Jen Atkinson, CEO of ITC Travel

The Wealth List chats to Jenifer Atkinson, the CEO of ITC Travel Group, the Chester-based travel group.

  • Firstly, tell us about ITC Travel Group?

ITC Travel Group incorporates a number of travel businesses, including the Inspiring Travel Company, Western & Oriental, Rainbow Tours, Villa Select, Regent Holidays, ITC Sports Travel and Horse Racing Abroad.  Across our specialist brands, we send clients to every continent on the globe on a huge variety of holidays, whether it be a Caribbean fly and flop, an African Safari, a trip to see the Ashes in Australia or a European villa holiday. The thread that links our trips is the personal and bespoke offering our teams offer, whatever the trip.

  • What is your background and how did you come to be CEO?

I was born and bred in Leeds and will always be a Yorkshire lass at heart – I think my team would agree that those typical Yorkshire traits of straight-talking, grit and a constant eye on the pennies are a big part of who I am and how I run the business!

I started out in marketing at a property company and it wasn’t until I took on the role of Head of Marketing at ITC that I discovered my love and passion for the travel industry. I was very lucky to work alongside ITC’s founder Drew Foster, who took me under his wing and mentored me throughout our time together there, during which I was promoted to Head of Business Development and subsequently to COO. In the midst of the recession in 2009, Drew was sadly diagnosed with cancer and died in the same year, appointing me as CEO just before. ITC had been under Drew’s leadership since 1974 and stepping into his shoes was no mean feat!

  • Was it difficult to take the role on? Did you come across any particular challenges?

Taking over from Drew was daunting to say the least. As a woman in her thirties, it’s a big task to take the reigns of a long-established business from a man in his sixties, let alone a leading character in the North-West travel industry. There was definitely some resistance internally but I set out to prove that I could turn the business around and live up to Drew’s expectations.

With the recession hitting the UK hard, ITC was making a loss, and I had to make some difficult decisions and wide-ranging changes in order to turn around and save the business. This included management restructuring and redundancies which didn’t make me popular at the time, but ultimately were needed for me to redirect the business with a new vision and plan for growth. From our worst financial year to date in 2009 with a £1m loss, by 2010 we were turning a small profit, which has continued to grow year on year. Today we have more than 200 employees, a turnover of £96 million and a profit just shy of £5 million.

  • You led a Management Buyout soon after the birth of your first child. How did that come about?

I had been looking for investment for some time and fortuitously met Paul Pindar on an ITC holiday. He loved the brand and what it stood for and so in August 2014, we undertook a management buyout of the ITC Travel Group, with support from Drew’s family who up until then been majority shareholders of the business. The timing was such that it was just after the birth of my son, although I had always planned to return to work straight away – I love it too much to stay away for too long.

  • Tell us about the other brands you have since acquired.

Less than a year after the Management Buyout, we had the opportunity to acquire the Western & Oriental Travel Group, making us the biggest independent luxury tour operator in the UK, selling holidays of all varieties across five different continents. W&O Travel Group includes Western & Oriental, which brings affordable luxury to clients yearning for unique travel experiences; ITC Sport Travel, Horse Racing Abroad & Spectate Sports Travel, which sells elite sports tours to destinations across the globe; Regent Holidays, which specialise in tailor-made holidays and in-depth group tours; Rainbow Tours, specialising in once in a lifetime wildlife and nature encounters and Villa Select, a portfolio of villas across Europe and the world.

  • You have two young children. How do you balance family and work life?

I think balancing a career and raising a family is one of the biggest challenges that any woman faces. I am very fortunate that my husband works with me, and while he drives us home, I use the journey to catch up with all my emails from the day. As soon as reach the front door though, I have two young children waiting to be fed, bathed and put to bed. They need my full attention and it’s important that I can make time for them and away from work. It helps maintain balance. There is no perfect formula though – sometimes I feel like I’m doing a great job and at others, it feels like it’s not quite going to plan.

  • The large majority of your board and indeed your employees is female. Why do you think that is?

I firmly believe in nurturing talent and giving everyone opportunities, whether they are male or female.  Our success during the past few years is in no small part due to the business’s ethos of valuing and empowering its staff, something that led us to be named a ‘Sunday Times Top 100 Best Small Company To Work For’ several years running.

Leading from the front as a female CEO with a young family sets the tone for the kind of workplace that we are, and I believe that the right attitude spreads within the business. Many of our employees are mothers and they can feel safe in the knowledge that their jobs are there on their return, and that motherhood won’t hold them back at ITC Travel.

  • What is the biggest lesson you like to impart to any future leaders?

 My biggest piece of advice to anyone is to be brave and bold and believe in yourself. When the opportunity to become CEO presented itself, I was brave enough to seize the moment and would never be where I am today if I hadn’t!

  • Finally, what comes next for you and the business?

We have had a great few years of growth and my strategy to continue this trend is through the acquisition of businesses that complement our existing offering.

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