Mervyn Williamson

Mervyn had an inkling that business travel could be done better, in a more personalised and skilful way

HOF Entrepreneurs Mervyn Williamson 1920X1080

Published: 19/04/2021

Mervyn Williamson’s path to entrepreneurship was unusual in that he didn’t pursue a ‘big idea’, but just had an inkling that business travel could be done better, in a more personalised and skilful way. He has been proved right, particularly during the most significant crisis that has faced the travel industry in memory.

His path to building and growing Statesman Travel drew on experiences he’d built up from the start of his career. Having trained as a Chartered Accountant after his maths degree, he was seconded to a fast-growing travel operator where he experienced some of the perils of entrepreneurship first-hand.

The business was dynamic but went on an ambitious acquisition trail. However, these acquisitions were often poorly integrated and built up debt that left the company vulnerable. The business ultimately went into administration, a victim of competitor price cutting.

This showed me how you need to run a business – very tightly and carefully,” he says. “It had been a great business, but it was too ambitious, resulting in non-strategic acquisitions. One such acquisition, Sunsail International, was a great company, but we had no experience in yacht tour operating and chartering.
Mervyn Williamson

After the business disintegrated, he joined the Phoenix Travel Group as financial director. This business also faced a number of challenges. “The group had an amazing client base but had poor financial controls and was facing a number of legal actions which took time to sort out.”

Having put in the hard yards to restructure and reform the business, Mervyn took his first step into entrepreneurship, acquiring the business from the family in 1999. From there, it really took off. The turnover moved from £30m to £135m within three years. He adds: “Where I have taken risks, they have been sensible and calculated. When I’ve sold, I’ve sold a clean, uncomplicated company that does what I said it would do.”

In the process of running Phoenix, he began to see the opportunities in business travel. He saw that it needed to be personalised – “these are often high value transactions and they can be complex. People want to be able to speak to someone. If you’re a fee earner for a hedge fund, you need to get to where you’re going on time and as frictionless as possible.” On the other hand, he also saw that technology was a necessary enabler. This was the foundation for Statesman Travel, which he acquired in July 2007.

Mervyn was clear that this would be a different way to build a business, pulling together a team that was aligned to the company strategy, but could think for itself. “We believe we created something new. We saw a gap in the marketplace and plugged it with something special. The proof of our success came in the way we generated business – 75% from referral rather than marketing or cold-calling. This was in spite of having no significant recognised brand.”

In his decade at the helm, there were challenges, but these pale in comparison to the Covid crisis. He had sold out of the business in 2017 but still remains involved. Today, one of his most important roles is as an advocate and campaigner – he is a director at the Business Travel Association, which represents all the major travel companies in the UK. “We have given the government so much information on how travel can resume and happen safely as well as extensive economic data that business travel adds to UK GDP.”

That means a global vaccine rollout, pre-travel testing and ultimately, a digital health wallet. “That way, you know everyone travelling is safe to do so. It will be a new way of travelling, but it should help prevent the travel industry being forced to close down in the same way.” This is not just for Covid, but for other health problems such as Legionnaire’s disease, which can be a problem on cruise ships.

He is also having to be visionary about the future given the potential long-term changes to business travel: “We believe there will be some pent-up demand and some a return to in-person to person meetings. However, instead of sending six people, companies may send three or four. We are having to think hard about what the future might look like.”

At the same time, he has been working to keep his clients happy during this difficult period: “We have seen sales drop 95% across the whole sector, but we haven’t lost clients. We’ve continued to make sure they’re contacted regularly and fully informed with the latest industry topics. This will be important when

recovery comes.” For him, it has underlined the importance of face-to-face contact. Travel is likely to be more complex in future with different rules for different countries and talking to an expert will be vital, in tandem with the latest easy to use technology: “The travel industry will come back stronger, but in a slightly different way.”

It has also reinforced many of the lessons he learned early on in his career: “Companies struggling in this pandemic are now laden with a lot of debt. It’s important not to forget that it needs to be repaid.”
Mervyn Williamson

Then, as now, it is about recognising the power of people and empowering them: “We have no assets other than our people. They have built up amazing relationships, operating in small, dedicated teams. If you want to speak to Bob, you speak to Bob.” To his mind, this has proved the key differentiator during this seminal period for the travel sector.