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Haig talks to Terry Fisher about running 2x Billion Dollar Businesses
‘ I was really not very happy with life and at this time,
at which point I said “that's it - I'm never going to work
for anyone else again. I'm going to control my own
destiny from now on. I'm going to work for myself.” ’
We sat down for a conversation with serial entrepreneur,
angel investor advisor and travel industry titan Terry Fisher.
Aged 46, Terry achieved his lifelong ambition of becoming
CEO of the UK’s largest travel business, Thomas Cook,
having been made redundant at age 19. We spoke to Terry
about his astonishing career: with 6 successful exits under
his belt, Terry knows a thing or two about building and
scaling businesses, affording us insight into what it takes
to be a successful entrepreneur. His story is captivating
yet brutally honest, guiding us through his remarkable
journey to success.
Is it true that you knew you were going to be the CEO of Thomas Cook when you were 19?
Anybody that cared to ask me, “what is your ambition? What is my plan?” Received the following response: “My plan is to be the CEO of Thomas Cook.” It was the number one travel business in the world at the time, and I was determined that I was going to be the CEO of that business.
It started premised on the old adage, ‘out of adversity comes opportunity.’ I left school with not very many qualifications. I was well liked by the teachers, but I never knuckled down and got on with the work so I didn't do particularly well in my exams. To get on the Travel and Tourism course and college that I wanted to attend, I had to have five GCSEs. I think I had three or four and I must have filled in the form incorrectly and given people the impression that I had more GCSEs than I really did. Sadly for me (or perhaps not so sadly after all), after about three or four months on the course, they found out that I'd filled in the form incorrectly. They politely asked me to leave and told me that I'd never make it in the travel industry because I wasn't qualified enough. I think that was for me a real catalyst. I thought, Okay, what's the number one job in travel? The number one job in travel is CEO, Thomas Cook, I am going to show you, I'm going to get that job. Sometimes it takes something like that to really spur you on and to give you the energy that you need to go and do it.
When you didn’t get the qualifications, how did you get into the travel industry?
I left school, I left the college course and I went to work in a travel agency for two years. I loved every minute of it. Then, suddenly, around Christmas (I was 19 at the time) the company went bust. I had no job; I had no money. I was really not very happy with life and at this time, at which point I said “that's it - I'm never going to work for anyone else again. I'm going to control my own destiny from now on. I'm going to work for myself.”
I persuaded my parents to back me in opening my own little travel agency on the outskirts of Huddersfield. That's how it started. I built this business, Travelworld, into the largest independent chain of travel agents in the UK at 123 shops with £130 million of annual turnover. Then, I sold it to a company called Airtours. They owned a brand called Going Places. I then ran Going Places for a few years and turned Going Places around with 1000 shops 11,000 staff, which is a huge, huge business, but it still wasn't Thomas Cook; it still wasn’t the job that I really wanted. Then an opportunity arose to sell the business. I took the chance and moved to California.
Did you ever have any doubts when selling Travelworld?
Yes, I did. However, I believe you get one good offer for
your business, and that you should always take the one
good offer that comes along. We were growing market
share, we were growing the number of sites; we were doing
really, really well. We didn't particularly look for an exit.
I always tell people now that you need to know where your
exit is. At that time, I didn't even know what I was doing,
I was a 19-year-old kid. But, when the offer came along
from Airtours, the thing that attracted me more than anything
wasn't just the money; it was that they offered me a seat
on the board of Going Places. At the time, Going Places
was a bigger travel company in the UK than Thomas
Cook. Thomas Cook was much bigger worldwide, but, in
the UK, Going Places was the number one.
I still saw this as a stepping stone to Thomas Cook. I always use the following analogy: it's like a footballer who gets
signed by Manchester United. But he knows that in his heart he really wants to play for Leeds. So, he’ll go and suffer at Manchester United for a couple of seasons holding on to his initial dream to play for Leeds. That’s how it felt for me with Going Places and Thomas Cook. I joined the board of Going Places, within two or three months, I became CEO. I ran the company for about two or three years, after which I sold all my shares.
Right now, and in the process of building your company, did you ever have trouble motivating people and driving your strategy?
