Mary McKenna, managing director and founder of Tour America, combined entrepreneurial flair, emotional intelligence and a strong will to turn a business that she
started in her living room into a globe-spanning travel company with
a multimillion-pound annual turnover.
A Dublin native, McKenna learned the principles of working hard at an early age from her father, who was also in travel, selling football charter holidays. Frequent visits to his offices saw a five-year-old McKenna tackle hoovering, cleaning and putting stickers on brochures.
“He was teaching me at a young age about emotional intelligence. I wasn’t doing terribly well in school and he kept saying he had great belief in me. He told me to find what I love and I’d be good at it.”
After leaving school and a brief stint in hospitality, McKenna moved into aviation and a job with Northwest Airlines and soon landed her first managerial role.
“Somebody approached me to work for a charter airline around the same time Ryanair was starting up in Dublin. I was given the job of duty manager at 23 years old. This meant I was in charge of ground operations and I had full responsibility for 400 staff and two aircraft. I had to get a pilot’s licence as part of my role too, even though I’ve never flown. That was an amazing experience and probably the making of me.”
It seemed that everything was on the up for McKenna. However, the death of her father in 1989 led her to leave aviation and move into selling leisure travel with her uncle at Tui-owned American Holidays. But it wasn’t long before she had her sights on another ambitious goal.
“I wanted to be an entrepreneur at this stage as I had always wanted to do my own thing. I had really built up my reputation through industry networking events and having previously worked for airlines,” she says.
Going her own way
In 1995, McKenna started Tour America from her living room, with no money and three staff who were paid £50 a week. But hard work and diligence paid off, and in her first year of business McKenna turned over £3 million with a £68,000 net profit.
“I had done a lot of work on myself, including a Swot (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis; I knew what my strengths and weaknesses were. I started to go to college at night to study marketing and accounting and read a business book a week.”
And it’s this tenacity and drive that McKenna believes is behind her everywoman in Travel Woman of the Year award win.
“I have to say I did not expect it. It was a huge honour, particularly because it covered Ireland and the UK, and Ireland is a very small country. I think this award is about giving hope to women or girls that have a dream about starting a company. My story was a simple one about a dream coming true and this is an award that recognised that.”
McKenna gives up six days of the year to mentor eight women through the Going for Growth entrepreneur support group. She is also involved in the Dublin chamber of commerce and has recently been elected to the city council.
“I use all of these resources to mentor and build the confidence of my own staff. What I’ve learnt over the years is to care for my team, and then in turn they will love the customer. I am proud to say that Tour America is a company that has grown and remained profitable for 23 years, and I continuously want to raise our standards.”
If she could send a message to her 18-year-old self, McKenna would say: “Don’t sweat the small stuff and have great belief in yourself. If I were doing it all over again, I would have started educating myself a lot earlier. Keep growing and love life – it’s very precious.”