A COUPLE from Mold are looking back on a 20-year journey with their high flying independent travel firm which booked a record £100m worth of holidays last year.
Don Bircham and Ruth Ward of Hays Travel North West opened up their first branch on The Cross in Mold in January 2000.
It remains one of the flagship stores in their now almost 40-store travel empire which stretches across North Wales and the north west of England.
Under their original name of Just Go, they made 23 bookings on their first day of trading in Mold and they now employ 233 people who helped them book the record amount of holidays in 2019.
The first-class customer service they install in all their staff and their determination to make a fledging family business succeed is what they believe has helped their high street store model to buck the downward retail trend and has found them a way to work in partnership with the mighty online competition.
Don, 56, the firm’s managing director, who has worked in the industry for 40 years, said: “There are still lots and lots of people who prefer making their first or second biggest purchase of the year with someone in person and someone they trust.
“They like to be able to go in and get advice and it gives them a security which they wouldn’t have, sitting on a lap top, on their own, at home.
“They might do some of their research on the internet, they might find a holiday they really like the look of but they come to us for a second opinion and to help them make the booking.”
Ruth, 53, the company’s Operations Director, agreed and added: “I think it is definitely our great, hands on service, being able to recommend knowledgeably to customers the best holiday for them and in a lot of our shops, we have got staff that have been with us, serving that particular community, for years.
“It means our customers can come in and book their special holidays with people they trust and know. We have also always been independent and so we are able to offer a terrific range of holidays which suit all sorts of different people and their families.”
The couple, who have two sons and live near Mold, met on a conference while both individually working in the travel industry – Ruth as a store manager for Thomas Cook and Don as a regional manager for the same firm.
The pair were living at opposite ends of the country in their hometowns – Don in Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire, and Ruth in Basingstoke, Hampshire.
Ruth said: “Don was offered a new job with Thomas Cook based in Aberdeen and so we moved there together.
“I had never been further north in the UK than Peterborough at that time so it was quite a shock moving from Hampshire to Aberdeen, but it’s what you do!”
In 1992, the couple moved to North Wales when Don took charge of the region for Thomas Cook. He left Thomas Cook and became Retail Operations Manager for Co-op Travel, looking after 60 stores, but the idea of setting up a business for himself and his family was never far away from his thoughts.
He said: “I was becoming increasingly despondent with the corporate world and I had always harboured an ambition to start my own and I decided it was now or never.”
With two, young sons, Callum and Matthew, the couple took the plunge, found the perfect Mold high street store to rent and set about getting it ready to be opened.
Don said: “We got 4,000 fliers printed off and we walked the streets of Mold, putting them through letterboxes to let people know we were opening. We rented some computers, went to Ikea to buy chairs and desks and painted the shop to smarten it up a bit.”
Ruth added: “We put lots of holiday offers in the window and off we went.”
The pair now own the whole building which their successful Mold branch is still housed in. The store was given a £70,000 refurbishment just a little over 18 months ago.
Its success, right from day one, means the pair had opened their second store in Flint within a year. The following year, it was Wrexham and then Oswestry the year after that. Now, their close to 40 stores stretch through various counties and regions including; Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Cheshire, Greater Manchester, the Wirral, Merseyside and into Lancashire.
Don said: “Mold just always did so well for us and it was that support and success in the first store which gave us the confidence to open the next branch in Flint the following year.
“We had a young family at the time, our boys were at Ysgol Bryn Coch, and they used to go to after school club. One of us would run round and pick them up, sometimes with a customer waiting for us in the shop, and we would pick them up some sweets, rush back and they would sit in the back while we finished off booking holidays with the customers.
“It was a nervy time and a big risk for us but the Mold store has always looked after us. It got us off to a flying start and we have just never looked back.
“Mold has a lovely atmosphere. It still has that great sense of community and you always get the sense that people want you to succeed which is very reassuring when you start out on a journey like ours.”
Their firm is now the main partner of the hugely successful, Sunderland-based Hays Travel, owned and run by John and Irene Hays which recently took over all 555 Thomas Cook stores following the collapse of the well-known travel brand.
Don is also one of the investors in the town’s Fat Boar pub and Lot 11 Express coffee shop, which both have sister sites in Wrexham. He part-owns the businesses with ex-Everton player Barry Horne and Rich Watkin.
To thank their staff for their support on their high-flying 20-year travels, Don and Ruth are hosting a party at the Fat Boar in Wrexham later in the year. All of their branches will be shut for the day so their hard working teams can come together and celebrate the firm’s success.