Around 70 per cent of Australian businesses are family-owned and operated, including many travel businesses. KRIS MADDEN shines a spotlight on some of the travel industry’s greatest family success stories.
After trading as a conventional travel agency since 1991, MTA – Mobile Travel Agents was founded by Roy and Karen Merricks in February 2000, in a tiny office on the Gold Coast. In the 90s, Karen was working as a commission-based travel advisor for a small travel agency, and with a young family, she worked from home much of the time.
“We were aware of emerging trends overseas, particularly in the US where the home-working concept pre-dated our start-up in Australia. We would talk about the likely need of others in similar circumstances around Australia…the rest as they say, is history,” says Roy.
Today, Karen and Roy’s adult children, Ben and Sara, both work in the business. Ben is head of business information, which includes IT, communications and business systems.
Sara started with MTA when all the systems and processes were manual and paper-based. She worked though virtually all aspects of the business. One day she told her parents that the support office was running so smoothly she didn’t need to do very much, so they moved her to the role as head of product, where she is today, based in Melbourne.
“Many businesses espouse ‘family’ but we truly are and are very close,” says Roy. “At the outset of MTA, Karen and I had always said that we wanted to build a business that could provide work for our kids, but only if they really wanted to be there. We didn’t ever push them.
“We’ve been told many times that our name ‘Mobile Travel Agents’, and the fact we are a family business with our children working in the business with us, are very strong aspects of the business. I don’t think we fully realised the value of that in the early days.
“We make most major business decisions together with Ben and Sara. We appointed CEO Don Beattie to the company over two years ago. Besides bringing more structure to the business, the plan was for him to mentor Ben and Sara to take up more prominent roles moving forward, which they are doing.
“As parents we would be proud to think that in years to come, if Ben and Sara remain keen to keep the business under family stewardship, they’ll be properly skilled to do so. We already know they reflect our family values. Beyond that to the grand kids, well who knows what the future may bring!”
Goldman Travel was founded 32 years ago by Tom Goldman OAM. After 20 years at agencies including Paxtons, Amex and Astronaut Travel in Sydney, travel was in the blood, with Tom’s father, Alf, working alongside him in the travel business. Aged 39, Tom decided to start his own travel business. Several previous clients followed to support him.
Today, all aspects of the Goldman Group are run jointly by Tom’s two sons, David and Anthony. Tom is executive chairman of the group – steering and advising the boys in the right direction and providing daily counsel based on his knowledge gained through more than half a century in the industry. Recently, Tom’s daughter Danielle joined the business as people and development manager.
Three generations have graced the industry, which started with Alfons (Alfred) Goldman, working as a travel agency in Europe in the 1940s, before making his way to Australia. Alf worked with Roland Hill at American British Travel Headquarters, The Orbit Travel and Paxtons, and then in 1962, at the invitation of Nevin Paxton, Tom joined the business.
Tom didn’t have a grand plan back at the beginning of Goldman Travel in 1983. Over time, he realised that there was a bigger opportunity to share the business with the family and use the various skills of family members to help it develop and grow.
Anthony says it’s not so much the differences, but rather the similarities he sees in the different generations.
“We all share a love of travel, hotels and airplane food (joking). The Goldman kids were fortunate to take many family holidays at some great hotels when growing up. It was part of our upbringing. Still today, we share stories of hotel stays, the latest destinations and places to visit,” he says.
“Tom didn’t push either David or I into the business. David joined after time away learning the basics of the industry. After a career in advertising and marketing, I decided to join the business to help it expand.
And expand it did, with Goldman Travel Corporation, Melbourne-based Travelcall, Travel Phase in Double Bay Sydney and SmartFlyer Australia, a new home-based consultant business, now all under the family’s auspices.
Testimony to the success of the family business, Goldman Travel Corporation recently won Best Corporate Agency, Single Location at the 2015 NTIA Awards for the second consecutive year as well as 2015 Top Virtuoso Agency Producer in Australia/NZ.
