In 1941, William Winkler’s grandfather started Peoria Charter Coach using a loan he received from his sister, who made her money selling eggs.
There is now a mural painted in the offices of Peoria Charter Coach which features Winkler’s grandfather, grandmother, the company’s first coach bus and, of course, two chickens. It is a symbol of the loan from sister to brother that started the company.
In 2020, Winkler’s company was ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. With no one traveling, Peoria Charter Coach suffered a 71% sales loss, revenue was down $11.3 million, and the company laid off 90% of its employees. The situation looked dire.
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Winkler just wanted to see the company his grandfather started make it to its 80th year. The business needed cash to survive. That’s when, perhaps as fate would have it, Winkler received a loan from his sister that helped the company survive.
Today, Peoria Charter Coach can see a light at the end of the tunnel. Sales are turning upward, travelers are returning. But the road the company navigated through the pandemic is one that will stick with Winkler for the rest of his life.
‘I am not lucky, I am blessed’
Winkler keeps a list of key dates from the pandemic that altered his world. The first date is March 16, 2020, the day he laid off 90% of his staff – the majority of whom were coach drivers. The second date is March 21, 2020, the day Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced a statewide shutdown for non-essential businesses.
March 22, 2020, was the first day Peoria Charter Coach did zero sales and the first day of a long, harrowing journey of survival.
“COVID-19 has been the worst thing to happen to my business,” Winkler said. “Until people felt comfortable indoors, in a group for long periods of time, my company was done. It was over with.
“The vaccine has been a game changer. Without the vaccine we wouldn’t be open today,” Winkler said.
Winkler points to five things that got his company, which offers charter bus trips all over Illinois and the United States, through the COVID-19 pandemic:
1.) A faith in God. 2.) Knowing the numbers. 3.) Knowing his resources. 4.) Leaning on his banks. 5.) Hope for government assistance.
He says his faith gave him no fear in confronting the virus. So he delved into research on COVID-19 and the financials of his company, desperate to find a way to save his family business.
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Winkler produced two behemoth stacks of paper. One of the stacks was the financials of his company. Producing those papers was the easy part for Winkler, who has his CPA license. The other, and larger of the two stacks, was all research he conducted on COVID-19. The CPA who runs a charter coach company was now also trying to wear the hat of epidemiologist.
“Since I wasn’t fearful of dying, I could do my research and think how I could get back in business,” Winkler said. “I’ve got to make sure with COVID-19 I understood everything, because it shut me down.”
Help did eventually find Winkler in the form of government aid, which he believes to be a blessing.
“I am not lucky, I am blessed,” Winkler said. “That’s a great, good and living God.”
The money that saved the company
Early in his company’s crisis, Winkler was able to put up $800,000 of his own money to keep the business afloat, paying bills and day-to-day operating expenses. Then he received loans from his sister, parents and in-laws that gave Peoria Charter Coach a little over $1 million with which to operate.
Winkler’s sister Jill Wilbanks, who remembers playing with her brother as children in the company offices and bus garage, said it was an easy decision to give him a loan to help the company.
“My husband Carl and I were just willing to help out anyway we could,” Wilbanks said. “It was no one’s fault and we were all in it together, I felt. When we can help, we want to help.”
Winkler called his sister and explained the financial situation to her and detailed a plan he believed could get the company through the tough time if he got some loans from family.
“We knew he would pay back if and when he could, we knew that we could trust him,” Wilbanks said. “I did not hesitate twice, saying ‘If we have it and we can help you, we’re going to help you.’ I wonder if my grandfather’s sister felt the same way.”
The banks also gave Winkler a break and allowed him to forego payments on his coaches for one year, an allowance he said was crucial for success.
‘My employees stuck with me … to the end’
April 15, 2020, is the third date Winkler has saved – it’s the day he received his first Paycheck Protection Program loan of $1.2 million. In total, Peoria Charter Coach has received $2.4 million in PPP loans, according to the state database. The CERTS Act also provided Peoria Charter Coach with another $2 million in government aid, according to its database.
Illinois handed out thousands of PPP loans to businesses during the pandemic, including 398 in Peoria after the federal government pledged $953 billion for the program in March 2020.
Winkler hired back all of the employees he laid off with the first round of PPP money he received and tried to find any kind of work for them to do while travel was still not an option.
“My employees stuck with me, stuck with me to the end,” Winkler said. “I laid them off and they came back.”
The first round of PPP money did not last forever however and, on July 15, 2020, the employees had to be laid off again. Winkler could not bring himself to do it and even in talking about it over a year later, he gets emotional.
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He had his vice president inform the employees they were once again being laid off. That day Winkler decided to go to a vending machine outside for a Dr. Pepper, without realizing the vice president had gathered all the employees outside near the machine to inform them off their second layoff. Then something unexpected happened.
“I’m just coming out and all my employees start clapping,” Winkler said. “They said ‘thank you Bill, thank you.’ Have you ever been cheered for laying someone off?”
Two days later, July 17, is the next date Winkler has saved. It’s a day he said he realized he was blessed, a day he said couldn’t have happened to anyone else.
On July 17, U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, brought the CERTS Act, which landed the transportation industry $2 billion, to the House floor. That same day Winkler got a call from East Peoria Mayor John Kahl.
“Would you like to meet Sen. Dick Durbin?” Kahl asked. “He’s here. Would you like to tell him your story?”
Durbin called Winkler on his cell phone later that day and told him, “We’re going to do our best to get you some money.”
Money from the CERTS Act recently found its way to Winkler to the tune of $2 million, with another $500,000 still expected to come. The money will only be able to offset about half of his current losses, but nonetheless, Peoria Charter Coach sees a light at the end of a very long, very dark tunnel.
Looking to the future
Things are starting to look up again for Peoria Charter Coach. It is running 37 of its 48 coaches and is actively trying to hire employees rather than lay them off.
Winkler’s September estimates show the business should do 60-70% of its pre-pandemic September 2019 sales, it’s not perfect but it might be enough to get back to a positive cash flow Winkler said.
He is a firm believer that masking and vaccinations against COVID-19 should be a personal choice, but on his company’s scheduled trips, drivers wear masks and are vaccinated.
Otherwise, he leaves it up to a charter’s group leader to determine how the trip should go. If the guests want a masked and vaccinated driver, he will provide that to them. Winkler draws the line however at the government mandating these things.
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Through all of it however, the economic crises, lives lost, national fights over masks and vaccines, Winkler is thankful. He is thankful Peoria Charter Coach is still operational and most of all thankful it could see its 80th year in existence.
“Did I worry? I don’t know if I worried,” Wilbanks said. “Did I pray about it? … Yes, I did, a lot. A lot of looking to God and trusting him that it was all in his hands because there was so much that wasn’t in Bill’s hand or any of ours.”
On Sept. 23, Winkler and his wife Cindy – the person he said got him through it all – will be escorting a charter trip to Branson, Missouri, to celebrate not just 80 years of operation this year, but a celebration of making it through the company’s darkest hour.