The after-effects of the Covid-19 emergency continue to reverberate around the Private Equity landscape. Katrina Stewart, a partner in our Human Resources executive search team, meets Shelly Voecks, the Chief People Officer at luxury travel business Scott Dunn. Shelly shares some compelling insights from the last three years in a PE-backed travel business that was then sold to trade.
KS: Shelly, please tell us how you arrived at Scott Dunn
SV: You placed me there in August 2019! I had been in telecoms for many years, and then had a consulting role as a CHRO in the tech space. I’d had a lot of experience with mergers and acquisitions, change and transformation, and Scott Dunn felt like the next logical step in terms of finding a smaller organisation where I could apply my skills and experience.
But the strongest pull was our CEO, Sonia Davies. She’s a strong leader, very strategic, but also relatable and empathetic. Sonia was building a new leadership team – we all had a similar passion around travel.
At that time, Scott Dunn was owned by Inflexion, a private equity firm, for several years. I had a very hands-on role and it was clear how much work was needed to achieve a transformation around people and culture. PE-backed companies tend to be very lean, so you have to wear multiple hats.
KS: Tell us about the impact of Covid-19
SV: Our world turned upside down and we went into crisis management right away. First and foremost, the focus was on our guests. We had to repatriate many of them, at a time when borders were closing. We were also focused on keeping our team members around the world safe.
We went through a major restructure and made 40-50% of our global workforce redundant. However, we also took the opportunity to accelerate a number of our strategic initiatives to make the business more efficient.
We made a significant investment in our technology; we went through a major rebrand; we also overhauled our website and launched our ESG initiatives.
It’s a pretty cool thing to look back on and say, look what we accomplished during a very difficult period, probably the darkest point in the history of Scott Dunn. We still made progress, and that set us up for exit when the time came.
KS: What was the reaction from Inflexion as your investor at this time?
SV: They gave us a huge vote of confidence in terms of financial support. They knew the core business was solid, and they believed in the management team and the journey we were on. Having their support was critical for us getting through Covid-19.
They challenged us where we needed to be challenged, but they were very supportive; they had confidence in Sonia and the rest of the leadership team. Having their support meant a lot to us.
KS: How were you able to recover after Covid-19?
SV: As a result of the changes we had made, we were in a stronger position as a company. The luxury end of the market rebounded from Covid-19 much more quickly than the rest of travel, so we saw huge demand as countries started opening up.
It was a bit of a roller-coaster for a while because countries would open, then close, then have certain testing requirements. We even had a small team whose sole focus was keeping up with those changes in real time. As the demand soared, we had to quickly re-hire and grow the business again.
KS: How did you manage that process?
SV: We knew we had to think differently, and turned our recruitment model on its head. Previously we went for people who were experienced in luxury travel, or at least had travel experience.
Instead, we started doing assessment days that were all about the skills, capabilities and passion people have. We found some great talent, and it also helped us to make a lot of progress around our diversity and inclusion goals.
KS: What did you change in terms of training and development?
SV: There had to be more long-term planning because you had to grow the talent, it wasn’t going to be ready on day one. Though, of course, we continuted to hire experienced people too.
For the cohort with no experience, we put them through an intense six weeks of training to give them the specific skills they needed. That included familiarisation trips so they understand what it’s like for one of our guests on a holiday. There’s no substitute for experiencing it yourself.
KS: With PE there’s an end date; can you tell us about your responsibilities as you geared up for exit?
SV: We started doing some things early – and that would be my single biggest piece of advice to any CPO preparing for an exit: start now.
You might think you have time. But the more organised you are, the easier it will be when it gets really intense during due diligence.
So, make sure you have all of your supplier contracts in one place. Make sure your employee data is clean and up to date. Make sure you’re tracking all your key people-related metrics, and have updated handbooks and policies. Keep all that documentation as organised and easy to access as possible, because you will get asked for all these things.
And if you’re multi-national, you will need to do all those things with your other offices. During due diligence, you’ll have multiple sets of people from different countries asking you questions. If you’re a relatively small company like Scott Dunn, you may be the single point of contact for all of these questions and you need to be prepared for that.
KS: How far in advance did your work on the sale start?
SV: Our transaction with Flight Centre Travel Group completed in February 2023, and my preparation started the previous July. That was just getting things ready to put into a data room when the time came. Once the prospective buyer had been identified, my role became very intense.
From November until the point of completion, my workload became heavy. It felt like a sprint at the end. I would advise people to be prepared to work long hours, seven days a week if needed, and at pace.
KS: How did you manage your team through this process?
SV: The way we approached it was business as usual. We had to keep it confidential, not least because Flight Centre is a listed company in Australia; any leak could impact their stock price.
One thing that definitely helped, and that I would strongly recommend other people do, is that we took on a consultant who owned the data room. He liaised with our legal advisers, accountants and tax advisers. We couldn’t have done it without him.
The deal never leaked, and when the time came to announce the sale, we produced a very positive message about why this was a good move for us.
Flight Centre and Scott Dunn together is actually a very exciting proposition. And from our employees’ standpoint, we could say we’re now part of a company with 13,000 people globally, in 80 countries, and this creates career opportunities – they really do focus on the people.
There were so many positive things that we shared with the team, and it went down really well. I’ve been through several acquisitions in my career, and this was by far the best received comms.
KS: Any final pieces of advice for Chief People Officers starting their journey in PE knowing there’s an exit at some point?
SV: The main piece is around the preparation, but I’d also say you have to keep a sense of humour. An exit process can get intense and stressful, so it’s important to find moments when you laugh about some of the absurd things that come up.
When you get to the end point, celebrate what you’ve accomplished as a team. It takes a collective effort to achieve a successful exit.
Hold firm to your values, if you’ve got a strong brand with good leadership, a sound business plan and the backing of a PE firm, you can pivot and be agile – and come out the other side.
Thank you Shelly for taking the time to speak with me and sharing your valuable insights of a PE cycle and a successful exit.
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