`I said instead of being the 124th operator why not become the first agent'

Mike Gooley, 59, a former SAS man, is opening a pounds 5m centre in Kensington, London, this August with 110 travel consultants to meet his pounds 100m firm's booming demand. But Trailfinders' road to success has been long and full of potholes

There's a painting in the Trailfinders boardroom showing me stuck in the infamous Beni mudholes on the way to Nairobi in 1971. The Land Rover is tilted 30 degrees, with its left wheels in a deep rut. A friend is carrying a shovel to dig a rock from under the differential. On the roof are sections of perforated steel-plate runways used to drive over sand dunes, and at the back you can see the 10 jerry cans of petrol that got us 800 miles from Tamanrasset in Algeria to Agades in Niger.

It looks dramatic but it took me only two or three minutes to get free. That was down to my army training. I spent 12 years in the forces, most of it with the SAS. I left in 1968 as a captain, with service gongs for Malaya, Oman, Borneo and Aden. I tried to set up two businesses based on my army experience before hitting on Trailfinders.

The first was an official freefall parachute club, but I couldn't get sponsors. The second, with a couple of other ex-army officers, was to start an overland tour company. By late 1969 overland tours to Kathmandu had become incredibly fashionable. Kangaroo Valley - Earl's Court Road, London - was lined with old Land Rovers but the lads who ran them were rather unqualified and hadn't addressed all the logistical problems of crossing deserts and mountains.

Even though we were highly qualified, we didn't do it for two reasons. The first was that Thomas Cook and other travel agents wouldn't take bookings for us. The second was that a search at Companies House showed that there were 123 companies in the overland business. I said instead of being the 124th operator why not become the first agent.

We had absolutely no qualifications as travel agents and virtually no experience in commerce. We got a good 90 per cent of it wrong. I remember being asked about my cash flow at a party and not knowing what it was. Among the things we did get right was having desks and chairs at the right height - traditionally travel agents worked from behind high counters.

The business was heavily dependent on the post in those days, both for sending out brochures and making bookings. We got our first product out in January 1971 and walked right into the worst postal strike on record. It took us nine weeks to make our first booking.

Initially we put in pounds 1,000, which was a lot of money in those days. Then a few months later another pounds 1,000 and another. It took us seven years to break even. Fortunately I had a good relationship with my banker at Barclays, who was ex-Merchant Navy. Just before we broke even we exceeded our pounds 28,500 unsecured overdraft limit. His job was on the line but he never threatened to call the loan. Four weeks later we turned the corner, and four months after that we repaid it all.

From the start we became the self-regulating body for the sector. We vetted the operators and tried to establish whether they were reasonably well financed. It only took a year or so to get to the point where it lent credibility to be represented by Trailfinders. Outfits still went under though. Towards the end of our second year 32 travellers became stuck on a bus in Istanbul that was to take them to Delhi. Eight were our clients, and we paid for them to continue their trip because we felt it was the morally correct thing to do. I also hoped those eight would hold Trailfinders in high esteem, but it was someone else who pointed out that the real bonus would come from the 24 that were still stranded.

Two things helped us succeed. We realised early on that few of the people going overland to Kathmandu wanted to return. They were going on to Australasia but couldn't do it overland because Burma was in the way. The second realisation was that we had a low conversion rate. Of 25 brochures we sent out, perhaps one produced a booking. Most of the rest were going to travel, but not overland.

This was about the time that wide-body jets revolutionised air travel. The airlines knew that empty seats were wasted and were willing to sell them at a discount. We realised if we could get good airfares with lots of stopovers we could capture that market. That's why we became one of the first bucket shops. Today overland represents less than four per cent of our business.

People think the SAS is full of Rambo types, but we're really quite cautious, evaluating risks carefully before committing ourselves. That attitude served me well, but there were times when I should have taken more of a gamble. One was on expanding to other cities. I had a box file behind my desk marked Manchester for eight years before we opened there. And when business boomed in the late 1980s four key people left in one year to set up as competitors because they noticed we couldn't keep up with the volume of calls.

The title of this article is My First Million. I like to think of that not in terms of money, but as the landmark we passed in 1992 when we served our millionth customer. It took 22 years to get there, and just four years to reach our second million. We hope to achieve our third million in 1998.

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