LESS than an hour from teeing off at Vale do Lobo, Duncan Wilson is looking to put his handicap of eight to test against the Algarve course that has twice hosted the Portuguese Open. Conditions are perfect at 29C with a slight south-easterly breeze
– pleasantly reminiscent of another sunshine destination that occupies much of his thoughts.
The chief executive of Minoan Group is within weeks of learning whether his AIM-quoted travel company will be allowed to go ahead with plans to build an 18-hole heathland course that would become one of less than a dozen golfing destinations in Greece. It would be part of a larger development including villas, hotels, a marina, spa and other attractions occupying part of the 6,000-plus acres controlled by Minoan along the Cavo Sidero peninsula in north-eastern Crete.
Knocked back in 2010 amid environmental concerns for the remote landscape, “the Project”, as Minoan refers to it, has been given a fresh lease on life as Greece attempts to re-start the economy amid the continuing debt crisis.
Minoan’s proposals are being considered for fast-tracking under the country’s Invest In Greece programme, and though a decision has been delayed several times already, Wilson “very strongly anticipates a positive outcome” within the next few weeks. Should that be the case, the Scots-born travel chief believes construction could begin by as soon as the turn of the year.
“I do believe the message is clear – the Greek authorities realise that financial support from the EU is only forthcoming if they cut costs, which they are beginning to do, and also open up the country for business,” he says.
Headquartered in Glasgow since last December, Minoan’s history centres around the Greek development – “the reason the company came to be”, as Wilson, 53, puts it. However, the firm is also looking to build a sizable travel business spanning the UK and other parts of the world.
It was a compelling enough challenge to lure Wilson out of a career break that began after nearly 25 years working for some of the industry’s best-known names, culminating in a stressful two-year stretch on the main board of MyTravel.
“I had been travelling all over the place for years, but then decided to stop,” Wilson recalls. “I went home, drove the kids back and forth to school and wherever, and got my golf handicap down to single figures.”
The son of a Govan shipyard worker, Wilson came of age when jobs in that industry were no longer in the offing. After graduating from St Mirren Academy in Paisley, he began working behind the counter at nearby Barrhead Travel in 1979.
“I just got a job – there was an ad in the paper, I went to work in a travel office, and I never quite escaped,” he says.
Two years later he joined John Boyle at what was then Owners Abroad, the travel business that would later evolve into First Choice. This led to a stint in Toronto, where Wilson headed up North American operations.
He spent a total of ten years with Owners, which changed its name to First Choice in 1994. Wilson was gone by that time, having joined other investors in the purchase of struggling US venture Beach Villas in 1991.
“Owners Abroad had been floated on the stock market, and we all had made a little bit of money – not a lot, but enough to be re-invested in another venture,” Wilson says.
Beach Villas was sold to Thomas Cook in 1997. Wilson stayed on for a brief period as commercial director, but didn’t like the bureaucracy of the larger organisation. He re-joined Boyle, who had set up Direct Holidays.
As chief executive, Wilson played a pivotal role in the transfer of operations from London to Glasgow. However, with key offices in Manchester, Stockholm and Florida, he still spent much of his time away from home.
Things got even trickier following the sale of Direct Holidays to Airtours in 1998. Locked in by a three-year deal following the acquisition, Wilson was promoted to the main board in 2002 amid a series of profit warnings and accounting scandals at Airtours.
He left at the end of 2003 and returned home to spend time with his wife and three children in Pollokshields. He got involved with Minoan three years later, and when asked in 2009 to step up to become chief executive, he accepted. “Having had five years off, I was ready for another go around the track, so I agreed,” he says.
In addition to bringing the Greek project to fruition, his remit includes building a profitable trading operation in the travel and leisure sector.
Wilson has attacked this goal with a gusto that has led to a raft of travel agency acquisitions in Scotland during the past 18 months, including John Semple in Glasgow, plus the Ayrshire operations of King World and Stewart Travel. A number of partnership agreements have also been signed, including a new alliance with online discount specialist Today’s Great Deal.
He is now looking further afield, and is in the late stages of negotiations on two acquisitions: one a UK-wide travel business, the other a Canadian operation headquartered in Toronto. If both are completed by the end of the year as expected, Minoan will raise its total headcount from 180 to 250 employees.
“We are definitely going to grow much further from here,” he says.
“I am a travel person, and it is my ambition to build a travel business of some significance, but this time with all of the head office functions in Glasgow.”
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Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West