John and Irene Hays have been described as ‘angels’ for swooping in to snap up Thomas Cook’s high street shops
For a few days now, John and Irene Hays haven’t been able to go out in public without someone wanting to shake their hand, give them an almighty cuddle or plant a smacker on their cheeks.
‘I was walking through Sunderland and a lady said, “Are you Irene Hays? I recognise you from the telly,” says 65-year-old Irene. ‘Then she hugged me and went “Mwwah!”
Their phones haven’t stopped ringing and their email inboxes are filled with thousands of messages of praise and thanks from complete strangers, one of whom — a retired teacher — described them as ‘angels’.
‘It was lovely to read, but I had to write back and explain we are nothing of the sort,’ says Irene modestly, rather taken aback at being so venerated. ‘We are really just very ordinary people from very humble backgrounds.’
Ordinary? Hardly. To the thousands of Thomas Cook employees devastated by the sudden collapse of Britain’s oldest travel firm — and left facing financial ruin and a very uncertain future — they are nothing short of saviours.
In one heartfelt message, a former Thomas Cook employee told the Hays they had, ‘given me back my job, given me back my dignity and, most importantly, given my children their mum back’.
This weekend the couple, who have run their Sunderland-based ‘family business’ Hays Travel for 40 years, should have been in Japan, watching the Rugby World Cup.
To the thousands of Thomas Cook employees devastated by the sudden collapse of Britain’s oldest travel firm — and left facing financial ruin and a very uncertain future — they are nothing short of saviours
Instead, they’ve been frantically busy after snapping up the collapsed tour operator’s 555 high street shops, saving 2,500 jobs. They didn’t even know England’s clash with France had been cancelled by Typhoon Hagibis.
Caught up in a mini-storm of their own, John, 70, has been sleeping on office sofas in their Tyne and Wear HQ and, with rents paid until Christmas, dashing around trying to locate keys from landlords of the Thomas Cook shops so they can re-open them as Hays Travel outlets.
The couple had already hired 597 former Thomas Cook staff after the firm went into liquidation on September 23 with the loss of 9,000 jobs, but after sealing the deal — for undisclosed millions — with the Official Receiver at seven minutes to midnight on Tuesday, they plan to take on its entire UK workforce.
No wonder many of the new recruits were in tears at a welcome meeting and insisted on ‘giving us a cuddle even though we didn’t know them from Adam’, says Irene.
So, how does it feel to be crowned ‘Britain’s Best Boss’ and ‘Heroes of the High Street’? ‘I feel a bit embarrassed, quite uncomfortable really,’ John laughs, trying to remove the shiny halo he feels he doesn’t quite deserve. ‘I think we have just always run a business the same way for 40 years since it first started.
‘Thomas Cook was a great brand and we supported the company as travel partners right up until the end. The writing had been on the wall, but when it actually went into liquidation, we saw an opportunity to move quickly.
The bill to the Government, which refused to bail out the 178-year-old company, to repatriate the 150,000 customers stranded overseas is expected to exceed £100million
‘We were the preferred bidder because, I am told, the two others were U.S. private equity firms who wanted to cherry-pick the most profitable shops, while we were willing to take on all of them and the entire staff.’
But how can they possibly succeed where Thomas Cook failed? ‘I don’t want to criticise, but we have a very different business model,’ says John. ‘We’re not a corporate company with shareholders to answer to, but a family-run business.
‘Our ethos is customer service and we just believe in looking after our staff, saying thank you to them when they work hard and they do, going that extra mile for our clients.
‘We hire talented people, place our trust in them, delegate and let them run their stores the way they think best and they repay that trust with results and loyalty.’
John is a fan of the internet and, unlike other entrepreneurs, believes the digital travel age need not spell the end for the High Street stores, provided customers know they are receiving a premium service.
He adds: ‘These people who worked for Thomas Cook didn’t do anything wrong; one day, the company went into liquidation and their jobs had just gone and we feel very proud to be able to give them their jobs back. A lot of the shops were profitable.
‘But we wouldn’t be doing this deal out of pure altruism. We are certain we can make a success of it and profit. We don’t hide from that. Profit is not a dirty word. It’s only when you make a profit that you can re-invest and grow the business.’
Irene, a successful business consultant and chair of the company, adds: ‘Seeing the reports of Thomas Cook employees losing their jobs was very upsetting and we were very lucky to be able to step in quickly.
A fiercely private couple, the Hays put their success down to their humble beginnings. Both were born into mining communities
‘Yes, it was a lot of money, but we’d rather invest in growing the business than buy a yacht or a private jet.’
John adds: ‘I always say to Irene, we’re not skint, but we have a very comfortable lifestyle. We’ve lived in the same house for 16 years, have no desire to leave Sunderland and being based here means we can run a very efficient company with a warm, loyal and hard-working workforce.
‘I don’t think we have taken a dividend from the company for 11 years. All the money we make goes straight back into the business.’
