Harriet Green | Thomas Cook

Harriet Green became head of Thomas Cook in unconventional circumstances two years ago, but the straight-talking CEO has more than backed up her claim that she is the right person for the job

Feature image
Harriet Green became CEO of Thomas Cook two years ago, having come from an electronics background. She has been credited with significantly boosting the company's profits at a difficult time for travel businesses

Harriet Green OBE was appointed CEO of Thomas Cook, the UK-based travel company that traces its history back to 1841, in July 2012. Her appointment was the result of a somewhat unconventional job application – Green called the chairman directly, explaining that she was the best candidate to steer the company through one of its most challenging times.

At the time the outlook for Thomas Cook, the world’s oldest travel agent, was poor. Its revenues had been in decline for the best part of five years, as a result of a number of compiling factors. The troubles in the Middle East had impacted the firm’s Egyptian travel offering, the global economic downturn had meant that more tourists were taking their holidays domestically, and furthermore, the company had accrued debts of just over €1.25bn. Green got the job, despite having no previous experience working in the travel industry.

Harriet Green CV

1961, UK

Medieval History, King’s College, London
Postgraduate degree in Business Psychology, LSE

1994: Green left her position as managing director at Macro Group in 1994 and joined Arrow Electronics, where she held various senior management roles
2000: She became managing director for the Northern Europe region of Arrow by 2002. Just two years later, she became vice president of the company
2006: Green took over as CEO of Premier Farnell Plc and had a six-year stint in charge of the company, driving online sales up by 43 percent during her tenure
2012: Unconventionally, Green called Thomas Cook’s chairman directly in 2012 and explained why she was the ideal candidate for the job. She has been CEO ever since

Up until this point, Green had spent most of her career working in the electronics industry. She joined Thomas Cook from electronic parts distributor Premier Farnell, where she had held the position of CEO since 2006. Prior to that, she was a vice president of Arrow Electronics and president of Arrow Asia Pacific. She held a number of senior managerial posts within Arrow from 1994, and prior to that was managing director of Macro Group, another electronic components business.

At Premier Farnell, Green took charge of the company’s marketing and distribution operations, resulting in the firm’s total market value of €784m. The main driver of this revenue was down to Green’s online marketing strategy – in 2012 Premier Farnell reported that 55 percent of its total sales were accounted for through e-commerce, compared with 12 percent when Green took over in 2006.

A people person
Green’s people-management skills have been on plain display throughout her career. Upon assuming the role of CEO at Premier Farnell, she set out to meet 85 percent of the 5,000 workforce within six weeks. She performed an abridged SWOT analysis, asking every employee what they thought the strengths and weaknesses of the company were, and their opinions and expectations of the management team.

This is a strategy that she carried over to Thomas Cook. Shortly after her appointment, she sent an email to all of the company’s employees, asking them to share, “everything you think and feel about what we need to do in this company”. She received responses from 8,000 of the workforce.

Appreciating that Thomas Cook was the first turnaround situation she had been faced with, Green realised quickly that she needed to adjust her management style. “Thomas Cook was quite unwell and so… I moderated my style and approach. I was much less edgy, much less aggressive. I was still very focused on time and the issues, but, at the same time creating an environment where people could believe,” she said.

Tough leadership
On the other hand, at the top of the ladder, she wasted no time in making changes, and replaced the majority of the incumbent Thomas Cook board of directors.

Green insisted that managing finances better and reducing cost were to be the key focus of the company’s turnaround. In March 2013 she set out her strategy for the recovery of the business. Namely, by seeking to reduce costs by €438m by 2015, mostly by cutting the number of high street shops, refocusing the business on online sales – a strategy that had served her well at Premier Farnell – and divesting non-core parts of the business.

In another tough decision, she oversaw the closure of 199 shops out of a total of 1,069 in the UK, with the loss of some 2,500 jobs.

Thomas Cook in numbers

1841: founded
27,000 employees
€11.7bn sales, 2013
20m customers, 2013

The transport union TSSA, which represents many Thomas Cook employees, was not pleased with the decision, but recognised that it was the result of the “over expansion and bad decisions” of Thomas Cook’s previous administration.

However, as testament to her decision-making, in May 2013, Green oversaw the reorganisation of Thomas Cook’s capital structure, with a €2bn refinancing, which essentially halved the company’s debt. The result of this was made clear, when in August 2013 the company announced that its nine-month losses had been reduced to €588m, from €835m over the same period the previous year.

Outside of work
Perhaps as a means of counterbalancing her self-imposed work regime, she indulges herself in relaxing pastimes. She reads several books a week, stating that enjoying literature provides a necessary aside from business, and practices yoga on a daily basis. To this end, she says: “If you can’t do something for yourself for an hour a day, you have become a slave.”

On the flipside, she is clearly as driven as one of Britain’s most notable prime ministers, having previously claimed that she only sleeps for around four hours a day.

And when it comes to business she is recognised globally. In 2012 she received an OBE for services to industry. She has worked both in the US and Asia and has won two Women in Business awards. Furthermore, in February 2013 she was heralded as one of the 100 most powerful women in the UK by Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4.

Although Green still has a lot of work to do within Thomas Cook, she is someone who craves new challenges. She has said: “I generally think that chief executives spend far too long in the same business, but I think you should make the business great, stay around a little while to enjoy that, and then probably move on to the next thing.”