Low-profile entrepreneur Gordon Miller is in talks to resurrect ‘a stripped-down version’ of the operator that would bond all bookings. Amie Keeley reports
Not many people in the industry will have heard of Gordon Miller. He was never one for the limelight and admits he shies away from “self-marketing”.
That’s until now. The co-founder of Super Break was so moved on hearing the news of the short-break specialist’s demise that he has decided to appeal to the trade to see if it would support his plan to resurrect the much-loved brand and bond all bookings, including hotel-only.
“I was aware [parent company] Malvern was trying to raise money but I wasn’t interested,” he says.
“They weren’t trying to break up the company. And reading between the lines, the proposal wasn’t that clear what you would have been getting for your investment.
“So I was shocked when I heard the news. My daughter said ‘don’t be sad’, but it was gnawing away at me.
“I contacted the administrators last Monday and have been in discussions with some of Malvern’s management team to try to make sense of the numbers, which I’m still in the process of doing.”
Miller revealed he had put together a small team including corporate lawyer Geoffrey Walters and industry veteran Keith Webber.
In the beginning
So, how did Super Break – or Superbreak, as it was then styled – start? Miller and his colleague Christopher Dunn bought what was then British Transport Hotels from British Rail in 1983 when the railways were being privatised under Margaret Thatcher, before relaunching it as Superbreak.
The pair expanded the brand’s portfolio of hotels and rail breaks, and promoted Superbreak to agents.
“Prior to the sale it was part of the marketing department which we ran, so we transformed it from a very small basis into a business.”
In June 1990, the pair sold the business in a management buyout, backed by Barclays, to Nick Cust, Mark Wray and Stuart Hope, but Miller and Dunn kept a 18.5% stake between them.
As a stakeholder, Miller says he looked at the figures twice a year, then quarterly, and gradually saw there was more money being spent than perhaps was prudent.
“That’s not a criticism, but things had changed,” he says.
“Then there was a fire in the London office. The management team managed that very well with the support of the trade and hoteliers, so it didn’t disrupt nearly as much as it could have done. But it was becoming a bit static as a business.”
In 1993, Barclays contacted Miller, concerned with how the business was faring.
“Barclays called me and said they weren’t happy about how the investment was going and asked if I would come back. I was their ace in the hole,” he remarks.
Miller reappointed himself a director of the business and identified areas for improvement, including re-engaging with hoteliers and agent partners, and renegotiating allocations and rates. He closed the London office, moving all operations to York to cut costs.
Miller adds: “Barclays made it clear it was their intention to sell once it had been groomed for a sale.”
That sale happened in 1994 to Eurocamp.
Miller had made an ally in Barclays and he was soon helping the bank with a £13 million management buyout of Crystal Holidays, led by Peter Dyer, from its American owner Dial Corporation. Nine months later, Crystal was sold to Thomson Holidays for £68 million.
A few highly successful venture capital deals later, including the sale of Exodus to Peter Long at First Choice, and building and then selling The Hoxton Hotel to Ennismore group, Miller looks set to come full circle.
“I want to create a stripped-down version of Super Break,” he says.
“So nothing overseas, because I don’t think we can compete and I don’t think the margins are high enough.
“There will be a gap if Super Break doesn’t do something in the trade domestic market.
“There’s an opportunity and everyone I speak to seems to agree.”
Miller says he would bond all hotel-only bookings. “There won’t be any confusion,” he adds. “We are not going to sell anything that is not bonded. I want to remove the problem immediately. We will be bonded completely – and that’s it.”
He acknowledges that bonding hotel-only sales is not a legal requirement, and would therefore be an extra, non-compulsory cost, but he feels it would be worth it.
“I don’t want to spend money unnecessarily, but I would be disappointed if agents didn’t support this model,” he says.
“My model will either demonstrate we can pay the bond or we can’t, and if we can’t afford it, I won’t be making a bid.”
Miller adds: “There has been a lack of focus on the trade and a lack of focus on Super Break. An advantage of having a team of people that only have Super Break to deal with, and only having product that is bonded, are all pretty positive things to say to the trade.”
Asked if he had been planning to come back to travel, Miller said: “I wasn’t pushing to come back to work but I’m happier when I’m busy.”
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