Andrew Stanley turned his passion for golf into big business when in 1998 he set up Golfbreaks from his bedroom. Today, Windsor-based Golfbreaks is Europe’s largest golf travel company and in 2011 achieved a turnover of £31 million. In fact in the past two years, in the midst of tough economic times, the company has had two of its biggest growth years. Stanley talked to Eleanor Harris about the ‘Tiger Woods effect’, his ambition to get every one of the UK’s 4m golfers on an annual golf break, diversifying into the spa industry, and why being an entrepreneur is in his bones
Andrew Stanley is founder and chief executive of the Golfbreaks Group. He was born in 1969 in Johannesburg and grew up in Somerset after his British parents moved back to the UK in 1972. He has a degree in hotel and catering management from Portsmouth University. After graduating in 1992 he worked for Airpic selling aerial photographs door to door, and by 1995 had risen to sales director. In 1996 he joined Consumer Exhibitions and launched the first consumer golf show in the UK.
In May 1998 he founded Golfbreaks and in August 1999 launched Golfbreaks.com. In 2007 he launched Teeofftimes.co.uk and in 2010 launched BookaSpa.com. Stanley was a finalist in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in 2006 and the company won the RBS Company of the Year Award in 2007. Stanley is married with three children, and his current handicap is 8.
Have you got the best job in the world?
I absolutely have got the best job in the world. I’ve got a note on my computer screen which says: “As Confucius once said: Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I feel very fortunate that I’m involved in this.
Have you always been passionate about golf?
I had my first golf lessons aged nine, but really got into the sport when I was in my early 20s, at university: there was a wonderful scheme in Portsmouth where for £1 a round students could play on the local municipal courses on certain days of the week. I spent my third year of university on a placement at a hotel in Thurlestone, Devon, which had a beautiful nine hole golf course right on the coast, and there I could combine my two passions of windsurfing and golf. Now, I’ve got three young children so I’m not finding it quite as easy to get my golf fix as I used to, but it’s in the bones, I love it and still see it as a huge growth industry.
Why and how did you set up your own business?
The crunch time came when I saw a gap in the market for organising Ryder Cup-style matches for groups of golfers. I’d already organised a number of those with groups of friends and always seemed to be the one who got lumbered with the organising but I enjoyed doing it and realised that there was a potential market to go into. When I set up the company in May 1998 it was literally from my bedroom in Chiswick, and I didn’t earn any money or draw any salary for the first year, which was pretty tough. I lived off £8,000 of savings and £4,000 on my credit card. But that first year was a fantastic grounding year, working out what made money and what was popular, and I realised that there was a lot of demand for no frills golf breaks in the UK – groups of four or six golfers wanted me to provide a one-stop booking service. I realised that there were a lot of golf travel companies who took people out to Spain, Portugal and France, but there wasn’t anyone doing it in the UK. So I talked to a number of golf resorts in the UK, and many of those were looking for a sales and marketing arm to help drive some golf break business to them, so it was perfect timing. I moved into an office just off the Hanger Lane roundabout, and my cousin, Guy Proddow, came on board and helped launched the website, Golfbreaks.com, in August 1999.
Can you tell me about the growth and success of the company?
It all took off very quickly. I very fondly remember sitting in that room just off the Hanger Lane roundabout thinking “What have we created here?” Suddenly enquiries were coming in left, right and centre, and I was working all hours of the day. In the first year we booked 8,000 golfers. Last year we organised golf breaks and holidays along with standalone tee times for over 360,000 golfers. We’re the official golf travel partner for The Daily Telegraph and the PGA and overall we have a reach of over 1m golfers. Part of the growth was that fundamentally I managed to recruit some very good people. From the early days there were three other shareholder directors who are still very much here now, and between us we’ve built a team of just under 120 people who are very friendly, polite, positive and knowledgeable with an evident ‘we’re here to help’ attitude, which definitely drives through the business. What has been key is that we’ve been really committed to delivering three things from the outset: choice, value and service.
How else would you account for the growth?
Timing has been very important – golf is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, it’s the highest participant sport here in the UK, up there with angling. And the ‘Tiger Woods effect’ in the last decade – his profile for the sport definitely made golf that little bit more sexy. I think nowadays there’s more and more value put on leisure time. Particularly in the last two years, throughout the recession in this difficult climate, we’ve been very fortunate, we’ve seen two of the biggest years of growth, which is absolutely testament to the fact that golfers see golf as leisure time, it’s important and it’s not something that they’re going to take out of their diary. That ties in very much with spa – spa is a huge growth industry at the moment, so in 2010 we launched a sister site, BookaSpa.com. We’d been looking for a while to set up another business that would be complementary to the golf business and looked at becoming a ski operator, but we realised it was a very crowded market. Seeing a huge growth in the spa market and having a ready-made database of golfers, it seemed a very natural fit to go into that, and last year 10,000 customers booked spa breaks and spa days through the site.
Would you consider yourself an entrepreneur? Do you have more new business ideas in you?
I do believe there is an element of truth that it is in the bones or in the genes – my father set up three businesses throughout his career, so I saw how those grew as I grew up, and then my first taste of it was working in the ski resort of Val d’Isere during my gap year between school and university. With a friend I set up a small enterprise selling packed lunches to skiers. We went round knocking on apartment doors in the evening, taking an order and delivering it the following morning. It was fun and it helped provide a bit of beer money. After I graduated I had a summer job selling aerial photographs door to door. It was on 100% commission which I absolutely took to, because it very quickly demonstrated that the more you put into something, the more you get out, and that wonderfully simple equation is something I’ve embraced ever since. Another wonderful expression I was taught from an early age is “Don’t die wondering” – that’s something which has constantly been in the back of my mind. There are other new ideas that are always up the sleeve. One thing we’ve always tried to do is make sure we grow within our means. If there were a million pounds sitting there now it would be about rolling out x, y, and z, but because there’s not and we’ve decided to try and run the company debt free, we’re committed to driving the brands that we’ve already got and making those leaders in their respective markets, rather than spread ourselves too thinly.
Have you ever wondered what else you might do in business?
At the back of my mind I’ve always thought being involved with the wine industry is something I would love. I don’t drink a huge amount of it but I’m very passionate about it and I see that as another market where there’s a huge proportion of the population who are crying out to learn a bit more about how wine was made and also what they like, what they don’t like and why, so I’ll maybe save that one for a rainy day.
Looking at your business achievements, what would you say is your greatest achievement?
Taking the plunge in the first place, going out alone and getting through the first couple of years, along with surrounding myself with some good people who match and complement my skill sets.
What’s next for you personally, and for the company?
To continue with the strong growth that we’ve experienced. There are 4m golfers in the UK, so we’ve still got a long way to go until we’re getting every one of them going on a golf break every year. We’ll be looking at new destinations – the Caribbean is very much coming onto the radar, so we’ll be expanding into those countries to increase our worldwide product offering, and we want to increase the choice of spa venues. In all of the business the constant challenge for us is to get more and more products online. The Teeofftimes.co.uk booking platform will book up over 250,000 golfers just on standalone tee times this year, and that’s absolutely the way it’s going, for golfers it’s the fast and easy way to book a round of golf. There’s not a day I wake up and think “oh my god I’ve got to go into work”, I absolutely adore it, and I get a huge kick out of growing the business. The challenge is to keep growing and to keep remaining profitable, and I’m always reminded that turnover’s vanity, profit’s sanity, so it’s keeping that yardstick.