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peter burke travellers autobarn

CEO Case Study: I was a cross between Kerry Packer and Gordon Ramsay {Interview}

Peter Burke, MD and Founder, Travellers Autobarn

He’s mellower now, but Peter Burke (pictured at centre) admits in the tough times he’s been a tough boss.  In our interview, he describes his leadership during the decade following the Sydney Olympics as falling between Kerry Packer and Gordon Ramsay. 

Peter's success story 

Travellers Autobarn, which he founded in 1993 with a few enthusiastic backpackers selling cars to other backpackers, in February 2019 expanded into the United States. 
100 of the Aussie company's campervans hit the road on February 4 in LA, closely followed by San Francisco and Las Vegas.  According to Global Travel Media, inside three years they plan to have 300 of the "very cool, California-inspired campervans" on the road.

To fund the growth, 49% of Travellers Autobarn has just been sold to Diethelm Keller of Switzerland (who also owns STA travel).

Here, Peter Burke entertains us with his stories: how he loves and has seen sales guru Jack Daly three times; and the choppy business of backpacking tourism.

What’s a great story from the very beginnings of Travellers Autobarn?

We started on William St, Kings Cross, so there’re actually a lot of great stories from those days, it was a lot of fun to say the least; but the story of how my wife and I met is probably more appropriate. I was working in the showroom alone and two Dutch girls walk in, and start asking questions about cars (back then we had not started renting and only sold cars to backpackers with a guaranteed buyback). I sent them away to seek independent verification of what I was saying, as they were challenging everything I said. Anyway they were back about 10 mins later…….apparently interested in more than just the car. The rest, as they say, is history. They also bought a car, 1981 XD Ford Falcon Stationwagon (TKR570) and drove it to Melbourne, Alice Springs, Darwin, Cairns and back to Sydney without even a flat tyre. We’re 19 years married, 3 kids, 2 dogs, and 1 cat.

How has backpacker tourism changed from 1993 to 2019?

Back in 1993, backpackers had two commercial choices; travel Australia by coach or by air. Air travel in those days was particularly expensive and one-way travel was uncommon and usually cost more than return.

The other choice was to buy a car.

Backpackers travelled a very well-worn route from Sydney to Cairns. This well-worn route allowed businesses to target backpackers, selling them everything from tours, transport, accommodation, and market backpacker specific bars.

Then the Internet arrived.

Today that well-worn route has dissolved. The backpackers are still here but advent of low cost budget airlines, Gumtree, Airbnb, Seek, Facebook, Instagram etc. allow backpackers to live and work like locals. Today’s backpacker is much harder to spot, and much harder to target. Many of the businesses that thrived on the backpacker dollar in the late 90s, early 2000s have struggled.
Tell me more about today’s backpacker?

As well as the changes brought on by the Internet, back in the 90s there were fewer countries eligible for the Working Holiday Visa (WHV), and that visa only permitted three months’ employment with any one employer in a 12 month period. Now, almost every European country, Canada and the U.S. (with some differences) offer a 2 year visa, with the ability to work six months for any employer, (and can work again for that employer in a different location, I think).

Before backpackers used to work 3 months and travel 9 months.

Now, they work all the time and take mini-breaks on Tiger Air….. Like locals! Or they work, work, work and then get maximum spend for their dollar in Bali or Thailand.

Places like Cairns, the Whitsundays, Darwin, Alice Springs have suffered the most.

Reflecting on your 26 years owning and running a tourism company, how are we doing in Australia in attracting and impressing young and/or budget travellers?  

Extremely well. Australia sets the benchmark in this area. Tourism Australia has a specific youth market budget and campaign running successfully. Australia has always been the leader, but the competition is definitely catching up. Instagram has enormous influence in the travel sector.

The U.S. never used to market itself as a holiday destination, and now they do. Australia is well placed, as a safe, free-to-roam, naturally beautiful, sophisticated, destination. The tourism market demographics are shifting towards Asia, as is happening in every tourist destination globally, and overall tourist numbers are forecast to grow simply due to rapid increases in global population, and increasing middle class wealth in most countries.

But for young backpackers the key drivers are work opportunities, airfares (oil related), and currency. When mining does well, tourism suffers due to high dollar and wage pressure.
How do you balance your company’s competitive advantage of offering those who buy or rent a car from you a high level of after-sales service, and the cost pressures to provide those services?

Good question……We are not a Tier 1 provider. As such we can not afford to match the Tier 1 customer service promise. However, the review and “outrage” culture means we have to work especially hard to keep everyone happy.

