John Hays, who has died suddenly aged 71, was propelled into national prominence in November 2019, when the company he co-owned with his wife, Irene, came to the rescue of 2,500 staff who lost their jobs with the collapse of Thomas Cook. All 550 of its retail shops became part of Sunderland-based Hays Travel, begun 40 years earlier by John as a one-man operation in the back of his mother’s babywear shop.
Having instantly doubled their workforce and trebled their number of outlets, the pair were dubbed “high street heroes’’ and were in great demand from the media, who were, to some degree, sceptical that they could succeed where Thomas Cook had so spectacularly failed. This despite the fact Hays Travel had been, for several years, the UK’s biggest independent travel agent.
Those who witnessed John and Irene’s many TV interviews recognised they were a formidable – but engaging – combination, who believed they had made a shrewd acquisition and were clearly delighted to have saved so many highly-qualified staff.
“The travel industry is a family,’’ said John. “We look after each other. Some people have portrayed us as country bumpkins. We’ll see what they think in a couple of years’ time.’’
John always believed the success of the business was built on good, personal, customer service, and a trust in his staff to deliver. Unlike many of his rivals he viewed the internet as a help, not a hindrance, with Hays Travel actively using social media to establish a link with potential holidaymakers. He took the role of managing director, and Irene that of chairman.
By February 2020 they were on track, turning around even loss-making Thomas Cook stores. Then came the pandemic. Hard decisions were taken, including hundreds of job cuts, but their two-year business plan was bolstered by a strong balance sheet – the Hays had taken nothing out of the main business for 11 years and had no debt.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s not anybody’s fault,’’ said John, brushing aside suggestions he might now be regretting the Thomas Cook deal. “All you can do is make the best of it. We’ll survive. Eventually there’ll be a vaccine – and the first thing people will want is a holiday.’’
John was born in the mining town of Seaham in County Durham to Jack Hays, a colliery carpenter, and Peggy (nee Moffat), who ran a consumer credit business before branching out into children’s clothing.
Educated at Ryhope grammar school in Sunderland, he won a scholarship to Oxford University in 1967, but his initial experience of studying pure maths at Pembroke College was not a happy one. “I had a chip on my shoulder, surrounded by all these lads from Eton,’’ he later admitted.
Having failed his end of year exams, he turned down the offer of moving to another university. Instead, he took a job in an Oxford pub, financed himself while studying alone, and returned to complete his degree. “I learned about life in that year,’’ he said. ‘’You can still be successful, even if you’ve failed at something. The only people who don’t make mistakes are those who’ve done nothing.’’
John went on to gain a master’s degree in business studies at Manchester Business School, but soon decided that the career in the City which followed was not for him. Returning to Seaham, he saw that the two businesses the town lacked were a funeral director and a travel agent. The latter, he thought, might be more fun.
Hays Travel grew to become one of the region’s major employers, with a loyal workforce. Prior to the Thomas Cook acquisition, almost half of its senior managers had begun their working lives as apprentices with the company, many graduating from its Ofsted-rated Travel Academy. He also set up a charitable foundation, aimed at helping young people to “be the best they can”.
“There’s nothing wrong with making money,’’ he said. “What counts is what you do with it.’’ In 2018, Hays Travel’s turnover topped £1bn for the first time, and staff were rewarded with £100 for every year of service, regardless of their role – a handout of more than £1m.
The Hays also staged an annual summer garden party for staff at their home near the Sunderland coast, bussing in hundreds of employees and providing food and entertainment in a festival-style atmosphere. Their own holiday of choice was a villa in the sun, surrounded by family and friends.
Among the many accolades that came John’s way were an honorary doctorate from the University of Sunderland, a lifetime achievement award from the Institute of Transport and Tourism in 2008, and a place in the British Travel and Hospitality Hall of Fame, two years later. In 2016, Sunderland council made him a freeman of the city.
A fan of Sunderland football club, he was part of the Drumaville consortium, which took it over in 2006. Vice-chairman to the club’s popular ex-striker, Niall Quinn, he reluctantly left in 2009 when it was sold to the American billionaire Ellis Short. In 2018 he considered buying back the club from the Texan – until he was given the chance to study the books, and saw the parlous state of the club’s finances.
John was a keen sportsman: he had played club cricket to a good standard, and was a highly competitive tennis player who would fight to the last point.
He died suddenly after collapsing in his office at Hays Travel’s new headquarters in Sunderland. To acknowledge his contribution to the region, the city council lit up its bridges and major monuments in the company’s orange and blue colours.
In 1997 John married Irene Lucas, an earlier marriage having ended in divorce. She survives him, along with two sons and two daughters, and his younger brother, Malcolm.
• John Hays, businessman, born 22 July 1949; died 13 November 2020
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