"We're a family business. We do what we like and we like what we do"

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“We’re a family business. We do what we like and we like what we do”

Topflight are a leading Irish tour operator, and a client. I liked this piece about them in a major Irsh daily newspaper as it gives a flavour of the entrepreneur behind the company.

It’s cold outside. It’s starting to rain. The phones are hopping at the Topflight offices in central Dublin. Some customers are desperate to escape the country. One caller wants to book tickets for four people. To leave tomorrow, if possible. You wonder whether they’ll bring luggage or just make do with the clothes on their backs. Either way, it’s all good news for managing director Tony Collins. As he stands for photographs, he explains that he’s been out the night before with some Czech colleagues. Still, he looks no worse for wear. The country’s largest ski tour operator, Collins says that his fundamental belief at Topflight is that the customer has to be the continuous focus. “They choose to give you money. They can choose not to. You do things right and hopefully that filters down to the bottom line,” he says. The affable Collins is long enough in the industry to be aware of its vagaries. After leaving school in Cabra prior to his 16th birthday, he went to work as a motorcycle courier with An Post’s predecessor, Post & Telegraphs. “I liked having a bit of money in my pocket,” he explains. “I’d had a job of some sort or another since I was 12, working in a pub or doing milk rounds. I felt it was important to have another income coming into the family.” But his plan at P&T to get into electronic engineering fell through after a fall from his bike put him behind a desk, an outcome that didn’t have much appeal. A deluge of CVs later, he secured a job with a travel agency on Dublin‘s Mary Street, and would later move on to work with Thomas Cook and Ryan Hotels. At night, he studied for his Leaving Certificate and then a marketing qualification.

 “I did a four-year stint at an agency in Drogheda, and in 1983 decided to open my own business. There was a depression and everyone told me I was mad,” he remembers. With a £5,000 loan from AIB, the then 31-year-old bought a shop on Dorset Street. It made money in its first year. In 1990 he bought Topflight, which at the time was in bad shape. “I’m in business 25 years now, and we’ve made money in every one of those,” he says. “That’s a pretty good record in our industry.” Last year Topflight generated sales of €50m and made a profit of “between €1m and €2m” says Collins. Typically, it sells between 65,000 and 70,000 holidays a year.

The big changes in the sector happened later in the ’80s when UK operators began muscling in on the Irish market. The advent of Ryanair and, later, Aer Lingus’s decision in 2001 to revamp itself on the low-cost model, made it a much tougher market for travel agents as commissions were slashed and the price of flights plummeted. “The real impact on the tour operators here was that the UK heavyweights began mopping up most of the Irish businesses.” But Topflight has soldiered on alone, despite the usual offers from competitors, none of which have yet proved tempting to Collins. “We’re a family business. We do what we like and we like what we do,” explains Collins. “Whenever the future looked bright for us, I didn’t want to sell. When things looked bad, nobody was interested anyway.” He says that the company is operating on far tighter margins than 10 years ago, but adds that in each of the past four years the company has achieved at least 20pc sales growth. “We don’t go for high margins. We look for modest margins, reasonable growth, stability and sustainability,” he says. “That has served us well. We’re not greedy.”

Meanwhile, Topflight has captured the lion’s share of the ski market, while its sun holidays prove popular too.

Anticipation “You’ve got to anticipate what people might like and match your client base with the product,” says Collins, who adds that the company operates in the “upper to middle” price margin bracket. “We’d never do anything that’s two-star, and rarely even carry three-star properties,” he adds. “Nobody wants rubbish any more.” Ski holidays now account for about one third of Topflight’s business (it was recently awarded the accolade of Ireland‘s best tour operator — the 14th year in a row it has received it), with holidays to sunspots such as Portugal, Italy and the Canary Islands forming a large part of the remainder. Around 30pc of Topflight’s sun holidays sold annually are, unsurprisingly, booked in January. While skiing has proved popular, Collins (who likes to head for the piste in Austria and Andorra) admits that, in respect of the Irish market, the level of business is probably heading for a plateau.

His sons, Anthony and Neil, also run a separate online business, Directski.com, in which Collins has a small stake. Topflight, meanwhile, has been branching out, providing foreign wedding services and also targeting groups heading off on golf trips, for instance. It has also begun offering sporting trips to schools, including ski, rugby and soccer packages. But as the economy begins to ease off the accelerator, Collins says it’s evident that at least some customers are being a “little bit more cautious” about booking. “This sector isn’t recession proof,” he explains. “It has to be very strongly customer-focused.” “We’re going for growth this year, but it will be more modest than in previous years. We’re certainly aware that there’s a nervousness out there and that people are watching their money.” Roulette may be out, but it seems people will always need their sun fix, however.

From the Irish Independent newspaper, January 2008

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