Linda Walmsley is a professional interviewer and business owner of UK executive and management recruitment firm, Walmsley Wilkinson. During 2023 she continues a series of interviews with Business Leaders who have innovated within their field of expertise and have warranted the description of being an inspiring leader.
Steve joined Travel Counsellors in 2004 as Managing Director and became CEO in September 2016. Steve led an MBO of the business in 2014 backed by Equistone Partners Europe Limited, and in 2018 steered the company through a secondary buy-out with Vitruvian Partners.
Travel Counsellors is the UK’s largest and fast-growing technology platform for travel entrepreneurs that connects over 1,900 independent business owners, enabling them to deliver exceptional levels of customer service, with limitless potential and scale. The company operates in six countries and employees over 300 people in its support team in Manchester.
The company has won the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise for the third time in the company’s history during 2021, alongside Best National Travel Retailer in the British Travel Awards, and topped MoneySavingExpert’s consumer poll of companies looking after customers during the pandemic, with a consistent 5-star Trustpilot rating.
The Company is currently investing £10m in its technology platform to provide the ability for individual travel counsellors and the company to take advantage of the opportunity that exists to grow rapidly.
The Company’s trading continues to go from strength to strength. In the year to 31 October 2022, Total Transaction Value (“TTV”) on the platform was more than £700m, up more than 300% against the prior year, with sales expected to reach £1bn this year.
What were your career aspirations when you were younger?
I think I was defined by my upbringing. My main aim was to be independent, and I didn’t want to be in a position where I was having to be reliant or dependent on anyone or anything. I didn’t quite achieve that, which is why I think I’ve always been a big admirer of people who create their own businesses and take control of their own destiny, which I am lucky enough to witness every day in my role now.
What was your first job?
A newspaper round. I can’t remember how old I was, but I was literally up at daft o’ clock delivering newspapers. I then moved into the world of selling kitchens and beds, which I was doing that after school and at weekends during my sixth form years.
Who or what, inspired you to embark on your business career?
I think on reflection you come across many great people and inspiration is all around you, but probably if I was to home in on one, it would be my Dad. who worked really hard to keep a roof over our heads – his wife Julie, myself and my brother and sister. Then when he had earnt his retirement, he was then unfortunately diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis. This was at a time when there wasn’t much treatment, so his retirement years were seriously curtailed, in both quality and length. Even when he was diagnosed, he never once complained about it, and he just got on with it. His hard work and his commitment to his family make him my role model.
What words best describe you?
I’m struggling with this. I’m tempted to ask a few people, but I might not like the answer (laughing). Perhaps passionate, resilient, hardworking and I hope others would say that I’m people focused.
Do you have a favourite saying or quote?
There are a couple of things, that probably on reflection, I refer to the most. One is, which I think was from Ghandi, “be the change you want to see in the world”, which goes back to the taking ownership and taking responsibility and that’s always done with humility and care. I do believe that life is 90% attitude and 10% facts – learning and training your mind to be able to see the positive in any situation. You have to work at it but I’m a big believer in that as well.
What technology are you passionate about?
Everyone is tech enabled now to varying degrees and in many ways, it has made people’s lives easier. I think I try to see it from an investor point of view. We’ve all got experiences in life, so I think any technology that can enhance life, address illness, improve people’s health, and can even help cure life threatening illnesses. I’d love to be able, one day, to invest in technology that helps people to live longer in good health. I think that kind of stuff is pretty powerful. There is day to day technology that we all use but I think it pales into insignificance with that. Any technology that helps people from a health or sustainability point of view are worthy and good investments to make.
How should the Human Resources function operate within any business?
The HR function is fundamental and should be carefully constructed. It’s there to make sure that the people part of the business, which is the most important part, reflects the company strategy. It’s there to help ensure that the behaviours of that business, including the leaders, reflect the values of that company. It’s a strategic function to make sure you have the right people in the right place at the right time with the right skills. It’s crucial as you grow and so important as the facilitator of the human glue in the business, and it’s this human glue that makes a business more than a business. If you want to talk about community and culture, where people do things together through being at work, but also lasting beyond work through building friendships and trusting relationships with each other and with customers, then a proper and effective people function plays a critical role. It’s not a complete owner of those things but it plays an important role. Fundamentally it has to operate in accordance with the company’s visions and values, like every part of the business.
What are your views on attracting talent and how do you go about it.
You want to position yourself to attract the people who will love being part of your business and what you stand for. We position Travel Counsellors as being for anyone, but it’s not for everyone. You want to be recognised as being inclusive and diverse but as in any relationship, the fit may not be right for different reasons. It’s important that you make it clear in the way that you express yourself and behave and how that behaviour is advocated, or not, by people who see it in practice. Our business is based on customer advocacy and advocacy of our people. Advocacy of how you behave relates to those people who can relate to those types of behaviours, and it may turn people off who can’t relate.
