BusinessXL Magazine

Chris Mottershead

Sep 07 issue

Chris Mottershead is a travel industry veteran. He was president and CEO of North American leisure group Airtours before changing course to steer online travel specialist Travelzest through a turbulent period for the sector to land record profits

In retrospect, I probably would have bought an ailing tour operator and floated it, rather than buying a company listed on OFEX [now Plus] and listing it on AIM. The way that we ended up doing it meant that the original owner benefited most from the float, even though they had nothing to do with the running of the business. I would rather that management had reaped the rewards.

The operational model we use at Travelzest has been informed by the experience I gained from working for much bigger companies. We’ve created a different prospect and were keen to foster an atmosphere that keeps people motivated and inspired.
When you work for a corporate giant, you realise there is a lot of politics that can have an adverse effect. Decisions aren’t necessarily made for the good of the business but rather because you don’t want to step on someone else’s toes. I have learnt to take decisions based on achieving higher profits and driving value for stakeholders.

Making the most of your niches
Having bought eight companies over the past two years, we’ve opted for a more decentralised approach to operations. We have a number of divisions that work in their own niche, so they need to be able to run in their own way and inevitably they have different management practices. Each brand is a boutique with its own expertise within a specialised field. But that’s not to say there isn’t coherence or communication between them.

We aim to create an environment where people can be frank and honest when they talk to each other. I don’t expect them all to love one another, but there shouldn’t be that element of fear you get in a big corporate – that fear of failure and not getting it right. I could never see myself going back to a big corporate now. If you want to push the limits of what you’re doing, you have to be prepared to take a chance and make mistakes every so often. And the decisions you make are personal, so the satisfaction is all the greater.

I’ve also learnt that trying to impose a blanket set of values across a number of brands doesn’t really work. It’s exhausting to manage as you have to try to be an expert in each of the niches and it take a hands-on approach to management to make it work. We prefer to understand our limitations and let the experts within each field do what they do best. The companies we buy often maintain their unique culture.

Tapping into the potential
Travel remains a growing industry and therefore it’s changing. The trick is to recognise that the way people want to go abroad is also evolving. It’s not just about going somewhere and lazing on a beach; people increasingly want to explore the world. In addition to this, they want to book their trip online. With that in mind you have to have a user-friendly website that people can find. Often, the businesses that we acquire have promise but their sites look like a travel brochure. It’s our job to optimise those sites and tap into that potential.

We buy businesses that are keen to develop and grow, so the focus is on maximising the return. We’re looking for significant growth and aim to double profits in the first three years. My ethos is that the opportunity is there for the taking now, not in 15 years’ time or when the market is more favourable.

If I would have done anything differently, it would have been to take that approach earlier.