When Michelle Petelicki and her father, Joe Zak, stepped on the stage to receive the UMA Vision Award for a small fleet company, it felt like a full circle moment.
“It means so much to us to receive this prestigious award,” said Petelicki, President of Panorama Tours, in Wallington, New Jersey, in accepting the award, which was presented at the UMA Awards Gala on Feb. 6.
“Twenty years ago was the first time that I sat in your seats at one of these dinners, and when they were presenting the Vision Awards, I turned to my dad and said, ‘Someday Panorama will be on that stage.’ We did it!”
She credited her father, the company’s founder, for building a strong foundation for her, both personally and professionally. He became a single father to Michelle and her brother Chris when his wife died of cancer.
“My dad was 28 and left with a 3-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son. We grew up together. We did everything together. We were really the Three Musketeers. It was wonderful,” Petelicki said, with Zak standing by her side. “My dad, he put aside his pain, and found strength so we could flourish. He laid down an unbreakable bond that helped us to overcome every challenge – the challenge of having a family business. The challenge of succession.”
She thanked her father for his respect and support, even when she made changes that he didn’t always agree with. She also praised her brother, Chris, for his support over the years. Although he’s no longer involved with the operation of the business, he continues to offer his financial insights.
While passing a family business from the first generation to the second fails about a third of the time, Zak set up his daughter for success.
“When Dad passed the torch, he went to the backseat. He waited for his opportunity and, when asked, he gave sage advice,” said Grzywacz.
Petelicki added that being part of the Spader Group and gaining a better understanding of the numbers was pivotal to the company’s success. Initially, she wasn’t convinced she wanted to leave her family three times a year to sit in a conference room for three days to take a deep dive into her company’s numbers. But being part of a Spader Group was worth the time and money.
“A sincere thanks to the past and current members. You guys listened, challenged and offered advice and even mitigated as we found our footing in our transition,” Petelicki said.
Rising stronger after COVID
Since Petelicki took the helm of the company in 2007, one of the biggest challenges has been surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought the bus and motorcoach industry nearly to a halt for more than a year.
The experience was a defining moment of Petelicki’s leadership, says John Grzywacz, President of CIT Signature Transportation in Ames, Iowa, the 2017 winner of the Vision Award in the small fleet category. He presented Panorama Tours with the Vision Award.
Grzywacz told of when Petelicki was asked about her vision for the company after the COVID pandemic. “Without a blink, she said, ‘I don’t want to return to what I was. I want to be better.’
“She said, ‘You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. In fact, it’s way better to be the quietest person in the room. Surround yourself with good people. Listen to their advice. Make the best decision you can. Move forward. In fact, some of my best advisors are my staff that I work with every day. I love my team.’”
During the difficult days of the pandemic, Petelicki didn’t buckle under the pressure. Instead her resolve grew.
“Almost from the day that she took over as the leader, she demonstrated her commitment to her commitment to her staff, and to her customers,” Grzywacz said.
Supporting the industry
Petelicki also demonstrated her commitment to the industry. She became the vice president of the Great Northeast Motorcoach Association and was elected to the UMA board in 2023.
During the 2020 Rolling for Motorcoach Awareness event in front of the U.S. Capitol, which spotlighted the role of the motorcoach industry in the nation’s infrastructure, she sat on the corner live-streaming on Facebook for four hours, drawing in viewers from around the world, giving shoutouts to the participating operators, and advocating for the industry. She followed up by rallying other operators to contact their legislators as the industry banded together to ask for financial support, leading to the passage of the CERTS Act, which brought $2 billion in aid. In recent years, she has been a leader at the UMA Fly-in, advising other operators on how to talk to their legislators.
“Whenever you need Michelle, she proves her servant heart with her enthusiasm and passion,” said Grzywacz.
Thanks to team, customers
Petelicki credits her success to the company’s team and loyal customers.
“Our people are the best,” she said. “There is no Panorama without our people. We are so blessed to have a team of the most outstanding professionals, and they commit themselves daily to making sure that we’re successful. I love what I do because I have them to work with every day.”
In her acceptance speech, Petelicki thanked her Michael, and children Viktoria and Jonathan, for their understanding as she balanced the demands of running a bus company and her role as wife and mother.
“Their love and their grace keeps me getting up and moving forward. They serve as my inspiration to consistently strive for excellence, not just in words, but through actions.”
She also thanked the UMA family.
“Over the last 29 years, in some way or another, whether you drank with us, laughed with us, commiserated with us, advocated with us, educated us or in another way touched us, you are my UMA family, and I can’t thank you guys enough for everything that you’ve done,” she said. “You’ve inspired me from my very first EXPO to today. Each EXPO has been filled with learning and networking that’s motivated us to go home and want to be better.”