IT WAS DIFFICULT for Anthony Collins to escape his father’s Topflight travel business – especially when the family lived above the firm’s first shop on Dublin’s Dorset Street.
“I wasn’t that young when we moved out, so I remember it well,” Collins tells Fora. “Evenings and weekends were spent sticking stickers on brochures and putting flying under the window wipers of cars. It very much felt like a family business.”
The Topflight travel group – which sells sun and ski package holidays – has swelled into a multimillion-euro business since it was founded in the mid-80s and is still a family-run enterprise.
Collins is now CEO of the group. His brother Neal is product developer and his father, Tony, is chairman.
But he didn’t go straight from putting stickers on brochures to heading up the business – he took a diversion when he left school and got out of the trade.
“I went up to Letterkenny to study graphic design, which was about the farthest place you could get away from Dublin and about as far away from the travel business as you could get,” he says.
“I was happy to take a completely different career path. It’s just that over time graphic design turned into web design, which turned into an internet business, which turned back into travel.”
In 2000, during the peak of the dot-com boom, Collins set up online ski holiday outfit Directski.com.
The company was independently run for more than a decade before it was merged with the Topflight group.
“Take what Tony knows about travel and take what I know about the internet and maybe there’s a business here,” Collins says, explaining the thinking behind the move.
When the merger was completed in 2013, he stepped into the role of chief executive.
Collins says when he was younger, he thought traditional travel retail would be dead by now.
“We’ve only just gone to print with our latest ski brochure and it’s a beauty,” he says. ”The reality is that we’re still here and the high-street is still busy and travel agencies are still doing well. It’s just that everything is adopted to react to selling online.
“The type of holidays we sell are the same as what we were selling 20 years ago. The propensity for people to want to phone up and talk to somebody hasn’t really changed all that much.”
Recently filed accounts show that Topflight booked a profit of €2.2 million in the financial year ended 31 December 2016, reversing a loss of more than €200,000 in 2015. The firm generated sales of more than €47 million.
Collins owes that success to a combination of lean management and squeezing out unnecessary costs.
“The main approach for us has been to not go for growth. There isn’t a huge difference in terms of year-on-year sales. We’d rather focus on the bottom line.”
He also says Topflight’s family factor is “critical” to its success.
“Not so much on the sales side. I don’t think the average traveller notices or minds too much,” he says. “Where it’s critical is on supplier relationships.
“Tony and Neal head up all of the product side of the business, maintaining relationships with hoteliers and the airlines. Resorts in Austria and Italy tend to be family-run businesses. It’s a family-run business doing business with second and third generations of the same families.”
When asked whether he thinks the next generation of the Topflight family will take over the business, Collins says his sons – still in school – work for the company during the summer.
“Whether they come into the business permanently, I’m not sure,” he says.
“If anything, my experience of getting out of (travel) and going on and doing something completely different was great because it meant I came in with new ideas and new ways of doing things.
“If I had just left school and gone straight into Topflight, maybe we wouldn’t have got on the internet as early as we did.”