Shaper: Graham Simpson

Show aired on 6th October 2018

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shapers podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers where the Shapers of Jazz, soul and blues collide with the Shapers in the world of business. Our guest today is Graham Simpson, Founder and Chairman of Simpson Travel, an award-winning specialist tour operator. Simpson Travel was founded in 2002 but has an industry heritage of almost forty years as Graham and his Greek wife, Yianna, first started offering villa holidays in 1978 inspired by the idea of sharing the kind of authentic travel experiences they love themselves. Simpson Travel whose portfolio features carefully chosen locations across Corsica, France, Greece, Italy, Majorca and Turkey choses to follow the road less travelled, which Graham says represents an alternative attitude rather than alternative destination. Graham no doubt will tell us more about that in just a few minutes time. And it would be remiss of us not to talk a little on his six years as Chairman of Watford Football Club. We notice Watford is not yet a portfolio destination but has that experience faired in some way into Simpson Travel. Thank you for joining Graham.

Graham Simpson
My pleasure.

Elliot Moss
You have travelled a lot, travel is your passion I have read, and I have seen you talking about it. Where did you get the bug?

Graham Simpson
It’s a great question because I had a very middle class upbringing and until I was sixteen I don’t think I went beyond Bognor Regis with my parents for a holiday, but I have it in my blood and I started travelling then, I started hitchhiking round Europe with friends and it just grew on then and I always knew that it was something I wanted to do, and have continued for the rest of my life.

Elliot Moss
Many people will relate to that and go ‘of course we love travelling’ and some people feel it as you said even if it wasn’t in your upbringing as it were. But you translated that into your first business and I’ll come back to the acting in the moment, because for people that don’t know, I am in the presence of an actor as well, not as though you have done enough in your life, Graham, I really think you should do some more things. Why did you convert your passion into a business because some people say, a great idea, got to do that, and other people say keep well clear of your passions and focus on something serious?

Graham Simpson
Great, a great question. When I was an actor I was acting for about I think about ten years, and I was okay, but I wasn’t that good. That is something you can look back and say you know, that was me. By the time, after ten years I think we had two children, I was I think in my last job in the theatre was the National Theatre and basically I used to come out of there and then go mini-cab driving all night. The National Theatre didn’t pay very well so that is what I did, and then one day – my wife is from Crete – one day her brother-in-law said, ‘why don’t you come and stay with us, have a holiday, you’re exhausted’, looking at me and that is what I did. So, we went over there, we had a wonderful holiday in Crete in one of his villas, he had a couple of villas, and he said to me ‘look why don’t you just, can’t you put an advert or something, because it’s always empty, we never use it, couldn’t you put a little advert in England and see if you can get a couple of clients to come over. We are not going to charge you, but we will charge them’. So, I said ‘well that’s a great idea, I’ll help you, of course’. I put an advert in the Sunday Times and I can remember what it said – ‘Anglo-Greek family offer beautiful private villa’, and the phone started ringing on that Sunday and it just never stopped. This was in the Sunday Times, and it never stopped, and, in that weekend, we sold this villa for the whole of the season. And not only that, and this you’ve got to remember, this was 1978, so people were quite a lot different in those days, and people were coming round and knocking on our little flat door in Chiswick handing us the deposit and I was saying things like ‘But I haven’t shown you the brochure yet’ – I’d done a brochure and I had written it – ‘no its okay we want it’. To cut a long story short I said to my wife ‘until I become a great actor we have got to do this’ because we will get some money and I am fed up with mini-cabbing and all the other jobs I have done from croupier to dolphin trainer, dustman everything. So we set up this little business from home and we put a little advert in, I went to the bank, they offered me some money, which was fantastic for an actor to get some money to sort of get a couple more apartments. I went back to Crete I found a guy and he said ‘yes, I’ll give you a couple of apartments’, we did our little pictures, I took the pictures, I wrote it and that is where it went and we started that, the ironic thing is that I never went back to acting. I just carried on for twenty one years running a travel business of which I had not the faintest clue what I was doing. But we had one thing that we believed in passionately and we wrote it in the first brochure, and that was that we wanted to give the people the kind of holidays that we would want to go ourselves on, and that was independence, freedom and integrity. To be honest that has lasted the whole of my life, even now with the new company, well nothing has changed it is the same ethos the same philosophy.

