One man and his ski company

Peter Dyer, the new owner of specialist ski operator Esprit, spent two happy years as a sheep-farmer after selling his previous firm to Thomson.
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Peter Dyer is a sheep farmer. He has a flock of about 200, raised according to the "farm-assured" standard, which is one level below organic; and it has been keeping him busy over the last couple of winters. The sheep graze on his fields in Sussex and on those of his neighbours when their grass needs trimming. Unfortunately, the block on the movement of farm animals in the wake of the foot-and-mouth emergency meant that his neighbours' grass remains unchewed, and some of his older ewes have had to be culled for lack of feed. But, fortunately, there was no outbreak of the disease on his farm.

Now, however, Dyer has hired somebody to look after his sheep. He is going to be busy with a new project, particularly during the winters and through to the lambing season. Because, this year, he has bought one of the UK's best specialist ski operators, Esprit, based in the Hampshire town of Fleet.

This does not represent a dramatic change for Dyer, who is 50 years old. Rather, it was the two-year interlude on the farm that temporarily interrupted a career which began when he was 18, and which made him the most respected figure in the UK ski business. After working for other companies, notably Swans and Inghams, he created Crystal Holidays with a partner in 1980 and built it up to the point where it became the market leader – it is currently selling 130,000 holidays per year. Now he is starting again, with a small company, albeit one which has established its reputation in a life almost as long as Crystal's. The number of holidays Esprit sold last season did not exceed four figures – for competitive reasons, Dyer will not be more specific than that. But he hopes to see a 100 per cent growth this season. Unsurprisingly, Peter Dyer is, once again, the talk of the ski business.

One reason for his ambitious target is Dyer's belief that "there is a sea-change going on: the big ski operators are not listening to their customers any more, and they are going to suffer a lot of fall-out as a result". Recent events certainly suggest that all is not well among the big companies, with the strong growth of small independents such as Erna Low and Le Ski and the departure of senior staff from Crystal (now owned by Thomson) including, earlier this month, managing director Debbie Marshall. And Dyer, of course, has direct experience of the way big ski companies work. After 11 years with Crystal, Dyer's partner wanted to leave; as a result the company was sold, to a US conglomerate called Dial, for £4m. "It was run by a guy who looked as if he'd played the lead in Dynasty," says Dyer. "Just like Blake Carrington he looked as if he'd had his teeth done, his face done. He was very straightforward, and absolutely brilliant: we learned so much from him. He used to say: 'Peter, we think you're a great guy, as long as you make the money. If you don't make the money, you're not a great guy.'" Left to its own devices – and without any investment from Dial – Crystal flourished.

But when Dial appointed a new boss, the relationship deteriorated, and Dyer organised a management buyout of Crystal, backed by Barclays. By this time, in 1997, Crystal was worth $20m [at the time, £12.5m]. "We did the deal, and literally the next day – when it was announced – we had Thomson, Airtours and First Choice ringing up and saying 'Do you want to sell?' We said no; so they went to Barclays." The bank, with a controlling interest thanks to its investment in the buyout, was excited by the prospect of a quick return, and eventually a deal was done. Crystal was sold to Thomson in 1998 for £66m.

"I wanted to stay on," says Dyer, "and Paul Brett, the chief executive said 'we want you to run Thomson ski as well'. But I didn't want to be on the main board and get involved in a committee of golf-club people; so it was agreed that I would report to a main-board member.

"On day one we had a meeting. He came in and got out his briefcase, his calculator and his notepad. I didn't have any of those things. And he said: 'Right, this is how we're going to run the company now.'" Dyer, who had been led to believe that he was to continue to run Crystal his way, suggested a call to Paul Brett. But the Thomson boss's support was not forthcoming. "What he said to me was: 'Well, best leave it as it is, Peter.'" Dyer left Thomson and, prevented by a 'block-out' from working in the ski business until September 2000, devoted himself to his sheep.

Ask Dyer how he can bring his knowledge of the ski market to bear on Esprit, a family-skiing specialist, and his answer is simple and self-effacing. "It's not what I think that counts; it's what the customer wants. You have to listen. I was talking to a guy who runs a ski-hire shop in Austria recently; he said that 10 years ago he used to tell clients which skis and boots they needed, but that now they tell him. Skiers are becoming ever more aware, always looking for something new. So, at Crystal, 20 of us used to sit down every year and ask ourselves: 'What are we going to do that's new?' We brought back the overseas people, because they talk most to the customers. All the ground-breaking ideas came from those meetings."

After Dyer acquired Esprit in January, a questionnaire was sent to the entire customer base asking them what they would like the company to offer. Dyer's assertion that "it's a good company, with a managing director who's been here for 12 years, that has got potential" is borne out by the amazing response rate of 82 per cent. What the customers wanted was more destinations, chalets and departure airports, plus hotels; and that is what Esprit's 2001/2 brochure offers.

Dyer says he has no "master plan" for Esprit. But you would get short odds from most people in the ski business – where praise for Dyer's managerial skills is unstinting – on Esprit remaining a small ski operator for long. Of course, big operators do tend to treat their customers like sheep. Lucky, then, that Dyer is good with sheep.

Esprit Ski, 01252 618300; travel@esprit-holidays.co.uk; www.esprit-holidays.co.uk

Comments