Besides being one of the smartest people in travel, John Hays also happens to be one of the most decent.
Even so, he’s not someone you really want to fall out with.
Trust me, I know.
A few years ago, just after he acquired Bath Travel, I wrote a column about the deal. Despite being fulsome in my praise of John and his commercial acumen, I made the mistake of describing the acquisition as being “like Greggs buying Patisserie Valerie”.
I really did mean it as a compliment... but John wasn’t happy!
As I predicted in the same piece, John went on to deliver a hugely successful outcome, rebadging the stores and quickly integrating Bath Travel into his well-drilled retail machine.
I apologised, we made up quickly, time passed and now he’s done it again, only this time on a scale few, if any of us, could have imagined.
By acquiring Thomas Cook’s retail network, he has catapulted Hays Travel into the number one spot; the biggest high street travel retailer in the UK. So it’s time to ask the question again... what’s he up to?
Some commentators are saying he’s brave; some say it’s a step too far; some say he’s just plain bonkers.
If you ask me, it’s none of the above. John knows the game; in fact, he knows this particular game better than anyone else I know.
Remember, this is the guy who started his travel business in the back room of his mum’s clothes shop in Seaham in 1980 and went on to build it into the billion pound turnover success story it is today.
As well as his own branded retail estate, he’s built a hugely successful franchise model and, where he’s needed to, he’s taken on tour operators at their own game.
In Irene, he also has the sharpest wife and business partner you could ask for. The Hays’ are not people who work without a plan and, while this one might seem difficult to fathom, that doesn’t mean they don’t have one.
Until just a few weeks ago, there were three sizeable package tour operators selling holidays out of the UK - Tui, Jet2Holidays and Thomas Cook - with two of them enjoying the benefit of having a large vertically integrated distribution network.
Sadly, one of them is no longer there, but jump forward to January next year and there will be a new kid on the block.
Easyjet Holidays is ambitious. With the hugely experienced Johan Lundgren at the helm, their aim is to absorb the best of the Tui operating model – with ex-Tui people in key roles – but with some key differences, the biggest of course being the absence of bricks and mortar.
Come next year, we’ll be back once again to three dominant package players but with one major difference; this time only one, Tui, will have its own shops.
Enter stage right Hays Travel with, I reckon, around 700 stores; a knowledgeable sales team recruited directly from the ranks of Thomas Cook, well versed in both customer service and the art of selling European package holidays; and with a loyal and relatively affluent customer base, well aware of the role Hays Travel played in saving their favourite travel agency and the jobs of the teams that worked there.
Very sensibly, easyjet and Jet2 don’t want the fixed costs, the rent and rates, and the risks that come with owned retail, but they recognise the huge importance (still) of having their product recommended and promoted by a good travel agent.
Better for them, the variable costs of a reliable third-party distribution channel. If John can use his unique leadership skills to mobilise those ex-Thomas Cook staff, he can replace what would have been their in-house volumes with sales for easyJet and Jet2.
Even if the total number per store is a little lower, with more tightly managed overheads and much lower central costs, he’ll be on to a winner.
At the risk of annoying him again, the Greggs analogy still stands – maybe more than before.
Five years have passed since I made the comparison and in that time, Greggs has grown to become a household name, respected for its single-minded business model and tapping into the country’s zeitgeist.
Forget the snobbery, with their vegan sausage rolls and affordable, convenient food on the go, Greggs has become a national institution – an unpretentious, reliable, consistent, no frills retailer. The country loves Greggs, and in case you forgot, Patisserie Valerie went bust.
I’ve just watched John and Irene being interviewed on Good Morning Britain. They were happy and positive about the future – a real tonic after all the bad news of the last few weeks. The country will love that too.
John has put his surname on the map; Hays Travel is now a national player. Personally, I wish him and Irene and the whole team every success in the world. Remember, Thomas Cook himself once rose to prominence by spotting a gap in the market and moving to fill it.
This couldn’t be a case of history repeating itself... could it?