Before stunning the industry with his sensational swoop for Thomas Cook’s retail network last Wednesday (9 October), John Hays marked the occasion with his usual trip to Greggs for a bacon sandwich.
John’s sarnie, though, may prove much easier to digest than his earlier purchase, seven minutes to midnight the night before when the Cook deal was sealed.
Coincidentally, this was six years to the day Hays bought Bath Travel. Then, there were 60 branches to absorb, but now he has to add 555 to the existing 190. That’s a lot for him and wife Irene to chew over.
Work had been progressing behind the scenes to smooth the process. Hays had already recruited Cook’s area managers from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Kent, Essex and East Anglia before the deal was inked. These managers brought with them their own staff. “That’s why we have got to well over 500,” said John.
Hays employees worked through the night to change systems and 1,000 laptops were programmed and shipped to far-flung locations to ensure “a great percentage” of Cook’s former shops could open quickly after the announcement.
“Our Northern Ireland regional manager went to Belfast at 2am to pick up 100 laptops for training – the commitment has been incredible,” he said.
The deal with Cook’s liquidators means Hays has bought a job lot, one carefully examined by regulators to ensure the company is not over-extending itself. John said the deal had been funded “with no debt” and had been well scrutinised.
“It’s a big enough deal for the CAA to take a very keen interest,” he said. “We’ve had to provide an awful lot of financial information, as well as business plans.”
Hays will take the shops on existing rental agreements with a nine-month “licence to occupy”, which can be extended. All landlords are guaranteed current rents until then.
“During that time, many of the leases will be open for renegotiation,” said Irene. “We were given profit and loss information as best they had it. In many locations, rents were very high and quite a few shops were losing money. But we believe because of the Hays model and because we don’t pay ourselves a lot of money or have grandiose head offices, that de-risks the deal.”
She added: “We are very comfortable and confident that once we have had a proper look at the opportunities, we will maintain the vast majority of shops. Bath Travel had some shops that were very poor; now they are all very good.”
All the shops will take the Hays name, but there will inevitably be some duplication and probable closures further down the line. “We are optimistic we will trade well in all the shops. That said, where we do have overlap, if we have under-performing shops we would do what any sound business would do economically and have a look at them,” said John.
Both are convinced their business model will prevail and Irene spelt out the difference between Cook and Hays. “Two-thirds of people who book with us in store have actually engaged with us digitally or via social media first.
“If you asked a Thomas Cook employee if they thought the web was their friend, they would say no, because of price differentiation, but Hays staff would say the web is their friend. We have a very different strategy to Thomas Cook. On that basis, I am optimistic and confident for the future.”
Irene believes the new staff will do their absolute best to make it work: “Thomas Cook staff are desperate to deliver for us. They said we will pay you back; we will do everything in our power. Many of them were hugging us – and we don’t know them from Adam.”