Peter Trumic of Tourplan On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
How do you remain positive while making tough decisions like closing down an area of the business or taking people’s jobs away? Well, it has to be done as well as it can — these are the times you have to front up to the casualties in person, talk sincerely, honestly, and with empathy. Take on the professional mindset of a doctor telling a patient of a bad prognosis. Be human. But stay positive in the sense that the business will survive as a result of these decisions, and achieving that is your primary role as a leader. The challenge of cutting a workforce can be rephrased as an opportunity to re-focus the remainder of the team on the things that are important to the business.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Trumic.
Armed with degrees in both Physics and Computer Science from the University of Canterbury, Peter embarked on a journey in 1986, foreseeing New Zealand’s tourism boom with Halley’s comet’s appearance. While funding his education, he was roped in to craft a group quoting system, a venture that would evolve into Tourplan, the world’s premier software for Tour Operators and DMCs. Today, Peter’s relentless drive for innovation continues to propel the company and its global team to new heights.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
As you mentioned, Tourplan started in 1986 — It was the year Bill Gates became a billionaire. And the latest device everyone wanted was a fax machine!
And yes, we wrote Version 1 of Tourplan for an entrepreneur bringing tourists to NZ to see Halley’s comet. Sadly, he was last seen under his desk hiding from creditors. Anyway, there we were — no money and a bunch of floppy disks.
But in 1988 we had our first sale of Tourplan in Auckland. From there it was months of programming in a basement in Sydney, 6 weeks programming at the New Stanley hotel in Nairobi, with a bag of Kenyan cash in a brown paper bag as payment. In 1990, with a handful of customers we launched Tourplan at World Travel Market — a large international tourism trade show.
In 1992 we opened an office underneath the Greek Orthodox Church in London. It was just off Oxford St — We thought we’d made it!
Overnight our computers, desks, chairs and our extremely valuable fax machine were stolen.
Having our system copied, being kidnapped in Iraq, wild dogs in Tahiti were a few moments along a colourful journey.
Programming for weeks on end in the back of an aeroplane eventually lost its appeal. By the 2000’s global tourism was becoming a big thing and we had to get serious.
We’d built a following around the world, we had offices in New Zealand, UK, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
But the main thing was that the Internet had arrived.
The tourism industry was an early target for disruption but on the technology side we saw great opportunities. Building new technology into Tourplan and connecting business partners over the internet enabled us to grow strongly and consistently over the next 20 years.
Barring 911, the GFC, Tsunamis, and most recently Covid, the tourism industry has been growing relentlessly. Our 10 year “start-up” phase — a joke but true — put us in a great place to leverage our tourism industry knowledge and technology skills to set Tourplan up as market leader in systems for tour operators and destination management companies.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Plenty of mistakes, I could mention the accounting system we wrote as part of Tourplan where we got the debits and credits around the wrong way. Or maybe our current CCO Craig Gray who managed to break his leg the weekend before travelling to Iran to speak to several hundred Tourplan users, then lost his voice, followed by being proposed to by his interpreter. But probably the most important lesson from a lesson was early on when our clients wanted support for their systems but only paid on a per-call basis. We tried it but without fail, for each call they refused to pay, arguing that if Tourplan was not at fault they wouldn’t need support. The experience triggered a revamp to our business model that I think made us one the first SAAS (software as a service) companies, before that term even existed.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve always followed Bill Gates, and while there is no comparison between Microsoft and Tourplan, his journey spanning a similar time frame and parallel progress through software technology has been inspirational.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Well, that Forbes article you reference is interesting — purpose beyond profit. In the 90’s we just wanted to pay the bills, have fun, and travel the world for free. I did say to my friend and long-term colleague John Snelling at the time, that our purpose was to finish developing the system and then all we needed to do was buy a shrink-wrap machine for our floppy disks. John is Tourplan CTO now, the system still isn’t “finished” and he still questions me regularly as to when those early promises are going to materialise. Our vision for the future is grander today, involving deepening and expanding our global client base of 400 businesses, expanding into more than the 70 countries we currently operate in, while maintaining the important elements of the culture we started with.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Well, it’s an obvious example. In 2020 Covid destroyed 99% of our client’s businesses. They are all involved in bringing or sending international tourists around the world. Virtually all of our client’s revenue dropped to zero in 2020/21, and there was huge uncertainty around when the pandemic might end, whether vaccines would arrive, and if they would be effective. In February and March 2020, the early stages of the problem unfolded. The steps I took with my executive team and clients were:
- Critical assessment of the issue — create best, middle, worst-case scenarios.
