Anthony Collins pulled no punches when he first introduced Frank Devine to the Senior Management Team at Directski.com.
The message he gave them was that the success or failure of the company rested on each of them taking on board Frank’s training and then using their new skills to ensure that both them and the entire staff fulfilled their responsibilities in the running of the company.
It may have sounded slightly melodramatic but it ensured Collins had the full attention of his team. “I made that statement after working with Frank from April 2008 when the business was going very strongly. The initial work was in a one on one capacity and by the time I introduced him to the team, we were all seeing that the first impact of the recession was beginning to bite,” Collins explained.
“There is always the risk when introducing a new concept to your staff that things might seem a bit wishy washy but I could see that the having the staff on board was critical to the business. Directski.com is considered one of Ireland’s most progressive companies with offices in Dublin and Belfast and a further 30 staff in-resort during the ski season.
Since its establishment in 2000, Anthony has steered the growth of Directski.com to become the number one online ski company in Ireland and a top-three player in the UK online ski market. They launched in 2000 with first-year sales of €700k and in 2009 achieved sales in excess of €14m. The model sees more than 90 per cent of their customers completing their booking online with no human input by the company.
Collins’s role as leader has to be commended as he clearly has a voracious appetite for personal improvement as a CEO, all with the focus upon developing his business.
In 2006, Anthony was one of 30 Irish technology CEOs selected to participate in the inaugural Leadership 4 Growth programme organised by Enterprise Ireland and the Graduate School of Business in Stanford University. “Thanks to participating in the Enterprise Ireland programme I’d already started to apply some of the basic material such as Applied Behavioural Science and setting consequences and expectations with the staff so that the company would be able to face the challenges in its next stage of growth.
“The major thing I took from meeting Frank, and this was pretty much right from the start, was how different his approach was to the US-based training which seemed to assume that everyone on the team would perform if the right levers were applied.
“Frank’s methodology was the focus on the whole business and finding out what’s working and what isn’t. The key was identifying what specific improvements would deliver the most benefit. This included asking hard questions like “have we got the right team, at all levels, to deliver the future not just the present?” and challenging assumptions we had made about what was possible.
“In a way this gave me the permission to challenge the people around me. It meant we could expect more from the staff in terms of results and performance and then support them to deliver. “It was very refreshing. Although a lot of what I’d learned at Stanford had also helped a great deal, working with Frank allowed me look at how we did things objectively.
“I could really study how we did our business, what worked and what wasn’t working. I could now set about deciding where I wanted our business to be and how to go about achieving that.” As with any company, regardless of size, the need to get the staff to buy into the new approach was a challenge that required persistence. Collins remembers the initial response from his team to Frank as being warm and positive but acknowledged that the next aspect – taking the steps necessary to change the culture that existed within the workforce – required strong leadership from himself and from those in the Senior Management Team.
“I wasn’t going to give up on it and Frank wasn’t either. It was easy to get people sitting around the table, talk about what we were going to do and say that’s great,” he explained. “But a month later when Frank came back to check who had delivered what they’d agreed to and who hadn’t, it was clear how serious he was about making this work. “It’s never a comfortable situation when somebody is digging into a person’s motivation to work – especially as the economic climate was now one where the success or failure of the company was at stake.
“The path was a challenging one for the entire Senior Management Team but there have been some real success stories. “For example, our Sales & Marketing Director really surprised me by how well he took to this. He had no formal business training and basically just worked his way through the ranks at the company. He took to this like a sponge.
“It was as if the information presented to him here finally made sense of what he was struggling to get to grips with in the past. Having it properly explained to him has had a big impact on him and he is one of the strongest in the organisation at cascading down the lessons learned from working with Frank.” While every company across the board is addressing how to survive in an economic downturn, discretional spend on holidays has obviously been impacted upon. However, Directski.com has managed to keep its head above water while preserving jobs and faces the future with optimism. “I consider that we’ve made a big transformation since working with Frank and are now well placed to take advantage of growth opportunities as they arise.
“Everybody was committed to the business but perhaps not everybody was able to work under the pressure of having it defined what performance means. Now everybody who works for the company understands what is expected of them. “Frank has an unconventional approach but I know now that what he has done for us is only a small part of what his services can do for businesses as a whole.
“My own background was that I too came up through the family business and not through a formal education in business but working with Frank gave me access to all the experience he has in industry. It has made me realise what I need to do to become the type of CEO this company needs.”
Directski.com is an online ski tour operator who creates value by combining ski holiday components (which can include chartered flights, accommodation and ancillary services) into high-margin branded holidays which they then sell through a variety of online channels – including the highly successful Directski.com website.
They launched in 2000 with first-year sales of €700k and this year will achieve sales in excess of €15m (over 2000% growth).
They claim to have achieved this exceptional performance by offering the world’s best online ski booking experience - over 90% of their customers now complete their booking online with no human input by the company.
In 2008, they launched their dedicated business-to-business brand B2BSki to allow them to rapidly expand their international reach. In its first year of operation, B2BSki has signed a number of blue-chip distribution deals including easyJet, Opodo and Ebookers.
Anthony Collins, 38, is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Directski.com.
After leaving school in 1988, Anthony studied Visual Communication Design before working in the design and communications industry for almost ten years – including advising pioneering companies on their internet branding and business strategies. In early 2000, Anthony sold his successful design company to follow his father’s footsteps into the travel industry to found Directski.com – one of the first holiday companies in the UK or Ireland to offer true online booking of package holidays. Since it’s launch, Anthony had led Directski.com through consistent high growth* which included three funding rounds, the acquisition of Ski McNeill (Northern Ireland’s largest ski company) and the launch of a dedicated business-to-business brand B2BSki.
In 2006, Anthony was one of 30 Irish technology CEOs selected to participate in the inaugural Leadership 4 Growth programme organised by Enterprise Ireland and the Graduate School of Business in Stanford University.
The company now employs over 25 staff in its offices in Dublin and Belfast and a further 30 staff in-resort during the ski season. The company is the number one online ski company in Ireland and a top-three player in the UK online ski market. Anthony lives in County Meath, Ireland (a short drive from Directski.com’s head office) with his wife, Karen, and his three children. Naturally, he’s a keen skier although his enthusiasm occasionally exceeds his skiing ability.
*Deloitte Fast50 finalist in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.