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12 travellers touring: Flight Centre Limited

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The thought of Graham “Skroo” Turner’s business success with Top Deck Travel and later with Flight Centre Limited has always taken my mind back to Mick Jagger’s view on what most men think success is.

“For most people, the fantasy is driving around in a big car, having all the chicks you want and being able to pay for it,” he once said. “It has always been, still is, and always will be.

“Anyone who says it isn’t is talking bullshit.”

When Graham Turner, a vet, and his mate Geoff Lomas made their trek to London in 1972 when most Aussie males could have related to the views of Jagger, the Holy Grail of overseas jobs for young men was to drive a tour bus around Europe. Why? The women outnumbered the men on these tours big-time.

Whatever the initial motivation for the establishment of the wildly successful Top Deck Travel, the pair’s $1300 investment in a well-travelled old double-decker bus in 1973 gave birth to a beautiful business ‘baby’ that grew into a great business.

By the early 1980s, Top Deck had around 80 buses and it saw Turner return home to take off with his first Flight Centre store. By 1986, a management buyout for the bus business saw Turner put all his efforts into Flight Centre.

Believe in the vision

The vision was important and they believed in it from the start.

“In Flight Centre Limited, we knew almost as soon as we started in 1981,” he says. “It was because we were pretty certain and had some prior London experience. We were very confident and proven right from the first Travel Shop in Sydney's Martin Place.”

Nowadays, Graham Turner is managing director, which in itself is unusual as most founders of private companies that go public invariably get kicked upstairs to the board or simply get kicked out of the company.

The Turner fingerprints are all over this company. They have not come from a pushy meddler who can’t let go but from a ‘hands on’ leader who knows business success starts with motivating your people to take the journey to the vision.

While the FCL vision was not clear when he left the family orchard in Stanhope, Queensland, he could see a growing business by the time he had taken the wheel behind Top Deck, which recorded a 300,000 pound profit in its first year.

FCL now has many faces. It is made up of the retail travel brand, its corporate FCm Travel Solutions brand, and other brands that include Escape Travel, Travel Associates, Student Flights, and Overseas Working Holidays.

“I’ve always been an empire builder,” he says. “We always planned to grow and we had a pretty aggressive plan for organic growth.

“Our five-year plans were outrageous but, amazingly, we exceeded all plans.”

The sensational growth stories continued in Australia with FCL growing at 20-30 per cent for a decade culminating in 20 per cent of the company being floated in 1995.

This decision and the thinking behind it gives us a clue to an important ingredient in Turner’s leadership style and the link this has to the business success story.

Turner admits the main reason for listing was to give his staff a chance to take a stake in the company.

At the time, shares went on sale to the public for 95 cents, and 85 cents for staff. These shares now sell for around $19.

Many small- to medium-size enterprises (SMEs) use a listing to access cash to go for growth but it wasn’t Turner’s motive.

“It can be a positive move for SMEs, and it can be negative, it depends on the motivation,” he says. “I wanted to give staff the chance to own a piece of the brand.”

Anyone looking for the complex collection of pieces that make up the puzzle picture explaining FCL’s success need look no further than Turner’s view on getting the best out of people.

He has a decentralised management structure, where each management head is responsible for the hiring, firing, and decision-making for their own team. His key role then is to ensure things are working across the brand.

Team development

The best leaders, the leadership gurus insist, develop and care for their teams. They are not employees.

“It’s not just about pay, it’s about personal and professional development,” Turner insists. “While it’s clearly not a democracy, we need to have staff feel like they have input.”

Staff feedback says the founder/MD has created an egalitarian culture where there are no special privileges unless they apply to everyone, there are no individual offices or secretaries, and even he only has one phone.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed with The Sunday Times in the UK naming FCL on the ‘Best 100 Companies to Work for List’ in 2008. That’s six years on a trot.

Rewards are crucial, according to Turner.
“What gets rewarded gets done,” he says emphatically.

As a leader he puts enormous emphasis on creating relationships, getting involved and seeing his people develop. The formula is pretty straightforward.

He says choosing the right people to run the businesses and the disciplines within the business were crucial.

“Working with them effectively, having fun with them, challenging them and trying to help them grow into more effective and successful business people.”

And what gave him a kick as a leader?

“Seeing your people rise (usually) to the challenge,” he says.

The company has value-adds such as a free independent financial management advice, a free health check program for staff and access to management training. It’s not just in-store personnel development but also personal development.

Turner's tips

Turner and FCL are into technology and innovation to keep ahead of the pack. He seeks ‘expert’ advice on common sense changes to the business.

 “A lot of innovation is moving away from a conventional way of doing things because that’s how it’s always done, to more common sense,” he explains. “And a lot of our innovation comes from the staff at the frontline.”

Turner thinks old-fashioned values help in troubled times.

“You have to supply good value service and good value products and you’ll fly through blips like that,” he says.

He also is not afraid to lash out with marketing programs that reinforce the brand. At one stage, TV ads showed very engaged staff members riding surfboards and going underwater to understand customers’ needs, which exudes what Turner stands for as a leader of his team.

It’s about understanding the key people in his successful business — his customers and his people.

If you’re looking for a point of difference from the FCL story to grow your business then look at Graham Turner’s leadership style.

If you’re looking to work on your business rather than being stuck in it, book in for a complimentary business assessment today with Switzer Business Coaching.

Important information: This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

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