Elliot Moss
]You talk about, with humility, not being a great actor and you mention in the same breath well you know I was at the National Theatre and you were on television as well, I mean you couldn’t have been that bad. It strikes me, and you mentioned the other jobs, you were always going to work hard, Graham, it didn’t really matter you were going to make ends meet. To me you look like the kind of person that would be if stuff wasn’t working out well, you would find a way of making that work. Where do you think you have got that drive from and that tenacity that I see in your eyes?

Graham Simpson
That’s a great question, I don’t know with my father, because he died when I was very young, as I said I had a fairly middle class upbringing, I wasn’t very well educated I went to the wrong school. I was sent when I was eleven to a Technical School, because one of the teachers saw me do something which she thought was technical, and so I went to Chesham Technical School where they specialised in engineering, woodwork, plumbing and bricklaying and I hated all of them and still do. I can’t do any of that, I am useless. So, I ended up in a school where I was completely demotivated, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, that was my path at that time. Things have changed now, people get much more direction in what they are doing and they draw out their talents, but my main interest even then was literature and I probably was the only guy in the class or the school that actually ended up with a GCE in Literature because it really interested me. But nobody else was along that path, so it was a bit of shame in one way but from there I think whatever happens, and you don’t know what is going on down deep in your subconscious or whatever but I just slowly began to realise that there was a direction in life and that what you do in life, what you put into it is what you get out of it, and it doesn’t matter what you do, whether you are a great sportsman, whether you are a great actor, whether you are lucky enough to get into travel, it doesn’t matter you just have to put as much into it and what you put in comes out and really and truthfully, I don’t know where it comes from, I wish I could tell you.

Elliot Moss
I wish you could too, because we could then go and run away and make everyone happy and make everything work. But on the serious side, the business which again you sort of said I didn’t really know what I was doing and I kind of don’t believe that because obviously something was working over twenty one years. How fast did you learn, to use your word, the technical stuff and was the attitude just much more important, was it about your philosophy, because surely the product was pretty good, I mean you built up from one villa to many, many, many different villas, there must be something going on?

Graham Simpson
It’s true, I really did not know. We did not know what we were doing, we just had this philosophy which I explained to you and every so often we got a little bit bigger every year, we got another villa, I went and photographed it and I think we ran that for about thirteen years until 1991 just as a small private company that suddenly I had money, I had enough, I didn’t have to go and work as a whatever it was, waiter or a mini-cab driver, or whatever, and I had enough money and that was very nice and then 1991 came along and 1991 was the first Gulf War. Now that was a really very, very key moment because up until then the only War that had been around in Europe wasn’t in Europe in actual fact it was the Falklands which was thousand of miles away and we all watched it from a distance so we it didn’t really affect us. But this one affected us, so I think they invaded Kuwait or whatever in about January 1991. It is our busiest time January in the travel for the Summer business, that is when you are taking all your bookings, so I think even in those days and we were relatively small, we might be having two or three hundred phone calls a day. I think we got two on the first day and one was a wrong number and one was probably the Bank Manager. It was a reality check, and I think in 1991 three hundred travel companies went to the wall, because business just died for three or four months, everyone was just mesmerised by what was going on and we survived, we survived because we had to make sadly some of our staff redundant. We all went on 60% wages, we went to all the owners abroad and said we have got a problem, will you help us, you know we can’t pay you straight away, but we survived and so did lots of other companies, although one big one Intersun went down in those days. But what I learnt from that and it was just a learning curve is that I could no longer run it as a private company, I needed to make sure that I differentiated where I went and at that time we were very much in the Eastern Med so we were in Turkey and Greece and Crete, Eastern Med that was the area nobody wanted to go to, everybody felt safer going to Spain and places like that. So, I said to my wife, ‘we’ve got to open up in Portugal, we’ve got to open in Spain, let’s go to Italy’ and slowly, slowly over the next three or four years I started opening up a destination every year and going there and finding properties and everything like that. And why I explain that I didn’t really know what I was doing is I thought, ‘well I don’t know whether this is going to be successful or not, but I’ll do it’, and the extraordinary thing that happened to the business was because we had built this huge bank of people that trusted us and liked us, if we suddenly said ‘okay, we are going to Portugal or we are going to Italy and we are going here’, they would say ‘well if you’re going that’s good enough for us, we’re going’. So, we had this huge following and success of clients who weren’t necessarily coming back to us every year in Crete or Turkey but started going to Portugal and started going to Spain, it wasn’t planned, it wasn’t clever and I think from 1991 to 1999 we went from carrying 5,000 people to 45,000 when we sold it. But, we never really planned that, all we wanted to do was make sure that we didn’t have that terrible experience in 1991, and make sure that didn’t happen again.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper who is sharing some really good lessons about adapting to changing situations and often out of adversity, if you get it right comes opportunity as I think the saying goes. Much more coming up from Graham in a couple of minutes, but first let’s hear from our partners at Mishcon de Reya with some advice for you and your business.

