 1 E. Erie St., growing to eight employees and a host of contractors.
Both from entrepreneurial families, the Lees' "nothing to lose" status served as fuel for only so long. In a field known for treating customers like numbers, they have assembled a team that guides customers with a personalized, hands-on approach.
Swift counts individuals among its clientele, though about two-thirds of the company's business comes from serving corporations, particularly those in the Chicago area and Silicon Valley. Regardless of the customer's size, Swift places a premium on communication, from an information-rich website to emails and phone calls that offer guidance throughout the process. At the heart of their sustained emergence is an ethos captured by Swift's double-entendre slogan, "We've been there."
On one level, the phrase refers to their far-flung journeys. Rob and Laurie have traveled to more than 30 countries on six continents, and all their staff have likewise journeyed extensively. Even more significantly, however, "we've been there" communicates a deeper, empathetic truth. Both Lees have found themselves in a variety of sticky situations abroad.
"On a regular basis, people call us with problems. They just can't believe the circumstances they are in," said Rob. "We can relate to it, so solving their problems isn't just business to us -- it becomes very personal."
Case in point: shortly before launching Swift, Rob and Laurie were fired, via email, from their jobs managing a six-unit luxury bungalow retreat, popular among honeymooners, international globe-trotters, and eco-adventure seekers.
They had to linger for two more weeks before leaving the country, as they needed to get the necessary medical shots for their cat, Panama Bill. That experience was expedited by a local man who had connections that helped them get to the front of the line at the U.S. Embassy in Panama.
"He was pulling these strings," recalled Rob. "It was really amazing."
A year earlier, heading to a family wedding in South Africa, Laurie was detained at the airport in Johannesburg because her passport had a technical deficiency. Instead of the required two blank pages for passport stamps, hers had only one blank page.
"She cried her way out of that one, basically," Rob said.
Their experiences sparked an interest in exploring the creation of a passport service, which they began four months after returning to the Chicago area. By tapping into family ties in the aviation community, engaging in plenty of word-of-mouth business networking and then launching a Google ads campaign, they took their first fitful steps.
"We had clients who believed in us," said Laurie. "People put their trust in us, and we felt a huge responsibility toward them. Their business allowed us to be in business, and delivering results -- even as we were learning the ropes -- is what we had to deliver in return. We're proud that many are still with us today."
One long-term client is EVRAZ North America, which produces engineered steel products for rail, energy and industrial end markets. Kelly Schaus, a human resources representative with the company, praised Swift's dedication "to making our experience with international travel documents as easy as possible."
"They consistently help us navigate cumbersome visa issues with ease and haste," Schaus added.
The Swift office in Chicago is strategically located on the same floor as the Chinese Consulate, which has helped make travelers to and from China a steady source of business. Other sources of recurring business are corporate clients as well as individuals seeking rapid turnaround time on obtaining passports and business visas -- sometimes in as little as one business day.
The Lees' business partnership has a Yin and yang quality about it. Laurie is the "people person" who enjoys learning about a business so she can develop customized solutions to their problems. Rob, meanwhile, specializes in overseeing the company's website and the operation's technological side.
While they possess different types of strengths that have been instrumental in their business success, both agree that they couldn't have done it solo.
"I'm grateful that we were working together," said Laurie. "If one of us was not doing it, it would not have worked. Working late every night while getting your business off the ground is much more fun when you can go through the ups and downs together. There's no need to explain schedules or other problems that come up."
The Lees' personal life has paralleled their business journey. They were married in August 2008 shortly after Swift started. As they approached their first decade in business and marriage, there was unanimity about how to mark the milestone: in mid-November, they embarked on a 15-day trip to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.
With a network of partnerships nationwide, Swift Passport Services can reach clients in all 50 states. The company is registered with the U.S. Department of State and has regular access to all foreign consulates nationwide in six major cities. For more information, visit www.swiftpassportservices.com or call (877) 917-9438.