We invite everyone to call, for any reason, so we can assist. That’s a one to one issue solved.
We then look at all the data, and work out ways we can stop the calls by attempting to eliminate the reason for the call in the first place.

It will never be completely automated or chat-botted out of existence, as it’s an art form. Over-service the car or client – lose money. Under-service the car or the client – lose money.
So, it’s a people thing.
You’ve just expanded into the U.S.  Why did you do so, and what are a couple of interesting insights from that experience?

We did so because we have a customer supply pipeline from Europe that delivers to Australia and New Zealand. That same pipeline also delivers to the US, but we were previously not ready to service that clientele, and so used a ‘code-share’ type arrangement.

Insight into the US - !!!! The land of the free, and home of the brave, is anything but. The bureaucracy is incredible. Indian Railway level bureaucracy. You need a permit to blow your nose!

What is your ultimate vision for Travellers Autobarn (TAB)?

It’s a bit father son, just want to give the company the best chance in life.

Can you describe your leadership style, and how you’ve evolved it as you’ve grown?
  • Early days, was work, work, work, driven by fear of failure. Lead by doing, if you can’t match my effort then go an work for the post office;
  • Middle period – was a tough period from 2000 Olympics through 2008+ GFC. Probably a cross between Kerry Packer and Gordon Ramsay;
  • Lately – 20 to 25 year period. Working on the business rather than in it. Guiding hand, more mellow, strategy, coaching.
Are you a reader? Podcast listener?  Have you got a professional learning habit to share?

Reader and podcast listener. Love a good business autobiography. One book, given to me in the very early days by a good mate, Gavin Isaacs (who went on to become a bit of a big deal in the US Gaming Industry with Bally, Shufflemaster, Scientific Games) was The GE Way, Jack Welch.

The following are interesting reads in their own right, but if read in order they’re also a good look back at the way the internet has changed things. Sam Walton (Walmart) Jeff Bezos, then Elon Musk.

Have also over the years seen some formidable and brilliant speakers: Jim Collins, Jack Daly, and Malcom Gladwell.  Never stop learning (and stealing ideas).

Special Mention to Mark Manson – Living in the Age of Outrage and The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F**.
What’s resonated/helped/inspired from any of the many events by The Growth Faculty you’ve attended? (Malcolm Gladwell, Jack Daly, Robert Cialdini, Tim Ferriss, John Spence)? 

Jack Daly – love Jack, must have seen him at least 3 times. First time must have been 15 years ago. It was only a few days ago I searched for the ‘Spinach’ story on YouTube to share on Yammer with all the staff. It’s a story about problem solving.

Finally, what’s a budgie van?

It’s a Budget Chubby obviously…….
Chubby was the name we gave to our two-berth campers….as these got older we created a new class of vehicle to reflect the age and price, the Budgie.
We also have KuGA campervans, they’re a bit older but still sexy.
peter burke image 2
Peter's GREAT EIGHT – 8 quick getting-to-know you questions we ask all our interviewees: 

What's a book you'd recommend?   Besides above, a short simple read for managers would be Wayne Bennett’s – Don’t Die with the Music in You. 
If you could co-author a book with anyone, who would it be, and what is the book title? Seth Godin and me “Staff” is not a Four Letter Word, or Elon Musk and me “Mate, they can put a man on the moon, and you’re telling me this simple thing can not be done." 
What's a great bit of advice you could share?   Never surrender.
What's been your lowest moment, and how did you recover?  2000 to end of GFC – just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
How do you relax? Surf, exercise, read, TV.
What’s a fun fact that’s not widely known about you? 
  • I support pill testing;
  • Re-opening Sydney nightlife;
  • Refuse to listen to Alan Jones or Ray Hadley;
  • Prefer speedos when swimming and board shorts when boarding;
  • Blame the media for giving oxygen to stories whose only purpose is to whip up outrage;
  • The world will be in good hands when all us ageing wowsers hand over the baton.
What's the secret of success? Giving it 100%.
What's a prediction for 2025?  Something digital. Keep an eye on potential growing backlash against tourism as numbers surge.

Peter mentioned he's been to Jack Daly three times. If you want to try Jack's Winning Sales Strategies workshop he will be back in Australia in July 2019. Suitable for CEOs, sales teams and sales managers, the explosive full-day workshop will be in Melbourne on July 22, 2019, Brisbane July 24, 2019 and Sydney July 26, 2019. 

Members of The Growth Faculty receive the highest discount to the event, plus have access to dozens of interviews with international business authors on sales, marketing, leadership and strategy. Not a member? Join here