Or to help others less fortunate than themselves. The Hays Travel Charitable Foundation has distributed £1.6million to organisations across the UK.
What a refreshing change from fat-cats who pay themselves millions while their companies sail towards oblivion, in Thomas Cook’s case stranding 150,000 customers overseas and leaving their employees unable to pay the mortgage.
The bill to the Government, which refused to bail out the 178-year-old company, to repatriate them is expected to exceed £100million.
‘I am not going to criticise,’ says John diplomatically. ‘Nor do I condone. We just do things differently.’
Certainly you can’t imagine the highly remunerated directors of Thomas Cook choosing to holiday with their customers, as the Hayses did in 2015 when they led one of their ‘Faraway Tours’ to Vietnam.
‘We met some lovely people and had a wonderful time,’ says Irene. ‘We love travelling and customer service is at the heart of everything we do. I believe everyone deserves a holiday every year, if not two.’
A fiercely private couple, the Hays put their success down to their humble beginnings. Both were born into mining communities.
‘My father was a joiner in the pit and Irene grew up in a similar community,’ says John, who adds with a proud smile that they have been married ‘a very long time’.
They are proud parents of adult children — one of whom, Helen, used to work for the company — and doting grandparents.
‘Where I lived in Seaham, we didn’t have an inside toilet until I was 15 and I suppose some people would call it tough or deprived, but it never felt that way because everyone was the same.’
A bright and sporty boy, John passed the 11-plus exam and went to grammar school before winning a scholarship to study maths at Pembroke College, Oxford.
‘I’m very competitive and I love to win. Anyone who plays tennis with me will tell you that,’ he says. ‘I remember at Oxford we were playing football against Christ Church and I overheard one of them say, ‘Look out for the tough Geordie playing midfield’.
‘I looked around and thought “I’m as soft as mush”, then I realised “Oh, he means me, I must be hard!” I don’t see myself as hard, just driven. A desire to win.’
After completing an MBA, John opened his first branch of Hays at the back of his mother’s childrenswear shop, Peggy’s, in County Durham in 1980.
John says: ‘Thomas Cook was a great brand and we supported the company as travel partners right up until the end’
‘My mum had been very generous in giving me space, rent-free, at the back of the shop, but she didn’t want to give away any space for her racks, so to get to the travel agency you had to work your way through a slalom course of dressing gowns, baby grows, socks and dresses.’
John’s father put up an unvarnished garden trellis to divide the travel agency from the shop. The brochure rack was made of chipboard and the counter was an old dressing table covered in laminate. The first year, John admits, was ‘a nightmare’.
They made just £812 and nearly folded when a rival agency opened up across the road, offering customers free taxi rides to the airport. John responded by offering free travel insurance.
Today, Hays Travel is the largest independent travel agency in the UK, with 190 shops and 1,900 employees.
Last year, its sales hit £1.1billion, bucking the economic trend as more holidaymakers shop for breaks online. To celebrate, the Hays gave every member of staff £100 for every year of service — a gesture which cost them almost £1million.
‘One of our cleaners has worked for us for 35 years and she wept, telling me she’d never had so much money in her account before,’ says Irene, who was awarded a CBE in 2008 and last year received a Lifetime Achievement Award from her local business community.
She was given the award for her work as chief executive of South Tyneside and Sunderland City councils but, during her 42-year career, she has also been key in the private sector, working with Japanese car-maker Nissan, which has a plant in the city.
John adds: ‘We just wanted to say thank you to our staff, regardless of whether they were junior or senior. The next day people told us they’d stayed up till one minute past midnight just so they could open their accounts and see the money.
‘We also had a party to celebrate. We do like our parties. Any excuse for a party. It’s part of our culture, something about Sunderland, but also a simple way of saying thank you to our staff whose mantra is “no bother” which is Sunderland for “yes, I can do that for you”.
John and Irene’s annual staff parties are legendary. ‘We started them 30 years ago when we had just two shops and ten staff,’ says John. ‘We invited them to our house for a barbecue and I think eight turned up.’
Irene adds: ‘In the early years, I used to cook chilli con carne and garlic bread, but now it’s grown far too big for that.’
Since moving into their home in the South Tyneside village of Whitburn, bought for a relatively modest £685,000 in 2002, their parties have been held in their large garden on the first Sunday of July. This year, almost 600 employees attended.
‘Every year, I think it’s going to pour with rain, but it never does, which is just remarkable,’ says John, who this year entertained guests with a lively performance of Oasis’s Wonderwall.
‘We have a hog roast, live bands, prosecco and Pimm’s and Irene and I go round pouring everyone’s drinks. It’s always a great day and our way of showing thanks.
‘We all know they could put on their coats at 5.30pm on the dot and go home, but if they have a client in front of them they will stay late. We don’t make them — they want to because the customer is everything.
‘In a service industry, to have that dedication is just huge, so we do a lot of things to say thank you for behaving in that way.’
The Thomas Cook staff given a lifeline by John and Irene must be looking forward to the next party — if they can all fit in the garden.