I think it was a natural thing that people followed me. The thing which really put us on the map, which really got the business going was finding a niche that nobody else did. In those days, 30 years ago, nobody was booking last minute holidays; people were booking a year in advance; they were booking something out of the brochure when the brochures first came out. As a result, there was a huge pent-up demand for last minute bookings; people either looking for a discount or a special offer.
We specialised in that field; we went after this market. Ridiculously, the other travel agents in the town would send their customers to us. Thomas Cook, as an example would say “you need to go to those dreadful people at travel world, we don't deal with that kind of stuff, we don't discount, we don't offer special offers, we don't do cheap, what you see in the brochure is what you pay.” They were literally sending customers to us. That's how we grew our business. We had a unique selling proposition that that really captured people's imagination.
What drove you back to the UK and towards Thomas Cook?
At this point, I thought, perhaps Thomas Cook wasn't meant to be. I'd still done one of the top jobs in the travel industry having been told “you'll never make it in the travel business.” Then I got a call from a friend who owned a travel company based in Preston in Lancashire. He wanted me to go back to Preston and help him turn around and sell his business. To cut a very long story short, I ended up doing exactly that. He became an absentee landlord and I effectively took over the running of that business. I knew in my heart that Thomas Cook was a buyer for this business, and I knew he wanted to sell it. Everything I did over the next three years was with a view to selling it to Thomas Cook. All the decisions I made, including the choice of destinations that we went to, are all things that plugged holes in their in their network.
Three years later, when it came to selling the business, Thomas Cook didn't come into the bidding; they didn't try to buy the company. We also had a fantastic offer on the table to sell the business. The owner wanted to take it and I affirmed that Thomas Cook were the real buyer for this business. Within a week, Thomas Cook bought the business. As part of this deal, I had to sign a five-year service agreement and join the board of Thomas Cook. I was even closer to achieving my ambition. Within a few weeks, I became CEO.
What did you do as CEO of Thomas Cook to keep ahead of competitors?
One of the first things that I did was change Thomas Cook’s slogan. Thomas Cook, for me, had one of the best advertising slogans ever. If you remember, it was “Don't just book it, Thomas Cook it.” The new management decided, with in their infinite wisdom, that they didn't like it. And they came up with some ridiculously generic term, so, one of the very first things I did was reintroduce “Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it.” For me this said everything you need to know about Thomas Cook. It came at a time when travel agencies on the high street were becoming less significant, with the rapid expansion of the internet.
As CEO, the main problem I encountered was that
the board I was on didn’t share my vision for the
business. They believed that they had such a
strong name and such a strong brand that they
didn't need to evolve; they didn’t need to become
an online player; they didn't need to build fantastic
websites; they just didn't need to because people
were always coming to our shops. They were also
incredibly asset led: they owned aeroplanes and
hotels. There was no reason in those days for
Thomas Cook to run an airline, there were plenty
of low-cost airline carriers where we could have
bought seats far more cheaply. We could have
become less asset led; we could have put hundreds
of millions of dollars in the bank. We could have
sold the aeroplanes and the hotels; we could have
invested that into online technology. The board didn't
see it. They didn't agree and didn't like my strategy.
I was CEO of a business that I thought was going to
fail. I resigned from Thomas Cook because I
wanted to try to buy the business. When you're
within a PLC, and if you're on the board, you're not
allowed to launch a bid for the company. The only
way I could do that was to resign. So, I resigned
and I went out into the city to try raising enough
money to buy Thomas Cook. We needed about 500 million to make a significant bid. We had about eight meetings lined up over two days to go and talk to all these different companies to raise the money. At the very first meeting I went to, the guy offered me the whole amount of money. Within 45 minutes! It was incredible. He asked “what's your vision? What's your ambition? Why do you want to do this? How do you see it working?” I talked him through the whole plan, and, within 45 minutes, he wrote a cheque for the full amount.
Then, we went back to the board and we made an offer to buy the business. At this time, the share price had plummeted from about £1.80 to 8p. We made a very fair offer for the business which would have given the investors and shareholders a really good return on their investment. Stupidly, they turned it down. A mere 18 months later, Thomas Cook went bust.
