Profile: Rise of the holiday maker: David Crossland will be in his seventh heaven, selling two million trips a year, if Airtours is successful in its bid for Owners Abroad. Richard Thomson reports

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DAVID CROSSLAND'S life has always been, and probably always will be, devoted to selling holidays. He started when he was 16. He met his wife, Anne, when he flogged her a holiday to the United States in the Sixties ('I took her money off her first,' he insists). Most days he rises at 5.30am and spends about 14 hours working at selling holidays, and he says he loves it.

His dedication seems likely to pay off on Budget Day, 16 March, when his company's pounds 267m bid for Owners Abroad closes. If Airtours wins, as expected, Crossland, its chairman, will become one of Britain's two biggest travel agency, tour and charter fleet operators. He will be selling more than 2 million holidays a year which, in his eyes, is close to sheer bliss. He will also become one of Britain's richest men when his wealth increases, on paper at least, from pounds 100m to around pounds 200m.

He is more reticent about the fact that he will also be about the most powerful travel agent in the country. The merged company will have around 30 per cent of the package holiday market, equalled only by Thomson. Power, Crossland insists, is not the point. Nor is making the next pounds 100m. The ability to produce cheaper and better holidays is what it is all about.

'The excitement and challenge is to find new places for people to go, to make a profit, and to keep the staff happy. It's like balancing on a three-legged stool every day.'

Not surprisingly, he has little to say about his opposition two years ago to Thomson's move to capture 32 per cent of the market, now that he is trying to do exactly the same thing. It would be naive to pretend he was not aware of the power to be gained from a dominant market position (Airtours will in fact have a technical monopoly). Yet Crossland's zeal to sell holidays cannot be doubted. It is uncanny, almost evangelical, even a little odd.

He was born 46 years ago into a working-class family in Burnley, Lancashire, with a father who did several jobs to supplement his income. Crossland disliked school and did not shine academically. 'The school bullies used to use me as a football. I was small, shy, wore glasses, and I wasn't very bright - or the school didn't think so.' He left at 16 with three O-levels.

After the drudgery of school, his first day at work was the best of his life, he says. It was 1963 and Crossland had been determined to become a hospital administrator. He did not get the job. To earn money, he joined a local travel agency, which was connected with a grocery store. If you bought the store's tea, you got vouchers which entitled you to reductions on train tickets. 'An early form of discounting,' Crossland observes.

Then revelation struck. 'The first time I sold a holiday across the counter, I realised that this was it, this was what I wanted to do.' Now, most people would probably find the prospect of being a clerk in a travel agency a fairly uninspiring one, particularly when the first few years involve learning how to decipher fantastically complex airline timetables and how to deal with customers who do not really know what holiday they want.

But when Crossland talks about it, his small frame and his odd, pixie- like face come alive, his eyes light up, and it is hard not to believe his sincerity when he tells you how much he loved it. And still does. From the first, it seems, he was obsessed with his work.

Quite soon he decided his aim was eventually to strike out on his own, but for 10 years he learned the nuts and bolts of the travel trade by working for others. The break came in 1973, when an elderly couple he knew rang him on Christmas Eve, offering to sell him their travel agency because they were retiring.

They wanted pounds 8,000 for it. Crossland borrowed pounds 4,000 from the couple, pounds 4,000 from Barclays and sold a third of the shares to his brother-in-law for working capital. Within nine months, he repaid the loans from profits - 'and that was the last time my company ever borrowed any money'. The holiday industry was still in its infancy. Those were the days of the unsophisticated punter and the basic package to Torremolinos.

For the next nine years, Crossland bought one new travel agency a year in the North. Working during the day selling cheap holidays, then doing the office cleaning and the administration in the evening, he reached 1980 as a modestly well-off businessman.

Then another revelation. Crossland insists the secret of selling holidays is giving customers what they want. In 1980, for some reason, everyone in the North of England wanted to go to Malta. But they couldn't get there, because the only flights went on a Wednesday - hopeless for the average factory worker with a holiday running from one weekend to the next. So Crossland organised flights on Saturdays and they sold like hot cakes. It was the first package he had produced.

Sensitivity to his customers' needs is a constant theme. By the late Eighties he had noticed that people were becoming more adventurous and were willing to go further afield. So in 1987 Airtours offered the first charter flight to the Caribbean, for pounds 299. In only three weeks he sold 13,000 seats.

You will not find a single picture of topless sunbathers in an Airtours brochure. This is because when it comes to choosing package holidays, women usually make the decisions. You will not persuade them to buy if they think their husbands are likely to spend the week ogling other women on the beach.

Crossland says he could only have gained his knowledge of consumer behaviour by spending years dealing directly with the public. Now that he is the head of a large organisation, however, he still believes he has not lost touch with customers. At the weekends, he disguises himself in jeans and a pullover and lurks at the back of rival travel agencies - mainly Thomas Cook and Lunn Poly - listening to what the public are asking for and seeing which brochures they pick up.

He also understands the 'production' side of the business because, until recently, he still did much of the holiday buying for Airtours, such as negotiating bed prices with hotels in Spain, Majorca and Ibiza. He enjoys arguing about money. To this end, he speaks a rather specialised Spanish, in which he can negotiate hotel contracts but would have trouble buying a light-bulb in a Spanish corner shop.

He is evidently enjoying the glare of publicity trained on him since he launched his bid. But although - according to acquaintances - he is possessed of a bigger ego than shows on the surface, Crossland is not flashy, pompous or charismatic. He is a methodical Northern businessman in a grey suit, and takes great pride in the fact. Whether or not Airtours offers substantially better- value holidays than its main rivals, the key to its relentless success lies more in the strength and depth of its management.

Crossland watched and learned from the mistakes of more flamboyant rivals, such as Freddy Laker and Harry Goodman, who over-reached themselves, destroying their holiday empires. 'I wanted a more professionally run company than those. In 1984 I realised that if I was going to expand, I could not remain a one- man band. I recruited professional managers, leaving me free to buy the products overseas and argue about money.' He brought in managers from Marks & Spencer, Kellogg's, Smurfit and Granada. They handled the administration, leaving Crossland free to carry on negotiating with hotels and inventing new holidays for his customers. There is little doubt that Airtours is now better managed than, for example, Owners Abroad.

Airtours grew steadily, funding its expansion out of retained profits, selling more holidays each year. With the collapse of ILG, Harry Goodman's enterprise, in 1991, Airtours picked up another few percentage points of the tour market. By this year, with no borrowings, its profits up nearly 20 times since its stock market flotation in 1987 and its share price steadily rising, it was in an ideal position to bid for Owners.

Behind Crossland's Northern solidity, however, there may be a romantic streak - until a few weeks ago he used to drive a sporty red Jaguar XJR to work, before he swapped it for a staider XJS. Then again, maybe there isn't - he lives modestly in a three-bedroom bungalow behind a golf course, and does little socialising.

This seems odd, since Crossland is something of a local Northern hero. Airtours is the biggest employer in the Helmshore area near Manchester, with about 450 people beavering away in the converted 1858 textile mill which is the company's headquarters. In the community, however, Crossland remains surprisingly invisible. He is too busy working.

And he will be even busier if he wins his bid. But he doesn't mind: there will be lots more holidays to sell. It is a compulsion: he never stops. As he disappeared into the next room with our photographer for a brief photo-session for this interview, he murmured: 'I bet you a fiver I can sell this bloke a holiday.' For once, he failed.

(Photograph omitted)