Thomas Cook ‘gets it’ now, but its board still has a long way to go


James Moore
Wednesday 25 November 2015 23:54

Thomas Cook’s chief executive, Peter Fankhauser, said there would be “unprecedented disruption” as terrorism blighted the travel business and much more besides.

Yet even with the shutdown of Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian resort from which the company recently had to ferry 1,700 holiday-makers home, Thomas Cook managed to turn in a surprisingly good set of numbers.

The best in years, in fact; quite an achievement given the headwinds faced by the company, some of which have been self-generated.

“Putting our customers first in everything we do” was, opined the chief executive, a change that his company had to make. It speaks volumes that the boss of such a business should have to say that.

But two young children died entirely avoidable deaths on one of the company’s holidays, and it then proceeded to make such a mess of dealing with the aftermath that it ought to be on the syllabus of every MBA and every public relations course in Britain. So the need to make such a statement is easy to understand.

The new Thomas Cook, we are told, “gets it” now. One would hope so. The financial performance this business has just put in won’t survive another similar tragedy.

Then there are the monsters with guns eying up so-called “soft targets”. All holiday companies need to be alive to the danger they pose, and have procedures in place to deal with another Sharm, or a Tunisia or, yes, even a European destination.

The current board, which is proving its efficacy, appears to understand this, at least on an intellectual level. But on an emotional level? That’s rather more debatable.

Thomas Cook has a brands man as chairman, some finance types, a former management consultant and a media executive among its non-executive directors.

Such a board is not unusual for a consumer-facing company in Britain, and that includes the successful ones.

Some might point to it as being rather strong. But its members, drawn from the business elite, live lives so different from the majority of Thomas Cook’s customers they might as well be from a different planet.

If Thomas Cook wants to cement its revival, that board needs to be sure it has a way of listening to and effectively communicating with those customers, and not just through the prism of the market research industry.

That means speaking to people with a recent understanding of what it’s like to holiday with Thomas Cook, without the ability to call the boardroom secretary, and without the funds to easily get out of trouble when it occurs. If it wanted to be really progressive, the appointments committee might like to consider asking the headhunters to find such a person to join their number.

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