How you behave and the advocacy you create around your behaviour, as well as the image you give of the world, are critical. I also think that it’s important that you take the time to design the role for the skill sets and the behaviours that you want and recruit with that design in mind. Where you can, put some science into it, so that you are very clear on the experience, skills, and behaviour you are trying to recruit for and then attract candidates can then meet that design. We do that a lot in Travel Counsellors and overall, it’s been successful. We don’t always get it right, but we have been pretty good at bringing in people with complementary backgrounds and actively recruit outside of the travel sector to get different experiences, but with people that share the same values.
Has diversity and inclusion now become embedded or is there still much more to do?
People are attending to it more now, but there’s clearly a huge way to go. This is all about diverse talent. How do you position yourself to attract, develop and retain the very best talent, wherever that talent might be. You have to work really hard at it. It’s a tactical consideration but it’s also strategic. You’ve got to take a step back. You can make individual decisions that might individually be OK, but the end result means you haven’t actually made an impact and therefore you’re losing out as a business. I think there’s a lot of work that is still needing to be done. I think we’re pretty good, but we want to be much better. Ultimately any business is driven by people, and this is about attracting the people into your business that you want to attract.
What legislation would you amend or implement to support UK business?
Anything that helps mobility of talent. Anything that enables people to live the life that they want and bring their skills and experiences to bear in the cultures and the countries and the businesses that they chose, can only be enriching for a business or society. Anything that enables talent and skills to develop, I’m supportive of.
In your opinion what elements are key to be a successful CEO?
I think there are probably elements in respect to your personality or behaviours and characteristics in terms of being successful and having the impact that you want. I think it’s pretty clear that you have to be very focused on certain things. Vision, you’ve got to be able to articulate why your business exists.. Having clear values and evidencing those values in the way you behave personally and the way you support and develop other people. Being able to articulate a clear strategy, bearing in mind that strategy does evolve. We had one strategy going into Covid and a different one in navigating Covid. So, being clear on your vision, having clear values, living those values, having a clear strategy and being able to articulate that and a focus on people and culture. I think that those are the things that as a CEO you want to do your best to master.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Hugely imperfect (laughing), learning – I think that’s the best thing about business and life, you never stop learning, do you. Every day you learn something new about people or in reading something – so, imperfect, always learning and always looking to improve. Overall, positively dissatisfied, looking for the best in things and the best in people but with a constant agitation to want to make things better and do things better.
What is your biggest career highlight or achievement to date?
I don’t think there is anything particular that I could or should attach to me. One of our greatest achievements as a community has been how we navigated Covid. Our business was growing by 20% going into covid and then it was obliterated. Commercially we were 95% down – a community of self-employed business owners, who saw their income decimated but their workload maintained, having to look after customers. I think our greatest achievement as a community was to navigate it and come through it. I’m really proud, that if you ask our Travel Counsellors how many would have got through Covid without the support of their Travel Counsellor colleagues, then all of them would recognise that the friendship and support they got from their colleagues was a critical part of their support network and that goes to the heart of your culture. Not only did we navigate it financially and commercially, but we were also one of the few businesses that enhanced our reputation during this time, because of the way our Travel Counsellors looked after their customers. They carried on caring, they carried on being there for customers and we tried to do the same in the way we conducted ourselves.
I said that going into Covid it would make us do some things that we didn’t want to do, but it shouldn’t dictate how we behaved. We stayed true to our values of caring and as a result, we came out of it with our reputation enhanced. We came top of MoneySavingExpert’s survey on how a business looked after its customers during Covid. As a result, our recovery has been profound. We are 67% up on pre-covid levels as a business and that’s because of what we had before, but also how our people looked after their customers and each other. I think that’s the thing I’m most proud of – the stoicism, resilience, care, and kindness that our Travel counsellors showed during Covid. This meant we not only came through it, but we also bounced back really strongly, so being associated with that is probably the think I am most proud of so far.
What’s next for you and Travel Counsellors?
To put a little context to it and it’s not just about this for me, but people can relate to the figures, we expect the value of sales going through our platform to top £1bn later this year, with over two thousand travel entrepreneurs using our platform. I believe in leading from the back, although I had to be a bit more visible in Covid, and providing a platform for talent to shine, whether that’s a Travel Counsellor, a colleague or a leader. So how can we build a platform to allow talent to shine and care in its different guises and build a leadership team and a strategy that helps take the business to the next level, so that more customers can enjoy the benefit of having someone to care for their travel like a Travel Counsellor does.
For us, it’s about building a really successful, rewarding, enjoyable, and enriching experience for more people, giving them the opportunity and platform that empowers them to have their own business and define what they want for that business, for themselves and their family. That’s the thing that motivates me. To make sure that we’re got the vision, the values, the approach to people, strategy and culture that enables all of that. For me, it’s all about the people. It’s about creating an atmosphere and a culture where people can give the best of themselves. I want people to be able to say when they look back on their careers, taking all things into account, that they had the best of times at Travel Counsellors. It doesn’t mean that they sign their life away and stay here forever and a day, although many do, but that they have the best of times, are proud of how we acted and what we stood for. That’s about staying true to your values and doing all you can to stay true to them. They are the things that keep you honest, even in the toughest of times. Staying true to your values and building a business based on that is hugely exciting. What a great opportunity we’ve got to expand our business and increase our market share, here in the UK and elsewhere, achieving this by doing the right thing by our customers and our people.