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Discover how high-flyer Richard Noon steered Webjet’s vision and future growth to the next level in cyberspace. 

Richard Noon possesses the traits typical of a leader driving a business forward. Discipline, ambition and a quiet determination that belies the impact he’s had as CEO of online travel portal Webjet.

Noon’s credentials in the travel industry span 30 years, having worked for Jetset in the 70s and 80s – the “Flight Centre of its day” – before a brief foray into the banking industry, “which I didn’t like at all. [It’s a] conservative, slow type of culture, whereas in travel, you’ve got very low margins and high volume.” 

For this forward thinker, it’s a more appealing environment. 

“You have to be much faster on your feet which makes a more innovative sort of business.”

Noon returned to his roots, running strategy and technology for Concorde Travel. He joined Webjet in 2004, four years after its back-door listing on the Australian Stock Exchange. 

From little things ...

The company faced certain challenges following the listing. The dot-com crash in 2000 didn’t help, but Noon says Webjet’s biggest challenge was the lack of in-house technology. “They were renting effectively someone else’s booking engine, if you do that you’re always beholden to someone else’s technology, someone else’s timeframe,” he says.

Webjet founder, David Clarke, made an ambitious move to rectify this by approaching the global heads of Microsoft and Galileo Travelport. The vision was for Microsoft to build the technology and Galileo to buy Webjet shares to fund it. “I think what Galileo saw in us was a vision and a capability – obviously the players within Webjet had a good reputation – and they were prepared to say, ‘You know what, here’s this little Australian company that we think has their head screwed on, let’s take a chance’.”

It’s testament to what small players with big vision can achieve. The bold strategy paid off, as Noon reveals. “You have to take those courageous steps and just go with it and [they] both said yes!”

Getting the technology up to speed was crucial, but as Noon points out, “they had great technology, with a simple and easy to read airfare matrix, but essentially no one knew about it”.

This prompted a call for action to increase consumer awareness. Webjet implemented a search marketing campaign to complement the enhanced technology, starting with a test of $5000 a month and within a few months, was spending $100,000 a month.

It proved integral to growth and the jump in sales figures speak for themselves. “Since then we were doing about $20m a year and we’re now doing $330m a year, so in four years we’ve grown 16 times,” Noon says. 

Smart business practice

The Webjet management team comprises several of Noon’s former Jetset colleagues. 

It’s a tight nucleus with the right set of complementary skills. “It’s fair to say that we don’t have the politics, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, which cuts out a lot of nonsense.” 

In an increasingly saturated market, Webjet has forged its own path as a leader in online travel services. Thinking differently is fundamental, says Noon. “If you look at any growth company, they’ve always taken a different angle or a different value proposition to the incumbents because they can’t take the incumbents head on.” 

Instead, Webjet focuses on the needs of the customer. “How we think is, ‘What would the customer like?’, and we constantly challenge the inherited travel model.”

Crunching the numbers is a constant for Noon. “In terms of the way we manage the business, we are so numbers orientated it’s not silly. I can tell you [at any given time] what the average booking value is, who’s buying what, year-to-date figures, anything!” 

Noon says it’s a ‘can’t measure, can’t manage’ philosophy. “It comes back to doing small projects, because if you get it wrong, you can put the brakes on very quickly.”

In terms of leadership, Noon believes ‘benevolent dictatorship’ produces the best results. “I think you have to involve people and there has to be a consensus, but in the end there has to be a decision and someone has to put the stake in the ground and be responsible for it.”

In terms of future growth for Webjet, Noon has his feet firmly on the ground. “Our guidance is certainly to produce a good result for the year and going into next year we still believe we will be strong, we believe we’ll be growing market share, but there is a big question mark on the overall travel market.”

Still, the future for Webjet looks bright with Noon at its helm. 

“We have fun, because if we’re doing that and we’re being innovative and we’re solving people’s problems, I think that’s great.” 

Published on: Thursday, December 18, 2008

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