Numbers, people and opportunity: A Q&A with our Managing Director, Ken Thompson
Ken is Eton Travel Group’s Managing Director and led the team in the staff buy out in 2001. From leaving school at 15 and taking up an apprenticeship as a trainee accountant, to going on to enjoy 45 years in the travel industry, Ken’s head for numbers and a belief in the power of people has helped him steer the organisation through good times and bad. We interviewed Ken in the lead up to our 50th anniversary. In this Q&A he talks about his respect for his predecessor, 9/11 and hopes for the future of Eton Travel.
How long have you been in the travel industry?
I’ve been in the travel industry for 45 years, nearly 30 years of which have been with Eton Travel. Prior to that I worked at Ian Allan Travel Management as Director of Administration and Accounts. I’d initially worked for the organisation’s printing arm but as my career developed I moved over to the travel side of its business. This is where my passion for the industry began.
When you left school at 15, did you ever believe you’d be heading up one of the largest independent travel management companies in the UK?
I feel very fortunate that on leaving school the employment office, as it was at the time, recognised I was good at numbers and helped me secure an apprenticeship in the accounts office of a printing company. This company was dedicated to nurturing young talent and whilst I didn’t have aspirations of becoming a Managing Director at the time that early career experience set me on a route into a career I love. It also fostered a strong personal belief that every young person, regardless of whether or not they went to university, should have such an opportunity. The introduction of our own Internship and Apprenticeship scheme was borne out of this belief and is something that I am very proud of.
How has your head for figures helped you in your role as the company’s Managing Director?
To be successful in any business you obviously need to have a firm grasp of the figures, however, for me, it was my financial background that gave me the confidence to lead the management buy-out of the organisation when the previous Managing Director was looking to retire and sell the business in 2001.
What were the circumstances of the buy-out?
Again, I felt privileged to be in the right place at the right time. My predecessor had built up a very solid business and in his retirement he wanted to look after staff members as, in his words, "they had looked after him." As such, he gave everyone in the company the opportunity to buy shares and thereby play a role in how Eton Travel would develop moving forwards. Initially there were 10 investors, with six of us remaining today.
What has been your toughest moment since the management buy-out?
We bought the company on the 15 th August 2001. Less than four weeks later we looked on in horror as the 9/11 terrorist attacks played out in New York. The impact on the travel industry was immediate and our income took a big hit, however, seeing so many people losing their lives put our problems into perspective. We pulled together as a team, acknowledged we had been thrown in at the deep end and worked hard. It took us 2-3 months to get back to where we had been prior to the attacks.
What have you been most proud of during your time as Managing Director?
When we took over we inherited a 'people-first' ethos. This matched my own belief and the beliefs of all shareholders – without exception. We work in a people-focused industry. If we don’t look after our own staff they will not be motivated to look after our customers. I feel my biggest achievement is that we continue to have an incredibly loyal, dedicated team of people working for us, a large percentage of whom have dedicated many years of service supporting the growth of the business.
What are your goals for the future of Eton Travel?
The travel industry is entering a new era. We are experiencing a strong upturn in business as we move out of the economic slump and reap the rewards of a renewed appreciation of the value of using travel management companies to help reduce costs, improve customer satisfaction and more. My goal now is to double our turnover in the next five years. With the team I have beside me this feels very achievable.
And finally, what advice would you give today to a young person wanting to get into the industry?
During my time in the industry I have known many young people start out as interns and go on to reach the top, with more than a few running their own businesses. These individual stood out for their commitment and dedication but, for me, the difference between those that succeeded and those that failed was a love for the industry. So my advice would be enjoy it. Enjoy what you are doing and then whatever path you take it is sure to lead to a great career!