- Communicate the situation and our analysis clearly to all stakeholders — staff and clients
- Act quickly — cut costs by 50%, reduce client fees 50%, act with transparency, integrity, empathy, and clarity of purpose.
- Review daily and adjust action plan accordingly.
As it turned out the impact of Covid lasted three years. Of 400 clients, we lost only 30.
Of staff, we let the minimum possible number go, and reduced pay and working hours for the remainder. Executives took 50% pay cuts. These were difficult things of course, but through sharing the situation, our best guess forward analyses, being sympathetic to all and particularly those we had to let go the whole team understood the necessity for the decisions we took.
Personally, I sobbed on my wife’s shoulder when I got home after recognising what we needed to do with our staff. It was the feeling of the captain of an overloaded lifeboat having to determine who had to be thrown overboard for the rest to survive. And that against a general background of uncertainty about whether the pandemic was ever going away.
In meetings and communications with individuals and teams, the clarity and transparent analysis of the situation was conveyed in a way that justified every difficult decision. That required strength, honesty, and genuine empathy.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’ve never considered giving up. The challenges are hard at times, but part of the deal. In the course of 30 years we’ve learnt enough to know we can get through anything — but Covid was the toughest yet. My drive is because I love what Tourplan was at the outset and the journey to what it has become today. I love our people, and I enjoy the relationships we have with our clients, large and small.
In terms of motivation — like everyone at Tourplan — I serve a purpose for the common good. We work hard to extinguish any areas of negativity, confrontation, or other factors that might make someone unhappy coming to work. We’re all paying our rents, putting food on the table, and having purposeful lives in good company. What more could you want?
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
I read rubbish fiction in airports and on aeroplanes as an escape. The last serious book I read was Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries”. Books that made an impact on my life in earlier years were Herman Hesse’s “Narcissus and Goldmund”, and Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”. A bit last-century and existential, I know.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During challenging times a leader has to be able to make intelligent decisions, with justification against the organisational goals and with empathy and recognition of the outcomes.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Call on past success of working through trials and tribulations. Paint a strong picture of what the future will be once things settle down.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Face to face, transparently and honestly.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Always have a plan B, and possibly C and D if things look like they might get worse.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Always have a plan for the worst-case scenario in your back pocket. Share it with those you can trust to help carry the weight.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Delaying action in the hope that things will get better
- Panicking too early
- Not sharing the discussion with trusted peers and mentors
Analyse and assess the situation thoroughly at the outset. Develop the scenarios. Process, digest, plan, action, and share with peers and mentors before undertaking action.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- A good team always has both offensive and defensive tactics and transition processes between these two modes. The sporting analogy is 100% valid in business.
- Creating strategy and tactics around growth and increasing earnings or other positive metrics are what we like to do all the time. This is our offence mode.
- Defensive tactics involve what you will do should any events in the “T” quarter of your SWOT chart eventuate, and how you will make the transition to being able to apply those tactics. These are seldom considered, particularly by smaller and younger businesses. An annual review of threats is the best way a leader can be prepared for what may happen and how to react in any situation.
- When troubles happen there are a huge number of unknowns, and little certainty about what might happen.
- To maximise certainty, assess issues arising critically and intelligently — create best, middle, and worst-case scenarios. Continue to review and re-assess as necessary as the situation unfolds.
