Business interview: Sharon Munro, Barrhead Travel

Sharon Munro had a chance encounter with movie legend Richard Gere Main. Picture: Robert Perry

Sharon Munro had a chance encounter with movie legend Richard Gere Main. Picture: Robert Perry

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HOLIDAY companies have faced tough times during the recession but Sharon Munro, the boss of Glasgow-based Barrhead Travel, enjoys her job so much sometimes she pinches herself, writes Erikka Askeland.

Munro, 39, has been with the company her father Bill founded in 1968 since she got her first part-time job there as a Saturday girl.

In 2007 she led a management buy out in a succession plan that saw ownership of the group remain with the family. Under her stewardship, the company has seen dramatic growth and faced the challenges brought to the industry by internet booking and low-cost airlines head on.

Next month the firm will open a flagship corporate travel boutique in Glasgow. The move comes as the company is bringing on board £14 million worth of corporate travel business.

The group has also recently developed a customer management technology platform, dubbed Nevis. The platform has provided the company with a means of growing its franchises as it expands the management tools available to fanchisees. Nevis will also prove a beachhead into new markets – Munro has her sights set on licensing the technology to Australian firms as well as looking for acquisitions down under. “We think Nevis has got huge potential,” she says.

But holidays are still the firm’s top priority. Barrhead’s expanding high street presence is an unusual facet of the company’s success, running contrary to the belief that traditional travel agents, where you sit in front of a desk flipping through a glossy brochure, are a thing of the past.

She says: “People have been telling me for years that when the web came along that would be the end of the travel agent. Low cost carriers came along – again they said it was the end of the travel agent.

“More of our business will be transacted online in the future. But there are a lot of products – cruising, long haul – that still need travel agents. We try to offer products that are unique, tours that are a wee bit different. Sometimes I pinch myself, it’s so exciting and no two days are the same.”

Barrhead’s shops usually feature holiday themed fit outs and increasingly the latest technology to showcase dream holiday destinations.

The firm recently upgraded its premises at Silverburn shopping centre, moving into a bigger shop unit, and Munro has plans to revamp Oswald Street in Glasgow at the end of the year.

“We have point and click screens where you can watch a video about the destination, and iPads so customers can use them to browse. If customers want help they can get it, or if they want to book on the iPad they can. We are trying to reinvent ourselves all the time.”

In December, Barrhead acquired Larbert-based The Cruise Specialist, making it the largest cruise retailer in the UK. Meanwhile, in April last year it opened up a call centre in Cumbria after Thomas Cook closed down its operation there.

“We saw an opportunity to pick up some really good quality, experienced people who were knowledgeable about cruises. It takes a long time to train people on the knowledge of the different cruise ships and the different options,” she says.

She agrees that Thomas Cook’s crisis has been Barrhead’s opportunity. The 172-year-old group recently announced it was cutting thousands of jobs after struggling with a slump in sales that has forced it to renegotiate bank loans and sell off planes and stores to lighten its debt load. But Munro is quick to say that she thinks very highly of the group’s new chief executive, Harriet Green.

“Harriet is doing what she has to do to save the business. I think she’s done a great job. I feel for the people who have been made redundant, we have been very sad for them, but for us it has been an opportunity to take on new people. We will be taking on about 20 to 40 Thomas Cook people in the next few months.”

Since Munro has taken the helm, the business has grown rapidly. In 2007, Barrhead had eight high street shops with a turnover of £68m. Munro says the firm is now on track for a turnover of £200m this year and has 52 stores, 27 of which are franchised operations.

Dad Bill remains a shareholder and the chairman. Having a former chief executive as chairman can sometimes prove tricky to manage for any new boss with fresh ideas, let alone one who is also your father.

“We’ve had our moments,” says Munro. “We are both very passionate about the business. He’s still involved in the strategy. It’s great to have him there, he’s got a wealth of knowledge. Sometimes when you are at the top of any business it can be quite lonely. I’m fortunate that I’ve got someone to talk to who has been there.

“It’s my decision and he supports me, He challenges us, acts as a devil’s advocate and makes sure we know what we want to do.”

But is she the boss? “Yes”, she says quietly. “I hate to say it but yes.”

The family tradition that Munro continues to espouse is a healthy scepticism of debt. While Munro had bank backing behind the MBO, she says that’s now all paid back.

A company like Barrhead – growing fast, investing in expansion and technology yet debt free – is probably just the sort that banks would lend to if it wanted to buy a fleet of aeroplanes or swallow a rival, but Munro is reticent.

“The thing about us is we take the responsibility of having 750 employees very seriously. We will continue to grow and expand but we will do that in a controlled way.

“We take calculated risks. We want to be here in another 20 years.”

BACKGROUND

Born: 1972 in Glasgow

Education: Laurel Bank School in Glasgow

First job: I had a paper round while still at school, earning a penny a paper, and also was a Saturday girl at Barrhead Travel.

Ambition while at school: To work with disabled or underprivileged children

Car: Porsche Panamera

Kindle or book? Book

Music: Everything from Pavarotti to Blondie to Daft Punk

Can’t live without: My mobile phone

Claim to fame: I met Richard Gere in Vail skiing a few years ago

Favourite place: Thailand, for the people and the culture

What makes you angry: Lies

Best thing about your job: The people I work with

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