Big Interview: Focus on staff will help us be the best, says Barrhead chief

Big Interview: Focus on staff will help us be the best, says Barrhead chief

Barrhead Travel chairman Bill Munro had just finished an interview for the European Business Awards when we met.

The agency, Scotland’s largest independent, which is now making in-roads into England as well, has been nominated for an Infosys business of the year award.

Barrhead is one of 50 finalists and is up against the likes of Royal Bank of Scotland Technology Services, Wonga.com and Translink, but no other travel company.

It is quite an achievement. But Barrhead’s continued growth suggests it is not that surprising that it is making these kind of high-calibre shortlists.

Yet I have to press Munro to reveal details of Barrhead’s performance – he is at pains not to be seen to boast its success.

He finally tells me Barrhead turned over £126 million before tax last year, making a profit of £1.9 million, and is on track to exceed a £2 million profit target this year on a turnover of £155 million.

Barrhead now employs 600 people in 36 branches, including a business travel outlet in Glasgow, a franchise business in Belfast and an agency in Leipzig, Germany.

It also operates two call centres in Glasgow serving 10 websites, and a cruise call centre (formerly owned by The Co-op Travel) in Cumbria, its first foray into England.

Munro says 50% of Barrhead’s business starts online, while the other half still walks into shops or makes initial contact by phone.

Thirty per cent of Barrhead’s total business comes from England and that figure looks set to grow to 35% or even 38% as the cruise centre grows and adapts to sell more than just cruise.

But Munro added: “The increase in passenger numbers will still exceed the increase in profits this year because prices haven’t come back quite in line with volumes.”

That said, Barrhead’s expansion strategy remains intact, but it is struggling to find the staff to service that growth.

“We want to keep recruiting. Part of our business model is to have more franchisees and homeworkers,” said Munro. “We’re on a mission. We want to build the profile of Barrhead to attract more people. We want them to get a feel for our business, which we believe is very different to everything else.”

Munro’s business philosophy underpins that difference.

Inspired by Hal Rosenbluth and Diane McFerrin Peters’ book The Customer Comes Second: Put your People First and Watch ’em Kick Butt, Munro firmly believes in doing everything he can to look after his workforce.

“I’ve read a lot of business books, but the one telling you to put your employees first – getting the best people you can afford around you, then really looking after them – is spot on. If you do that, then they will put your customers first for you,” he said.

“It’s not all about money and salaries; it’s about being rewarded. That’s why we like to enter awards. It means the staff can measure themselves and be recognised. We like to pat them on the back.

“We don’t want to be the largest agency chain in the world, but we do want to be the best. We like people and we’re really into social responsibility and looking after our staff.”

Munro said it was no coincidence that most of the directors on his board were women. They include his daughter, chief executive Sharon Munro, herself a multiple business award winner.

“The female species is far more loyal and will fight tooth and nail for you. Boys will bugger off for an extra fiver,” he said.

But recruiting the right people is Barrhead’s biggest challenge.

“Getting good staff is a nightmare. We don’t want to take staff off the likes of Cook and Tui, with whom we have good relationships, so we need to attract other independents and we need to recruit more quality modern apprentices.”

Barrhead recruits 40 apprentices every 18 months and now has two full-time trainers. Of the last intake, all 40 were offered full-time jobs.

Munro added: “I’m a firm believer that if you treat them properly, they become little stars of the future – and that’s exactly what we need.”

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