- In the initial phases of the Covid pandemic we surveyed executives and clients. The fundamental question was “How long will it be to get back to 50%/75%/100% of normal”. Our clients were suggesting 3–9 months, the sales and business execs were forecasting in the 6–12 month range, while the technical execs were more pessimistic with a 18–24 month range. Of course, we wanted the optimistic timeframe, but we planned for the pessimistic. This helped us get through the actual timeframe of 24–36 months.
Paint the picture for stakeholders
- Communicate the situation and your analysis clearly to all stakeholders — staff and clients.
- In the early 2000’s the Tourism industry structure was disintermediated, introducing the forerunners of businesses like Booking.com and Expedia.
- We analysed how this would impact our clients, and we had suggestions as to how they needed to evolve to remain relevant to the changing tourism industry structure. To share our thoughts and hear what our clients had to say we visited 10 different countries conducting full-day “Roadshow” events that the majority of our clients attended. Through a mix of presentation and discussion we developed a common philosophy on where they needed to go, and what we needed to do to help them get there.
- It’s the old adage that a bad decision is usually better than no decision. Sometimes you need to backtrack from a bad decision but you are on the journey and you learn from any action, good or bad.
- Using the examples I’ve already mentioned
- During Covid we acted as soon as we’d achieved as much certainty as was possible and communicated our analysis to stakeholders. Difficult steps — staff reductions, salary cuts alongside fee reductions to our clients.
- In the case of the years the industry was being disrupted by the internet we developed many products that ended up being scrapped. In one case we created a bookings system that was so ahead of its time it failed because it didn’t look like the clunky old web sites with submit buttons at the bottom of a form that everyone thought was what a website should look like. Regardless, we were able to use the technology foundations we had used to hit the mark as the re-intermediation and settling down process was underway.
- Regardless of the situation, a leader’s role is to inspire positive momentum for the group. Rephrase challenges as opportunities.
- How do you remain positive while making tough decisions like closing down an area of the business or taking people’s jobs away? Well, it has to be done as well as it can — these are the times you have to front up to the casualties in person, talk sincerely, honestly, and with empathy. Take on the professional mindset of a doctor telling a patient of a bad prognosis. Be human. But stay positive in the sense that the business will survive as a result of these decisions, and achieving that is your primary role as a leader. The challenge of cutting a workforce can be rephrased as an opportunity to re-focus the remainder of the team on the things that are important to the business.
I’ve mentioned examples of turbulent times we experienced during the disruption of the tourism industry and of our pandemic experience. Another difficult time for us was when a large European tourism company reverse-engineered and copied our software. The ensuing legal process lasted three years, during which time we wasted time, energy, and money attempting to stop the product from entering the market as a competitor. In retrospect, we failed in many of the areas I’ve mentioned:
- We never prepared because we never believed anyone could copy our software. We thought the scale and degree of in-built business intelligence would be impossible to replicate. And we believed our intellectual property was protected by law. We were wrong on both points, never had a plan to deal with the situation, and ended up working through an ad-hoc process that ultimately achieved our goal, but at a huge expense.
- We never thought it through at the outset — we were emotional and only got legal opinions on IP and jurisdictional laws which weren’t aligned with what we wanted to achieve.
- We never communicated the situation widely — we suffered in silence and stared into headlights.
- We acted slowly, hoping the situation would all go away once we’d sent polite cease and desist letters.
Today we sometimes discuss what happened since it took three years out of Tourplan’s growth and holds interesting lessons for us. More importantly, we analyse every new situation of potential re-occurrence, and we have protective actions ready to trigger should the same thing happen in the future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.” Understanding and accepting these elements of each person you interact with enables ongoing positive relationships.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Our website at Tourplan.com has a blog section with my and my team’s views on various things related to Tourplan and the Tourism industry.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Peter Trumic of Tourplan On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.