Continuing our series interviewing some of the brightest minds and successful people in the UK, Howgate Sable partner, Nick Irving, chatted to Chris Browne OBE. Chris was COO and MD of TUI, where she orchestrated the successful merger of First Choice Airways and Thomsonfly. She’s also acted as COO of EasyJet and currently holds non-executive positions at the UK’s top-five housebuilder, The Vistry Group and Norwegian Air. Here, Chris shares her unique behind-the-scenes insight into the pandemic and its effect on the travel industry, as well as her predictions for change in business globally.
Have you ever experienced anything as turbulent as the pandemic?
In the 30 years I’ve been in aviation, I genuinely thought I’d seen it all. No one has witnessed the turmoil and devastation this has caused to the travel industry. Right now, it’s a matter of survival. The industry will need two years to recover from this and it’s very clear that liquidity is everything – only the companies that have been managed well and have a strong balance sheet, will come out of this stronger.
There is no overnight solution to this pandemic, recovery will take time. We cannot underestimate how many people have been affected and I mean every company attached to the industry. Aircraft manufacturers, tourism businesses, airport cafes, airline caterers, baggage handlers, airlines, bus operators, airport taxi – the list is endless. We can’t just turn the furlough tap off and expect everything to begin again. There are so many restrictions and regulations surrounding air travel that it will take many months to get anywhere near the normal flying routines.
Ash clouds, French strikes, storms over Europe – do these things pale in comparison?
I remember when the Icelandic ash cloud hit – we thought that was bad! Lord Adonis was the Transport Secretary at the time and I was called down to London. Airspace had been closed – and without any previous data to understand the impact of ash on aircraft. That meant, the Government couldn’t reopen as they had nothing to compare to. We needed data to show it was safe to reopen our airspace.
I managed to convince Lord Adonis to let us carry out some test flights, ironically from grounded planes in Iceland, back to the UK. The experiment showed there was no damage to the planes and things got started again. But that was different – it was a major crisis, but nothing in comparison to today.
The financial impact of the pandemic is incomparable and there will be winners and losers here. Like all crises – lessons will be learnt. For low-cost carriers, making the right decisions now could support future growth. Those that have cash, can build for the future and turn a negative situation into a positive one. This is already apparent with deals being done with carriers and manufacturers right to build on the future offering for business.
It’s an awful crisis, but what are the potential opportunities?
Business leaders must look at what this pandemic has taught us. Cost reductions, remote working, customer communications – some industries have been so far behind the curve when it comes to customer desires and demands.
If you consider the construction industry – housebuilding – having a converted garage on a building site for customers to come and view brochures is prehistoric. During the pandemic, construction seized the opportunity to experiment. The sector has invested in virtual solutions that offer customers a method to view their new home without having to go on site. It’s been a real success and something to build on and improve upon and a real hit with customers.
And it’s not just about savings, this pandemic will change how homes will be designed. If more remote working is here to stay, what will the house of the future look like? A standard, UK family home will need to look at clever design for workspace. Traditional home floorplans will look different.
Getting the balance right between working remotely and travelling to the workplace is key in the future. It doesn’t make business sense for meeting schedules to just pick back up again. I see good cost savings from having a 50:50 approach to physical and virtual meetings – we’ll also see those less gregarious characters benefitting from a virtual setting. When you have solid teams, loyal teams, it just isn’t necessary. This pandemic has proved it can work remotely. The costs savings for business are substantial.
There are some downsides, I would heed caution over completely switching to this working practice. In my experience, remote working with a new team can be difficult. Meetings are about body language and social interactions, as well as the work. When you have a new or inexperienced team, how can they learn and develop? For a new PLC board, collaborative, face-to-face meetings would be essential for relationships to flourish.
Work life balance
Historically, UK business has pushed presenteeism, it has to change – that was the 90s! A culture of ‘first to arrive, last to leave’, always being present was the norm. I truly believe business success will never thrive if these practices are still active. The expectation from younger professionals today is more realistic, but often negatively judged by elders. I believe we should listen to young people and what they’re pushing for.
The whole ESG agenda – some companies get it, and some just don’t. At board level, you can’t ignore it or just tick the boxes on this, those businesses will be seriously missing out.