There are many ways to hear this and hundreds of former Jazz Shapers, you can ask Alexa to play Jazz Shapers and there you can hear many of the recent programmes or if you pop Jazz Shapers into iTunes you can enjoy the full archive including our special encore editions where past guests return to tell us how their business aims have played out and how that has shaped their vision. But back to today’s guest, it is Graham Simpson, he is Founder and Chairman of Simpson Travel. I want to just stop a minute at 1999 the business is sold, you have got a little hiatus, you are probably going ‘well that was quite nice’, I think I watched you somewhere saying ‘I had time to smell the roses and then I’m like do I want to smell the roses every day, I don’t really’, and in fact you decided that Sundays days were a good day to smell the roses and the rest of it you would want to work, which makes sense to me I think because I am sure everyone who envisages this great moment, when they say ‘I don’t need to work again, and then you go well I’m a bit bored’. You set up your other business, your new business Simpson Travel which you are still obviously going very strongly with and we will come to the numbers on that. But about the same time, a little bit later, you then end up being asked to become the Chairman of a football club called Watford, which was my first football club. How did that happen and how did that fit with this you know business number two?

Graham Simpson
When I sold Simply Travel in 1999, the first thing I did was ring up Watford Football Club and I said to them as a lifelong supporter from whenever I was eight or nine years of age, I said how much does it cost to become a Director. They gave me the figure, not straightaway but they came back to me in a couple of days, and I said, ‘I’ll take it’. For me it was an incredible experience to be a Director of the Club I had supported all my life, and I loved it and I was along with lots of other very interesting people, I think Elton John was the Chairman then, Graham Taylor was the Manager, he was like a God to me, because I had seen him in the 70’s and 80’s with my sons on the terraces and there I was suddenly this lad who was in the Director’s room. And it was wonderful but at the same time I decided to, I had had twenty one very intense years working and I decided I needed to go and see the World a little bit, so I went off travelling, sometimes with my wife and sometimes on my own, and I went to the Southern Hemisphere, initially with the children and went round Australia and travelled with them, and then I went off on my own and became a sort of wrinkly backpacker, staying in the most simplest of places, getting a bicycle when I arrived on an Island, I went to Fuji and I went to Western Samoa, I went to Tonga, it was a great time for me and I relaxed. I came back and one of my son’s was in Africa working for a charity and my wife and I went to Africa to Tanzania. Twelve hours by a four-wheel drive into Tanzania to where he was working, where they had never seen a white man, I was in my 50’s then and they had never even seen a white man in his 50’s and they all used to run away and scream because they thought it was the Witch Doctor. And I had an incredible experience, all that was combined with my team coming back from Simply Travel saying ‘actually we would like to start again we are not particularly happy where we are, would you do it’. So, I basically said ‘yep I’ll do it, I’ll fund it, but I don’t want to be the Chief Exec or Managing Director or whatever you call it, I just want to fund it, you run it’. And at that same time as this happened, I was sitting on my Board at Watford, or being part of the Directors, and Watford had a bit of a financial hiatus they were in trouble, and I thought #I could help my Club, I could do more’. So I approached all the other Directors and there was about ten or eleven of them at the time and said ‘how do you feel if I actually put a bit more money in and I will raise some more money with you guys and we went Watford out of the poo, and we take it forward’, and I was fortunate enough to do this and I became the Chairman of the Plc, with about twelve Directors and some really heavyweights who were far more skilled in business and things than I was and we did okay, we got three semi-finals, we got promotion with Aidy Boothroyd into the Premiership, I’ll never forget that, then slowly it didn’t last, nothing lasts in football, and the money has to keep being put in, and I put a lot of money in and obviously didn’t get it back but I have no regrets because it was the most incredible experience.

Elliot Moss
You talked about your team, Graham, coming back to you and saying ‘we are in these different places, we loved working with you can we do something’, and you said ‘yes, I don’t want to be day-to-day involved’. This was a conversation whatever now sixteen years ago, the business is now turning over almost thirty million pounds, it seems to have gone up it’s heading in the right direction, that team that came to you then obviously on the back of a great relationship is now going great guns. What they are doing now in this business to remain competitive, why is Simpson Travel doing well because as we have all grown up travel has just become a much more affordable part of everyday life, and yes it is a middle class pursuit to a point, but flights have never been cheaper, although we have got a problem with the pound at the moment, generally people are able to move around in ways that when I was a kid we just couldn’t do it was exotic to go on holiday, it’s no longer exotic. What singly out your team at Simpson Travel, why is that business doing so well?

