WHEN historian Geoffrey Blainey coined ‘the tyranny of distance’ he probably didn’t have the nation’s travel agencies in mind, but for some reason Brisbane, far from the southern capitals, is very good at producing them.
Flight Centre is a household name and Wotif has made its fortunes from the internet boom, but outside the publicly-listed sphere is Corporate Travel Management, which its owner Jamie Pherous expects to become a $1 billion company in the next five years.
It all started in the early 90s when Pherous was an accountant with multinational firm Arthur Andersen (now Ernst & Young), travelling the globe and realising that he could find better fares than the specialists.
“There was a niche that wasn’t tapped and part of that was that the big players who wanted to book corporate travel really only had the choice of big global travel management companies, and that typically meant they were call centres,” says the 41-year-old.
“It was one-size-fits-all and you couldn’t really get options, so you might find a big company could get a discount for having volume but you could go and get a better fare that was more effective.
“There wasn’t a diagnostic or accountability to demonstrate the savings and the return of the investment as a company you get, and that’s why we went into travel and the niche we found.”
He admits the level of competition was overwhelming, but with a focus to grow organically and acquire like-minded business, he was able to get the business to hold the 6 per cent market share it does today.
“A lot of people in the travel industry and friends thought I was mad, but I’m a great believer that if you stick to a discipline or niche and it’s something you believe in, if you have an unwavering commitment and work ethic to get there, you normally do,” he says.
“Workforce planning is the key to a good business. It’s two fold and internally it comes down to how well we plan to ensure we get not just the right number of staff but a good supply of excellent staff.
“We don’t just want to be a great travel management company but a great Australian company and to do that we’ve imported a lot of talent that we couldn’t find in travel, in different industries.”
He says staff and client retention is paramount in the industry, which is supported by an openness to innovative ideas and encouraging work-life balance.
“If you’re customer-facing you tend to always be at the curve of innovation and delivery. We have an internal innovation program that both acknowledges and rewards ideas,” he says.
“The difference in a big company that can still stay small is a management team that’s focused upon listening, having a framework to take on board those ideas, and executing them in an agreed timeframe, and that’s something we’re very passionate about.
“The idea is to develop and harness great talent, and to attract that talent there’s got to be a work-life balance – it’s been our philosophy from day one and I think the calibre of people we have here and our retention rates support that.”
But while many businesses promote work-life balance, Pherous says it’s important to lead by example.
“Between looking after three young boys, which keeps me busy and also keeps me grounded, I’m an adrenaline junkie by heart – I love to go surfing and snow skiing as often as I can and being in the travel industry I’m grateful to have last minute access to get to the snow,” he says.
“For some reason I very rarely do work after hours. It’s something I’m really proud of and what I really like about surfing or skiing is it cleanses your mind. All you’re thinking about is the next wave or the next turn.
“I’m one of those weird people who love the sound of an airplane door closing, because I have time to myself and I do most of my thinking on an aircraft – the longer the better, I’m a big fan of long-haul.”
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