I hope organisations will reassess and consider what is right for employees and how to deal with returning to office life safely. In Canary Wharf and other city buildings, some of these offices are completely impractical to observe social distancing, just think of trying to monitor the lift! Big changes will need to be made – and I hope an improved work life balance is achieved in the process.
Positives for the travel industry specifically?
I can see many. When it comes to travel, I have no doubt people appreciate the value of their annual holiday more than ever before. Those who have family aboard will never underestimate the simplicity of jumping on a plane.
Those airlines that have valued their customers, supported them and offered quick refunds, will see loyalty and I think those firms will bounce back stronger than some.
And, who said the package holiday was dead?! Well, not anymore. I can see the 80s favourite bouncing back. A totally protected holiday if something goes wrong – this is what people will be looking for. And strong, trusted brands.
I expect that the over 50s market will bounce back quickly too, as consumers in this bracket will feel comfortable booking trips following vaccination. Short haul and budget breaks will see a recovery first but for every single carrier, customer service will be key – companies offering great service right now and those that continue to do so will be the ones who thrive.
What does the industry need now?
The industry needs some consistency, the chopping and changing of all the regulations is very damaging and costly. What the sector needs is a level playing field and consistency. Across the world, but especially in the UK and Europe.
Furlough has saved thousands of jobs – it’s given the industry time to restructure, recover. Without it, the level of redundancies in the market would have been incredible. The pandemic has merely accelerated some company’s issues though, those who were not innovating and developing their offer would have suffered with or without the crisis. The Government needs to consider companies that should be protected and saved with support. Those that were dying before, were never going to make it.
The UK has always been a leader in the aviation market, we’ve had more innovation and competition that anywhere else in the world. So, The Government must help this to continue. UK PLC shouldn’t be penalised while the rest of Europe subsidise their flagship carriers.
What advice would you give new executives?
Going into a crisis like this, the most important thing is to put people before profit. That sounds like a very difficult thing to do when sales have disappeared, but we must always act with integrity, no matter how difficult it gets.
Younger people have very different values than what I grew up with. We need to think about the workforce of the future, the consumers of the future – how do they view a company? There is no business if internal practices means customers lose faith in the brand.
I had three things I always referred to when making any business decision. Firstly, what’s your purpose? Then, what’s the plan? That plan had to cover the bad times too. Finally, people. If these three things are always at the top of the agenda, I felt confident I was doing the right thing.
I imagine this was never more true than when you were in managing the merger of First Choice Airways and Thomsonfly.
I had a plethora of decisions to make when merging the two airlines. There were 16,000 – yes I counted them! The airline industry has so many regulations and these decisions we had to make were monumental – passenger safety, aircraft safety, peoples jobs, etc.
I’d always put my people first, I promised I would communicate with them and they’d hear the important news directly from me. I had to explain to the team in Manchester that the future was Luton. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
I couldn’t control the tears. And I felt so stupid, but realised later that showing emotion and making the hard decisions demonstrates to your team how much it means and it showed it had affected me, as much as it had them.
The result of being honest and treating people fairly was that more people followed us to Luton than we ever expected.
We know supporting women to reach board level is something you’re passionate about. What would you tell aspiring female executives?
I would hope that’s its easier for a woman now than when I started out. I hope I’ve helped pave a smoother path for future generations. I’ll look forward to the day it’s not talked about but we’re not there yet – nowhere near it.
I was violently against the female quota when it came out, I wouldn’t have ever wanted to be the token woman on a board. But, now I think without forcing certain companies to do it, I don’t think we’d be where we are today. With the boards that I sit on, I vigorously encourage them to think carefully about diversity. In its wider sense, not just about gender.
Companies need to understand the importance of this, as well as taking meaningful action around sustainability. But it is getting better and you can see clear successes of those breaking the mould.
Probably the most important thing I’d tell any aspirating female executive is to have faith in yourself. Women are the first to criticise their own abilities. We need to learn to look at the positives before saying, ‘I can’t do it’.
What Kamala Harris has achieved, and the hope and inspiration I know it will give young women, is just tremendous. I’m very excited to see what she will bring to US governance.
The tone you set at the top is critical
Leadership and the impact the change that one person can make is astounding – the leader sets the tone. I’ve seen that at my non-executive role at Vistry – a new CEO quickly created such positive change. Customer satisfaction, build quality, safety, a merger, the pandemic – unless you have powerful leadership and guidance of the board and team at the top, these fundamental business activities wouldn’t be achieved.