How did Thomas Cook’s failure make you feel?
I really did believe that we would have turned the business around and I do believe that, had they accepted the offer, Thomas Cook would still be the number one travel business in the UK today. But you can't sit and mope and eat ice cream all day - you just have to pick yourself up and find the next big opportunity. It was incredibly sad - I loved Thomas Cook. Seeing it fail was a huge disappointment.
What do you think of current opportunities in the travel industry?
The last two years have been incredibly tough for the travel industry, and the way that the government have behaved over the last couple of years with regard to the travel industry has been shocking. Lots of friends I know in the industry are suffering really, really badly as a result of the government’s new legislation and their lack of direction. It's been ridiculous. However, I do think that, out of the back of this, there's huge pent-up demand. I think there'll be a lot of people who now want to travel. People have got a lot of discretionary income because they haven’t spent on travel over the last couple of years. I think the strong will survive and flourish over the next 12 to 18 months, and the weak will fall by the wayside.
What do you think of the Private Airline industry? Do you think it will boom?
I think it will. I think there's more fractional ownership. Having a private jet by the hour is becoming more popular, particularly during COVID where people wanted to know who they were travelling with and were scared to get on an aeroplane. I think this will only continue. There are more people entering the market; prices are coming down; and it's becoming more affordable to more people. You can fly private now on a one-way flight to Malaga, for around six or seven thousand pounds.
You tried to buy Huddersfield FC right? Do you want to own a Football club?
Yeah, I did by Huddersfield Town and I was the youngest Chairman ever in the Football League. I was 29 when I bought it. We had a very successful period when we built a brand-new stadium in the city. I realised very quickly that Huddersfield Town were playing in a very old, dilapidated stadium, getting about 4000 fans a week. The Rugby League club across town were also playing in an old, dilapidated stadium, getting about 1000 fans a week. Both of our sites were prime retail sites because they were both on arterial main roads in and out of the city.
I came up with an idea. I went to the council and I said, “why don't we build one new stadium in the city and share with the Rugby League club.” The council could have two fantastic main road sites, and perhaps sell them to a business such as Sainsbury's or Asda. We, on the other hand, could build a stadium on a piece of land which would never be used for anything like this. We could create something amazing for the town on a piece of land which the council didn’t need. Soon after, we obtained funding from the Football League and the Council. Then, we built what's now Huddersfield Town stadium 25 years ago: an amazing, brand new, 20,000-seater stadium. We took the crowds from 4000 a week to about 12,000 a week.
We then had a very successful period in the club's history: we got promoted to what's now the Championship (it was the First Division at the time). We played at Wembley two years running at cup finals. All in all, we had a very successful three or four years.
How did you cope with failure?
Honestly, they were my darkest days, it was shocking - I went into a depression. It really hit me really hard. I thought I was invincible; I thought everything I touched was going to be successful. And here I was, with this massive failure on my hands. Here were all these people reliant on me, and I felt like I let them down. It's a horrible feeling. When I reflect on it now, I don't hold myself accountable for what went wrong. I know exactly what went wrong and how I would do things differently in the future. But at the time, it was incredibly disappointing.
I think you need strong people around you that believe in you and help rebuild your confidence. I spent a lot of time on my kids who will forgive pretty much anything that that dad does, as most kids will. I had a very supportive partner at the time, who really dragged me through the dark tunnel and out the other side into the light. I got involved in other things, I started doing some charity work in California, helping homeless people, just to take my mind off things and to realise that there were people that were much worse off than I was and to stop feeling so sorry for myself.
Did you have any role models?
Not really. There was never anyone around to help. I think that's why I'm now trying plug that gap. Lots of other people are as well – there are lots of angel investors out there. I'm trying to help young people get on their feet and get started because I never had that help.
When you get to the Pearly Gates, what do you want angel Gabriel to read out and say about you?
I just hope that people realise that I always try very hard, that I’m a nice guy. I always try to be fair by everybody. Even in adversity, even when people weren't as fair with me as I would like them to have been, I think, you’ve got to take the moral high ground, to be a good person. Good things happen to good people. So hopefully, we'll be at the Pearly Gates and not the alternative.