The salvage of the beached Thomas Cook holiday empire by Hays Travel was the UK’s feelgood business story of the year.

Thousands of jobs thought lost forever were saved.

In this exclusive interview, founder John Hays tells Wear Business’s Graeme Anderson how it felt like to be at the centre of a media storm, why he’s working as hard as ever into his 70s and why Sunderland will remain at the heart of a company which now has an annual turnover in excess of a billion pounds.

One day a book will be written about the dramatic takeover of Thomas Cook.

The story certainly deserves more space to tell than a magazine feature, even one as lengthy as this.

Like all good cloak and dagger dramas, it had a tight timeframe.

It needed to be as swift as it was stealthy: “Official receivers don’t like to hang about,” John Hays points out.

Facing competition from across the Atlantic, where two private equity firms were looking at what might be made from the collapse of the world’s oldest holiday operator, John, and wife Irene, (chair and joint owner), worked against the clock to rescue a company they had worked closely with for many years.

Reflecting on the takeover, in the company’s bright and airy new headquarters on Keel Square in Sunderland city centre, John said: “We supported Thomas Cook right up to the very last day.

“But then, when they were definitely going to go down, it was clear there were going to be winners and losers and I wanted to make sure we would be winners.”

Hays didn’t hatch a plan to buy Thomas Cook outright at first: “It evolved,” John explained. “We were getting contacted by Thomas Cook staff from Northern Ireland, Wales, South Yorkshire – people saying they would like to work for us.

“Then Essex. Then Kent.

“When the business was put up for sale, we were looking for shops in those places.

“The Receivers told us it came down to three companies who wanted a lot of the shops and we were one of them.

“We ended up realising we wanted quite a lot of Thomas Cook, so between us, Irene and I thought: “Well, why don’t we just take the lot?”

“So, we did!”

To pull it off required meticulous planning and strategising but with the deal all but done, the couple realised they might have overlooked just one extra detail.

“We actually only thought about the Press and the media on the day we did the deal,” admits John.

“We did the deal at about five minutes to midnight on Monday, October 7th and it was only during the day that Irene thought: ‘Hmm, this deal is probably going to happen, (because you can never be sure until the last minute), and if it is going to happen, the Government are probably going to want to make this a big story.’

‘Irene’ is, of course, John’s wife, Irene Lucas, the company’s chair, whose experience as chief executive of Sunderland and South Tyneside Council before moving into central government has made a major contribution to the company’s 21st-century growth.

Her solution was to contact local, vastly-experienced communications consultant Susan Wear on the eve of the world’s Press beating a path to their door.

“Susan came in the next morning and we had three graduates on our trainee scheme and she got them and said to them: ‘Right, you are now our Press team’,” John smiles.

“They commandeered an office and that’s how we got Susan and The Three Degrees – which was just in time because it went crazy.

“I ended up giving them my mobile phone because it wouldn’t stop ringing.

“We did a Press call, live at 10.30 am but by then we were taking enquiries from all over the world.

“The Washington Post rang, (that’s Washington DC, not Tyne and Wear!), the New York Times and so on, names and organisations like that, so it was surreal really, just mad.

“I’ve done more media interviews in the past few months than I’ve done in all the years preceding.

“I think there are so many bad news stories out there and the Government had taken such a hit with the protests outside Parliament from Thomas Cook and all the travel stories that I think they just wanted a good news story about jobs being saved.

“I think that’s what’s captured everyone’s imagination.”

At a stroke, Hays Travel, which operated just under 200 travel shops around the country, had acquired a further 555 and, amid the media frenzy, (including the pair’s appearances on Good Morning Britain and The One Show), there was the hard work of making the move work.

Such an enormously bold acquisition brought challenges – not least, the sheer logistics involved in re-opening and staffing all the shops, a situation which recently led to an appeal for 1,500 new workers – 200 of them in Sunderland.

“I think we’ve done really well in a short space of time,“ says John.

Of the 555 shops, well over 450 are open again and of the 2,500 people who lost their jobs, more than 2,300 are now back behind their desks.

But running a profitable outfit remains the key objective of Hays.

“We are not a charity and we were quite embarrassed by this ‘heroes of the High Street’ tag we were given at the time,” he says.

“In terms of the business, we need to deliver for ourselves and for the company.”

John is bullishly optimistic about the prospect of doing just that.

He has seen in the Thomas Cook staff the same qualities that, in 2018, helped workers at Hays make the company a billion-pound sales concern.

That’s some journey from the first Hays Travel shop, which opened in his home-town, Seaham in 1980 with sales of £800 in its first year.

A year later, he opened a second shop, in Sunderland: “That’s when I first knew we would be OK as a company,” he says, “It was pre-internet and everyone was doing well.”

Since then, Hays Travel has diversified.

“Strategically, I didn’t want just one leg on the stool,” says John.

“We do a lot of the back-office functions for a couple of hundred travel agents around the country. We moved into the Foreign Exchange. We started our own tour operation around eight years ago, which is doing really well.”

At the heart of it all, though, remains people and it was typical of the way Hays operates under John and Irene that they made sure they recorded a short video to play to all staff a few minutes before the Thomas Cook takeover was announced.

“We couldn’t have them finding out from the BBC!”

Of all the achievements the company has garnered over the years, the ones associated with the quality of working there are the ones that John and Irene have prized the most.

Hays Travel has been ranked in the Sunday Times Top 100 companies to work for the past four years.

The Christmas parties and the annual conference held abroad for Hays Travel staff are the stuff of travel industry legend and the most recent one, held in Turkey, was trebled at the last minute to 800 more places to take in the new arrivals from Thomas Cook.

“We had to hire three extra Jet2 planes, on top of the one already booked,” says John.

“Customer service is absolutely central to us. It’s what we have to be all about,” he says.

It’s maintaining those standards and growing the business that puts a spring in his step in his 70th year.

It’s certainly not the money – something he might have had more than his fair share of earlier in life before turning his back on a career in the city of London.

“I was only there a few weeks,” he says. “I didn’t really like the fact it was only about the money and jumping from one deal to the next.

“I come to work these days because I enjoy it and let’s face it, travel is a lovely business to be in.

“I’m obviously not skint – there’s nothing we’re in want of – but once you’ve got enough money, it’s about what you enjoy, and, I know it sounds corny, but I enjoy coming to work.”

There’s no typical working week for John but normally it involves time in Sunderland where the company will continue to be based.

“It’s massive for us to stay in Sunderland,” he insists.

“I was born here, it’s my home city and it’s a great place to do business as well.

“Sunderland people are just great – their work ethic, sense of fun, not taking themselves too seriously. They’re brilliant and they’re what we’re all about.”