Harry Goodman: He got his wings burnt but he's back for more: the third coming of a travel tycoon

With ILG, tabloid stories and TV Travel Shop, he's done the colourful past. Now, as Maggie Lee hears, he's chasing the grey pound
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The Independent Online

His plan is to "buy one or two companies to start with and create a high-margin, medium-volume business. I've been looking at this market for about six months - the trouble is finding the right thing to buy. I don't really want to sort out someone else's mess first, but at the end of the day I may have to do this with the aid of external funding."

With over 40 years of experience and two travel empires behind him, the 66-year-old Goodman has arguably one of the most colourful business and personal histories in a colourful industry. He started out selling Spanish package holidays to UK tourists in the early 1970s. Twenty years later, having stood down as the chairman of a public company and survived tabloid revelations about his private life, he successfully launched TV Travel Shop with Flextech Television in 1998. Four years later he sold it to InterActiveCorp, run by media mogul Barry Diller, for £60m.

Acknowledged as a risk-taker and pioneer in the travel business, Goodman admits he has often created controversy - perhaps most significantly with the collapse in 1991 of International Leisure Group, the company he had floated 10 years earlier and which was turning over three quarters of a billion pounds before its demise. It was a business failure that was to cost him his reputation in the City and provide a wake-up call on his health.

Goodman is clear about the reasons for ILG's collapse. He is also acutely aware of the criticisms levelled against the management team. "The shareholders knew we were expanding into the airline business. What no one foresaw was the Gulf war. It killed the business, it affected aviation worldwide." The threat of terrorism and the oil crisis caused a slump in demand for airline seats, and planes ended up parked in the deserts.

Sometimes portrayed as the villain of the piece, he fully realises that some expected him to "land up in jail on account of my lavish lifestyle" - one that saw him appear in the News of the World as often as the City pages. But Goodman explains: "I never charged the company for any of the perks, like the private jet and boat I enjoyed. I always remember being told when I was young that 'the money in the till ain't yours'. When ILG collapsed, I was broke, but clean."

According to Goodman, "everything in my life has been a bonus". He was born into a Jewish family in the East End of London and was raised by an aunt after his mother died from cancer when he was 12 (his father had died in a car accident before he was born). At the age of 15, he left school to work as a claims clerk - a job he hated.

His break came when he went to work for his next-door neighbour, who ran a travel agency. As he recalls: "It was exciting and glamorous. Here I was, a kid from east London who had never been abroad before. Now I was going to airports and visiting Spain - where the weather was great, you could drink all day and the sun shone all year."

After completing his national service, he took temporary leave from travel to open an employment agency in Bond Street. He saw it as a quick way to make money. "It did reasonably but I hated it. It was like a cattle market, though I was one of the first agencies to own 10 word processors. I sold it two years later and bought three travel agencies from a dentist I knew in south London."

Goodman created Intasun, which was to form the bedrock of ILG as his empire took off in the late 1970s and he expanded into the airline business, establishing Air Europe. Over 10 years, the group became the second-largest tour operator in the UK, floating in 1981.

"The airline business at that time was like second-hand clothes - run on cast-offs. I wanted to change it and buy state-of-the-art Boeing 737s to open up America as a destination. I went to Freddie [Laker] and got a £99 return fare from him.

"The world went mental. Everybody started buying holidays to the US. TV programmes like Holiday were a great catalyst in helping us win business." A shrewd publicist, Goodman even secured an audience with Pope John Paul II, who blessed the business.

He acknowledges that the City "didn't always like my style" - a sentiment that became clear when, speculating in other areas, Goodman bought three London hotels from the Barclay brothers, which he redeveloped and sold on, making £30m in 18 months. "The guys in the City marked our shares down."

Audacious deals and the crisis caused by the first Gulf war were ultimately to lead to his departure as chairman of ILG in 1991. A week before he lost the company, he passed out while driving his car one Sunday morning. "I ended up in hospital," he explains. "I was overweight, stressed and living an unhealthy lifestyle. I almost died. I'd been so busy trying to save my company, I hadn't noticed." Four weeks later he was broke and, as he says: "I had nothing to do and needed to get well."

But by 1997 he was back, returning to the industry to launch TV Travel Shop. He had noted the power of television in selling holidays and was convinced that a dedicated shopping channel would succeed. With backing from Flextech and Barclays Private Equity, the channel broadcast programmes 24/7 over cable, digital and satellite platforms.

His critics were initially cynical - "Teletext with pictures" was one of the kinder comments before launch. Today, selling holidays via a screen is an accepted business model.

Press him about his past ventures and he is philosophical: "If you want to be in the game, you take the rough with the smooth. There's no magic formula, no shortcuts to making a business work. It's hard work and there's a price to be paid.

"And I'm not talking about money here, but the emotional costs. I've been married three times and made and lost fortunes."

Ask Goodman about his greatest achievement and he recalls the time he opened a residential home for the deaf and blind in memory of his mother. "That was meaningful," he says. "The rest? For Christ's sake, it's only business."

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 12 November 1938.

Career (1962): founded Sunair Holidays (sold in 1969).

1970: founded Intasun.

1970-1991: chief executive and chairman of International Leisure Group.

1991-97: "in the wilderness".

1997: founded TV Travel Shop. Launched in 1998 and sold in 2002.

Married three times - three children, four grandchildren.

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