“The biggest benefit of a family business is being able to share in the success together. Accepting these awards together as a family is very gratifying, and David and I know it makes Tom very proud. It’s a lot of hard work – but it’s all worth it.”
Coming up to its 21st anniversary, the doors to Marion Bunnik Travel opened on 15 March 1995. Having been in the travel industry since leaving high school; and following 25 years working for airlines, managing travel agencies and lecturing in travel and tourism, opening her own agency was the fulfilment of a long-term dream for Marion.
Shortly after founding the business, Marion was joined by her two sons, Dennis and Sacha. Eldest son Dennis had recently returned from working in the tourism industry in London; and younger son Sacha was just completing his tourism management studies, so they were alw
ays destined to be part of the business.
“In those early days, we were a retail travel agency that did everything from footy weekends in Melbourne to complex around the world holidays,” recalls Marion. “We quickly gained a reputation for excellent customer service and specialising in more complex international trips. We did a bit of corporate travel too, and worked a lot with the Ansett groups department looking after sporting team travel.”
Today, there are six family members involved with Bunnik Tours: Dennis as managing director; Marion as product director; and Sacha as operations director. Dennis and Sacha’s wives also work in the company, Julie as customer care manager; and Inger in admin support.
Marion’s husband Frank escorts an annual tour to Sri Lanka and oversees the company’s international aid projects.
“There are two generations currently working at Bunnik Tours however as we’ve all been there from the beginning we all feel like first generation,” says Marion. “The third generation is already starting to emerge with Sacha and Dennis’ children having completed work experience or school holiday work with us.”
Marion says that the biggest benefits of running a family business are being able to have a long term vision and all be working together to achieve its success.
“Naming the business Marion Bunnik Travel then Bunnik Travel and eventually Bunnik Tours has ensured the continued focus on family. The advantages of having a family business far outweigh any disadvantages because at the end of the day we are all 100 per cent committed to its success.
“This generation will be here for many years to come so our future is secure. The first of the third generation will finish high school over the next couple of years so it’s still a little too early to tell what their future holds.”
Tosh Russell owned and operated an American Express retail agency from 1994 until 1999, before she and husband Peter, who came from a career in aviation and marketing, together founded GlobeNet Travel in 2000. The original plan with was to focus on Queensland’s island resorts on the back of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The company has had a cruise focus via Clean Cruising since 2007.
“The business took off quickly and Mum and Dad really had their hands full. I was in Vancouver and my sister Jean was in Melbourne and couldn’t provide much help remotely. My brother Casey helped out with the website but had a fulltime job at the time,” recalls Dan, who is now general manager.
“Jean and I both joined the business when we returned to Brisbane in 2002. The growing business needed more resources and there was a real opportunity. Casey then joined the company, and Mum and Dad were very generous, and by including us as equal shareholders it gave us plenty of motivation right from the start,” says Dan.
“We are a young family and enjoyed growing up together making the most of what Marion, Dennis and Sacha Bunnik on a recent trip to Egypt. Building Bunniks The Russells Australia’s surf, reef and ski fields had to offer. Individually, we all succeeded in our endeavours early in life, knowing the essentials of teamwork, integrity and a positive approach to get there.
“Mum has been in charge of finances since the start. We still make jokes about her being Dutch which makes her perfect to ensure every cent is accounted for. Dad is involved in the website and newsletter campaigns but gets plenty of enjoyment out of organising the regular breakfast cook-ups in our office kitchen.
“Jean looks after our recruiting and Casey has been our jack-of-all-trades IT resource, taking care of everything from complex SQL procedures to broken keyboards. The extended work family has grown in recent years too, with Uncle David and Aunty Jackie preparing well researched content for the website; while our cousin Emily joined as our Finance Manager. Casey decided this wasn’t enough and married our marketing manager, Anna, two years ago.
