The UK’s largest independent travel agent achieved £1 billion total sales for the first time during the 12 months to the end of April.
As a reward, employees will receive £100 per full year worked for Hays. The company will also give away £1,000 to one lucky customer every day for 10 days.
Boss John Hays made the announcement via Facebook on Monday from the agent’s original Seaham store.
“I’m so proud of our staff,” he said. “What still motivates me after all this time are the people. I get a huge kick and buzz out of the motivation and morale of our staff.
“We have apprentices coming in at 16 working alongside people who’ve been with us for more than 30 years. The next three in line to the board all came to us from school.”
Hays also announced a special garden party to honour suppliers on June 30. He told TTG the full cost of the £1bn celebrations would run to around £1m.
Hays founded the company in 1980 on a shoestring at the back of his mum’s children’s wear shop in Seaham, County Durham, his empire now extends to 166 branches across the country.
Speaking to TTG ahead of the milestone though, Hays revealed how the business very nearly failed in its very first year.
Born into the North East mining community, Hays was the first member of his family to go to university, studying maths at Oxford and later gaining an MA in business administration.
But a brief, intolerable stint in the “glitzy, cutthroat” world of merchant banking in London drove Hays back to his roots.
Cooped up in his mother’s house, he wanted to start his own growth business. So after eliminating dozens of options, travel agent won out over undertaker and Hays Travel was born in 1980.
However, after his Abta licence was initially rejected on the basis the premises was more than a little ramshackle, a competitor opened just across the road, complete with taxi firm offering passengers rides to the airport.
“We very nearly didn’t survive that first year,” said Hays. “Lincoln Travel did really well. They sold to Thomson [Tui] in the end. It was a diplomatic struggle as much as a business one.”
Hays opened a second branch in Sunderland in 1982, now home to Hays HQ, and another in Washington in 1984. By 1987, Hays had seven premises across the North East.
During the 1990s, said Hays, a number of independents went under as Lunn Poly, Thomson and Thomas Cook grew. Eventually, an offer from Thomson for his business galvanised Hays.
“We were the wrong size at that time,” he said. “We had maybe 15 to 20 branches - big enough to need an organisational structure, but not big enough to compete in a discounting era.
“I thought long and hard about that offer. I knew I had to sell, or scale up and diversify. We formed the Hays Independence Group in 1995. We made ourselves less vulnerable, we became more than just a regional.”
Total sales hit £300m in 2007 and £500m in 2012. It acquired Bath Travel in 2013, still its largest acquisition to date, adding 60 branches in the south. It continues to expand both through acquisitions and by identifying new sites, with Leeds and Bradford in its sights, but its heartland remains the North East.
“This growth has been very organic,” said Hays. “We added CAS Travel in Norfolk last year, just two branches, but we’ve already added a third in Cromer. We always look to build clusters.”
Reflecting on the £1 billion milestone, Hays said he was delighted with growth across all parts of the business over the past 12 months, with retail up 23%, tour operations 28%, homeworking 44% and foreign exchange 19%.
“Over the last few years, we’ve continued trying to grow on multiple fronts,” said Hays. “I’m pleased all our divisions are performing so well.
“I’ve never set any specific targets. When I started, I wanted more than one shop. And I knew I wanted to grow year-on-year.
“I’m still motivated too. I’m very competitive, but it’s the people, our staff, who keep you going.”