Graham Simpson
I think there is one word and I would say passion. I don’t think that I have lost my passion, I love travel but more than that I am not in it to get rich, I mean I am incredibly lucky I have enough money in the world and that is very, very fortunate, I am blessed, but I love being part of a team, I really enjoy meeting my clients, hearing their stories. We have tremendous loyalty I think 55% of our clients return with us every year. We have another 10% recommendations and I am very proud of that, it’s a passion, that passion I believe, if you have it at the top of the tree that can filter right the way through and I am really proud of my staff, right the way, the overseas staff, the London staff, they all feel very proud, they are full of passion for what they do so when they talk to the clients they are talking to them they have a lot of knowledge, they are talking about the holidays, they are recommending where to go, when they go abroad my staff abroad are there as a lifestyle, they love working abroad, they live there and they will look after the clients and that’s a key ingredient because when you are small-fry and lets be fair, we are small-fry in the great big world now that we live in, you’ve got to have a USP, and that is our USP the knowledge, the care, the integrity, everything that we started, when we started, nothing has changed. And there are a lot of people that recognise that and yes, we do charge more than most, but why does that work, because when we send people on holiday and we take them on holiday, we make sure they are looked after. Not mollycoddled, but something goes wrong we fix it, and people like that, that is very, very important and that is our USP as a business. But it all comes down to passion.

Elliot Moss
And do you think they would describe you in that way, would they say the reason we love Graham is because – insert it’s because he’s passionate. What else? I mean you strike me as a very down to earth, straightforward non-materialistic kind of fellow?

Graham Simpson
Well I can’t tell you everything they would say about me…

Elliot Moss
It’s not broadcastable!

Graham Simpson
…probably, I think some of them would say, what he does is he’s up over the ramparts, he is charging forward, yelling everyone to follow him and do it, and when he gets there, and he sees what he’s done, he then says right now get on and do it. And that is probably my strength and my weakness, so I lead them I think. I come up with ideas, I am always thinking about what new can we do. I am not the Managing Director anymore I am the Chairman, I’ve got a great team in the London Office who run it and I think I am an ideas man, I love the product and I get to that stage and then I say, ‘guys I can’t do this detail anymore, you do it’.

Elliot Moss
Final chat coming up with Graham plus we will be playing a track from Art Blakey, that’s in just a moment here on Jazz FM.

That was Art Blakey with Moanin’. Just for a few more minutes Graham Simpson is my Business Shaper. We have been talking about lots of stuff and you have mentioned money a couple of times and you have said you are a very lucky guy, and you know it’s not important to you and people who have always made a bit of money say that, and I don’t mean that rudely at all but what is your relationship with money now, obviously you have made enough, so in what way does it not matter? Are you really just doing it for the love of it, or is there a commercial side but it’s like, it will be what it will be?

Graham Simpson
I think for me money has never been that important, it’s been important when I had children and wanted to survive and be able to feed them and obviously educate them, but I have never been driven by money. I have always been driven by producing good quality, whatever I do in life, that is the most important thing and I think, I think I am not alone there, I think there are other people like that, that breeds success. What I do want is, it is not just that I am not focused on money, but I want to be successful, I want to be the best, I want to be very, very good, I want Simpson Travel to be the best company out there and for people to come back and say, we love travelling with you. That is my buzz, and the money is a bonus, but it’s a great bonus, I wouldn’t ever say anything against it, but it doesn’t drive me.

Elliot Moss
And in terms of the amount of the work now, you’ve said you’re an ideas guy, and that you are leading from the front, does that mean you work when you need to work, does that mean you go into the office, I mean what is your secret now Graham, because you don’t need to work in the same way.

Graham Simpson
My secret is unfortunately, and my wife if she listens to this will back you up on this, is that I work too much. I am not very good at work life balance, I look at the younger generation now and probably you and everyone like that, and I think they’ve got it organised. I will still work twelve or fourteen hours a day, it’s not clever, I know that, I just can’t stop it and often my wife will say ‘please just come in, come and relax’, I am just so involved in it, I can’t let go. I don’t think that’s a great asset that is just the way I am and I have learnt to live with it and I don’t think I am ever going to change now, I am probably too old.

