Helloworld On The Hunt, Again

Ian McMahon’s perspective

AS the Helloworld board chokes back its disappointment that Elizabeth Gaines will vacate the company’s chief executive chair, it must focus on the search for her replacement.

The composition of that board has undergone one highly significant change since it appointed Gaines to the position 15 months ago. The family company of Spiros Alysandratos, perhaps Australian retail travel’s most savvy operator, once again has a seat at the board table, following the $12 million acquisition of a parcel of shares from UBS, taking the Alysandratos shareholding to just under the critical 20% level.

Peter Spathis, the chief financial officer of the Alysandratos private company, Consolidated Travel, is back as a Helloworld director. Spathis was a director on the Jetset Travelworld board from June 2002 to November 2012 – that is from the time Alysandratos was the company’s majority shareholder through the mergers with Qantas Holidays and Stella that diluted his family’s holding to a minority stake.

After the Stella merger, Spathis was forced off the board because of perceived conflict of interest between Consolidated Travel and Stella’s rival consolidation unit, Air Tickets. The re-appointment of Spathis gives Helloworld, for the first time since 2012, a director with hands-on retail travel industry experience. This is not unimportant for a company with a core business of selling franchises to retail travel agents.

One of the drivers of the discontent that has seen numbers of the company’s top performing agents defect to rival groups and others refusing to embrace the Helloworld brand, has been a perception that those at the top lack understanding of life at the retail travel coal face.

The controversial decision to drop established brands in favour of Helloworld was led by two former airline executives, then chairman Tom Dery and then chief executive Rob Gurney. Both were considered by many retailers to be agent-unfriendly in their airline days.

It will be interesting to see if the cultural change of introducing hands-on retail experience at board level is repeated with the appointment of a new chief executive.

Certainly, at least one potential appointee from within the company’s own ranks ticks the right boxes; Russell Carstensen. Beginning his career with Concorde (now Air Tickets) decades ago, his commercial performance in keeping Air Tickets humming and turning around the fortunes of QBT stands out among the mixed results achieved by Helloworld in recent years.