AIB Featured Business Leader – Graham Turner

AIB Featured Business Leader – Graham Turner


After graduating from university, Queensland born Graham Turner worked as a Vet in Victoria, before moving to London and embarking on a career shift that would truly change his life forever. In London, Turner and friend Geoff Lomas took their first steps into the travel industry in 1973 when they purchased an ageing bus and started operating budget double-decker bus trips, Top Deck Travel, around Europe, North Africa and Asia.

With only a bus load of energy and youthful exuberance, Top Deck Travel grew quickly and its success cemented Turner’s future in the travel industry. It had grown into a thriving business with some 80 buses by the early 1980s.

In 1981, Turner returned to Australia and established the Flight Centre travel. It was an opportune moment as the airline ticketing industry had recently been deregulated, allowing the sale of discounted tickets for the first time. Under Turner’s dynamic leadership, Flight Centre took off, providing the cheapest possible pricing, deriving profits from the volume of sales. Flight Centre was floated in 1995, as much to allow employees to become part owners of the business as to raise capital. Fifty percent of the staff bought shares.

Turner is not your usual corporate leader.  He remains down to earth without the need to surround himself with the trappings of his success. The financial bottom line at Flight Centre is important, but it has been achieved because he also believes in empowering employees, rewarding initiative and fostering the spirit of a large tribe throughout the company. There are no extra perks for senior executives at Flight Centre unless everyone gets them.

While Flight Centre has been on a path of relentless growth, it has had a few well-publicised bumps including the share price crashing to $3 during the financial crisis. But it rebounded by 2010 and has been pursuing global expansion as one of the world’s most successful travel businesses ever since.

As the long serving Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of the public company that grew from the small band of less than 30 Flight Centre shops, Turner has since presided over a golden era of growth and prosperity for Flight Centre Limited. He finds what it is that makes the business distinct, what it’s good at, and sticks to it. Turner states that “If you want anything to survive in the long term, it’s got to be able to pay for itself.”

Turner has always done things his own way. He is well known for the stone age-inspired family, village, tribe corporate structure that is at the heart of the Flight Centre culture. It is a core ethos of the company and is a model that has helped Flight Centre keep a small business focus no matter how large the company has grown. Turner believes that people work best in small groups (families) that can then work together (villages) to ultimately create larger, but lean structures (tribes).

While it continues to expand, the Flight Centre business is facing its own challenges. There have been predictions for years that the growing power of the internet would be the death knell for the bricks-and-mortar travel agency model that still underpins much of Flight Centre’s growth. Put simply, why would anyone require a travel agent when you can access so much information, make bookings and buy flights and travel products online? But Turner remains unfazed by the internet threat. He argues that people still want to talk to a travel agent about their plans. Flight Centre continues to open more shops and businesses around the world, including new-model hyper stores such as those in New York, Los Angeles, London, Abu Dhabi, Brisbane and, most recently, Darwin.

It is this next phase of building the company that has Turner particularly enthused. He sees no reason to step back from Flight Centre. He has already tried that a couple of times and it didn’t work for him, or for the company.

As Flight Centre continues to grow, Turner sees it re-emerging as a new business every few years, with fresh challenges and demands, refueling his passion for the business. He is currently involved in the strategy and vision for Flight Centre to 2035, imagining the travel industry and Flight Centre’s place in it over the next 20 years.

With more than 2300 locations and 15000 employees in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, Hong Kong, China, India, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, shareholders will be more than pleased that Graham Turner hopes to continue at the helm of the business for years to come.

What do you think?

Graham Turner has created Australia’s leading domestic and international travel sales business through outstanding entrepreneurship and innovation. Have you demonstrated a similar great vision, high energy and entrepreneurial spirit? I’m interested to learn more about what makes an entrepreneur tick. Comment your views below and join the conversation.

This article was written by Jelena Milutinovic on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: The Australian; Flight Centre Travel Group; Skroo Turner and The University Of Queensland

Image credit: Business Review Weekly

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