Elliot Moss
In terms of, again I just want to pick on one thing before we leave you, or you leave us rather. You talk about education and you said you were eleven and I remember talking to my dad about how people were pigeonholed at a certain age and generally the Eleven Plus thing was when it all happened. Are there things now that you would change about the education system, with regard to preparing people for the world of work?

Graham Simpson
That’s a really good question, I think there is, I think, well looking at it now the opportunities are so much greater, but of course, if you are fortunate enough to go to a private school in many ways you get greater opportunities. You are allowed to develop different skills and I think in the standard schools that is sometimes more hard, or it just depends where you are at. So would I change it, certainly I wouldn’t put it through what I went through because I was pretty uneducated and partly that was my fault because I wasn’t motivated, but the one thing I learnt in life which I think is the thing that I see with young people now coming out of great education which doesn’t worry me, but it is something I observe, is how little common sense there is. Common sense is the greatest gift that you can have because that, it doesn’t replace intelligence, but it really does help to make decisions where you actually think things through and you calculate it and sometimes people come in to my office for interviews and they are very bright they have got wonderful qualifications, but there is not an ounce of common sense there, and common sense doesn’t matter what business, whatever you do, you need common sense.

Elliot Moss
It’s been a pleasure talking to you today Graham, thank you for your time and insight and your right common sense is in short supply it would seem many days of the week, at least in my life. Just before I let you go what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Graham Simpson
My song choice is I think something called Midnight In Moscow by Chris Barber and his Jazz Band. Why I have I chosen it, and it took me a long time to deliberate on this, I think I told you earlier, it was the most difficult decision, because when I was very young, I grew up in a place called Chorleywood we used to go to Rickmansworth Jazz Club and that is when I was about fourteen or fifteen, it was Trad-Jazz in those days and we used to dance and I remember that and this was one of the songs that was played there, so I would like to re-live that.

Elliot Moss
We are taking you back to Rickmansworth right now, thank you very much Graham.

That was Chris Barber with Midnight In Moscow. The song choice of my Business Shaper today, Graham Simpson independence, freedom, integrity, the three principles he set his first business up and the three principles he has taken through over thirty years of working and brilliant advice around keeping it simple, what you put into it is what you are going to get out of it. Be passionate about what you do and there is no value that you can ascribe big enough to the idea of having common sense. Fantastic stuff. That’s it from Jazz Shapers, have a great weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive. To find out more just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or head over to mishcondereya.com/jazzshapers.

Graham Simpson

Graham Simpson started his career as an aspiring actor, appearing in numerous TV dramas. During this time he met and married a Cretan woman, Yianna, and his love for Greece began on two levels. The arrival of two sons and a daughter prompted Graham and Yianna to set up ‘Simply Crete’ in 1978. In their first year, they had 50 guests and during the next 21 years their tiny business metamorphosed into ‘Simply Travel’, offering holidays for the discerning traveller to ‘off the beaten track’ Mediterranean destinations based on the philosophy of sending guests on the kind of holiday that they would wish to take themselves. Graham later sold the business to the Thomson Travel Group in 1999 they were handling 45,000 guests a year. After the sale of Simply, Graham took over from Sir Elton John to become Chairman of Watford Football Club and enjoyed guiding them to promotion to the Premiership and three Cup Semi-Finals. In 2009 Graham stood down as Chairman of Watford as the love of travel drew him back and he became Managing Director of Simpson Travel. Simpson Travel has been recognised by The Times, Condé Nast Traveller and The Observer and were listed in the London Stock Exchange’s 1,000 Companies to Inspire Britain report.

“My brother-in-law said, ‘why don’t you come and stay with us, have a holiday, you’re exhausted’. We went over to Crete and had a wonderful holiday. That was the start.”

“My brother-in-law then said, ‘can you put an advert out in England and see if you can get a couple of clients to come over. We are not going to charge you, but we will charge them…’”

“I put an advert in the Sunday Times it said, ‘Anglo-Greek family offer beautiful private villa’, and the phone started ringing on that Sunday and it just never stopped.”

“In one weekend, we sold the villa for the whole of the season.”

“We had one thing that we believed in passionately and we wrote it in the first brochure; to give the people the kind of holidays that we would want to go ourselves on, full of independence, freedom and integrity.”

“Even now with the new company, nothing has changed it is the same ethos the same philosophy.”

“We did not know what we were doing, we had this philosophy and every so often we got a little bit bigger, we got another villa, I went and photographed it until suddenly I had money.”

“I learnt from the Gulf War; it was a learning curve, teaching that I could no longer run it as a private company. I needed to make sure that I differentiated.”