Harriet Green: Thomas Cook gets the green light

The travel giant was on its knees just a year ago. Now the woman behind its £1.6bn rescue talks to James Ashton

It could be yoga, it could be sinking into a good book – Harriet Green likes to find an occasional window that she can call her own. "I've thought pretty much all my life if you are not doing something for about an hour a day that is just for you – not your career, or boss, or husband – if you can't manage that I'm not sure if you haven't become enslaved to something," she said.

In the past year you could be forgiven for thinking that the only thing Ms Green has been enslaved to is turning around Thomas Cook. The world's oldest travel brand was on its knees until the 51-year-old began reviving it, including sealing a complicated £1.6bn restructuring.

Thomas Cook was overborrowed, overcomplicated and, after an odd move to combine with the Co-op's high street travel business, overshopped – even though 25 million customers were booking breaks with it every year.

Despite Thomas Cook shares slipping yesterday after a slow start to the winter booking season, there is plenty of evidence that the Green revolution is taking effect.

The City expects another £150m of sell-offs, on top of office blocks and Indian foreign exchange investment that have already been offloaded. Then there is more clarity around strategy for the tour operator, which will come in November. Even now for Ms Green, who hit the ground running, it isn't Tuesday or late September. It is Week 58 and the drumbeat of change continues.

"When you do a transformation you have got to be very focused on time," she explained. "You need to drive a sense of belief back into the organisation, into the people, suppliers and customers who have been hugely loyal anyway."

We meet in the group's new head office in London, close to the Barbican, which has lots of open-planned space and Perspex pods. It could almost be a dot.com start-up, except the rent is probably more than most internet ingénues would want to pay.

In her room, Ms Green has views over the Museum of London and an orange colour scheme, with a bunch of gold helium-filled balloons in one corner that marked her first anniversary. The shelves are wedged with books, as you would expect for a history graduate, and another nod to the past is mounted on the wall overlooking Ms Green's shoulder: a sepia-tinted portrait of Thomas Cook himself.

She hopes to take a leaf out of the founder's book. In 1841, the Baptist preacher arranged to take a group of temperance campaigners to a rally 11 miles away, charging a shilling each to cover rail fare and food.

More innovation followed over the decades. Thomas Cook was the first company to develop travellers' cheques, a low-cost airline and the round-the-world trip. Now Ms Green is leading the march for new products beyond the company's sun, sea and sangria core. That means city breaks and winter sun and catering better for discrete categories of holidaymaker, such as Nordic divorcees.

She has closed shops but refashioned others, which look "a lot more Apple than travel". Sunseekers can now load their vacation wishes on to an iPad and take them home to discuss with the family.

Ms Green has been vocal about women putting themselves forward for top jobs, and wrote to Frank Meysman, Thomas Cook's chairman, to tell him she had the skills he needed even though her background was in electronics, not travel.

"I felt I had enough experience, that I would be pacy, resilient and be able to generate belief," she says. Thomas Cook shares fell when her appointment was announced – but have risen tenfold now.

Getting more women business leaders goes right back to the classroom, she argues, with schoolgirls encouraged to dream beyond becoming a pop star.

"You ask any chairman, any chief executive: it is about getting women, from 13-year-olds to 25-year-olds who take business degrees, to think running a business is good and positive and fun."

Ms Green climbed the corporate ladder starting as a trainee at Macro, which distributed semiconductors, and rising to be UK managing director. Her next company, Arrow Electronics, gave her a larger canvas. After setting up its European network, she travelled to Africa, Asia and America.

When the opportunity arose to run Premier Farnell, a distributor of just-in-time components such as microchips and batteries based in Leeds and London, it felt like coming home.

"When their chairman Sir Peter Gershon hired me I had been out of the country for eight or nine years and I think that strengthened my chief executive credentials," she said.

From being a proactive recruitee, she isn't shy at recruiting either. Ms Green has shaken up her senior team at Thomas Cook, with a third of her lieutenants promoted from within and a third new appointments.

"I've never been fearful of calling someone up to say would you like to have a chat? If they say no, I'm busy, then that tells me a lot. If they say yes to 10 minutes, then I'll talk really fast."

Motivating staff takes many forms. At Premier Farnell, Ms Green was at the centre of the action, even judging the kids' fancy dress contest on family day. Thomas Cook is a far bigger beast with 35,000 staff serving Britain, Germany and the Nordics. She has encouraged Dear Harriet emails that are answered personally.

In order to still have to time to unroll her yoga mat, Ms Green is getting up unspeakably early, though she insists that is nothing new.

"I've never been a big sleeper. These jobs are very demanding, 24/7. They are also very exciting and rewarding. I guess most of us get up in the morning and think it would be good if we could make a difference, and in a company like Thomas Cook that has been poorly you can see that difference being made daily."

A holiday – other than to check out destinations to which her company sends people – seems a long way off.

My day

Harriet Green used to commute into London from the family home in Oxford but has found herself staying over in London or Frankfurt more often since she began Thomas Cook's turnaround.

"Wherever I am, I train," she said. "I do yoga or I'm in the gym very early. All that keeps me going is thinking about my boiled egg or egg white omelette for breakfast.

"Then I work, work, work and work. I'm not big on lunch and I don't have dinner with many people. Every quarter I do a range of town halls, with maybe 3,000 staff. I really like to get out the thorny issues that are bothering people.

"My last meeting is usually at six or seven and then I do my reading and emails. I make a commitment to everyone I've ever worked with that every email they send me will be responded to in the day. I'm the only chief executive I know who does all her own emails – that is something very personal and important to me."

Biography

Harriet Green, chief executive of Thomas Cook

Age 51

Education Medieval history degree from King's College London

Career Macro Group, Arrow Electronics, Premier Farnell

Reading The Defeat of the Spanish Armada

Hobbies Yoga and beekeeping

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