“Each of us has made huge sacrifices to get the business to where it is today, and sometimes this can add extra emotion to our discussions,” says Dan. “There have been some robust debates around the boardroom over the years but a lot of our best ideas happened over a beer and a weekend BBQ or even a family camping trip.”
A family -owned company since its conception in 1927 as De Luxe Motors by Bill McGeary, Australian Pacific Touring (APT) had its beginnings when Bill built a bus body on a tray truck after a tram strike affected the city of Melbourne. When he passed away, more than 50 years ago, Bill’s son Geoff took over the business.
“In 1964 I took a group of Melbourne students on a camping trip to Central Australia. In those days, the roads were dirt, we travelled in the 2WD school bus and accommodation options barely existed. But on that trip, I found my calling,” says Geoff.
Today, the APT Group is a multi-brand business with an extensive global portfolio of touring and cruising products still owned and run by the McGeary family, including the third generation, Robert and Lou, who are both non-executive directors of the APT Group. Robert’s wife Rebekah is involved in Botanica World Discoveries; and Lou’s husband Rob Tandy is general manager Australian Touring and Cruising.
Geoff’s wife Anne was involved in the early years as a sales rep and tour hostess. She used to be frightened to walk into travel agencies and still says she was probably the worst sales rep the company ever had.
“The business was small when Dad first managed it, and he was able to grow professionally as he grew the business. However, when Rob and I became involved APT was larger and more complex, and as such our roles have had to be different within it. This has meant that we (the younger generation) have had a very different experience within the family business to the previous generation,” says Lou.
“Dad has always had a vision that his grandchildren would have the opportunity to enjoy the business as he has (if they choose
), so my brother and I feel it is our role to be custodians of the business and ensure its growth and success, meanwhile raising children capable of such a responsibility.”
“It is a huge privilege to be able to work with your family and also to take long term view on the business. When other companies might be looking one to two years out, we can look further ahead and have our eyes on the long term goals,” adds Rob.
“It’s been an exciting journey,” says Geoff. “Luckily for us, it’s only just beginning. We’ve already had three generations, perhaps in another decade it will be four.”
A long time ago, in a bootshaped country far away in Europe, CIT stood for ‘Compagna Italiana Turismo’ or the ‘Italian travel company’. Operating for 45 years in Australia, the business was originally run by the Kernot family, and is still family owned and operated, but now by the Newsom family who purchased the business in early 2015.
Today, two generations work in the CIT business: Peter who is managing director, and his two daughters Kate, who is general manager; and Sally who is marketing and communications manager.
“It was pretty simple really, I knew the CIT business very well, and talked to the girls about getting involved and they thought it was a great idea,” says Peter.
Kate had previously held a senior position at Commonwealth Bank; while Sally had worked with Radio Networks after completing her degree in journalism and communications.
“I think the fact that the girls had worked elsewhere, and not necessarily in travel, was a great bonus. I think they have more insights from coming outside the company first, not tainted by the old predictable ways of thinking that pervade the travel industry. The skill sets they have brought to the business are extraordinary and have allowed us to think and work outside the box,” he says.
Sally says that if someone had of said to her a year ago she would be working with her dad and sister in a years’ time, she would have laughed.
“All coming from different industries, the thought of working together in a family business had never crossed my mind. I’m so happy this opportunity came to us, I couldn’t think of two better people to work with and learn from. We all bring something unique to the business, which I think is really important. One thing we do have in common is our love for travel, so it seems like we picked the right industry to work together in.”
Kate says that working in a family business is very different, particularly to her previous career in finance, but it’s also extremely rewarding.
“Having come from a different industry provides an interesting perspective for Sally and I, however, it is also an enormous opportunity for us to think about things differently to how things have been done in the past.”
“We couldn’t think of anyone else we’d rather be learning from in the travel industry, than our dad who is considered a pioneer of the industry and still has so much passion and drive, it’s incredibly inspiring.”