Thomson Airways managing director Chris Browne is one of the few women to have reached a senior position in the UK travel industry.
But her climb up the career ladder has been far from easy.
From her days as the first female general manager for Iberia – she was also the youngest and first non-Spaniard in the role – to today, Browne has encountered scepticism from both management and staff in a sector male-dominated at the top.
Browne, who recently became the first woman to speak at the Institute of Travel and Tourism’s Odyssey Supper, was brought up in northern Ireland as one of seven children and always knew she would have to fight to get her voice heard.
Speaking at the dinner, she said: “Growing up in a war-torn state showed me the value of fighting for what is right in life. When you see so much death you quickly learn life is no dress rehearsal.
“The troubles taught us the true value of life and sense of what is right and wrong. I learned to work very hard. When you do not know where next week’s rent is coming from you get out and work very hard.
“Another lesson from growing up in that environment was being confident in myself, although if one of my sisters hadn’t given me £12 for the ferry I would not have got here [the UK],” she added.
Despite no clear career plan it wasn’t long before Browne swapped her council house for a penthouse suite in Knightsbridge, London, which came as part of her promotion at Iberia.
But it was soon clear she had her work cut out at Iberia, which followed a stint at a small Spanish tour operator.
She says: “To say I challenged the status quo is an understatement. I was not at all welcomed by my immediate management or people working for me. It was my boss’s boss who offered me the job.
“My immediate boss told me: ‘I think women should be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, but you seem relatively intelligent so I think I’ll let you wear your shoes.’”
Two years later Browne had his job, and three years later she was UK general manager.
“At 30 [years old] that was ground breaking at the time. My penthouse suite in Knightsbridge came with the job and I was treated like royalty. But the establishment didn’t want me. My peers didn’t like what I represented,” she admits.
It was only on an overbooked flight home from a management meeting in Madrid, when Browne gave up her first-class seat for the jump seat, that she was able to win the respect of staff. “By the time I got back to London, word had got round. It was a small gesture but it sent the right message,” she recalls.
Browne’s five years at the airline coincided with a difficult time for the sector, with airlines under pressure to streamline their workforces and cut costs. When Iberia outsourced facilities to British Midlands, Browne came up against the powerful union lobby.
She says: “It was my first taste of union bretheren. We outsourced to British Midlands. It was bold in its day. I felt like I was being held to ransom by the team at Heathrow. I had threatening calls in the middle of the night but I knew we had to stay true.”
Between her time at Iberia and her move to First Choice, Browne also worked in the travel agency sector, taking a job at the UK’s fourth largest independent agency chain A T Mays in Scotland.
She was headhunted to turn the business around and it coincided with the sale of A T Mays and tour operation Inspirations to Carlson Leisure Group in 1997. She now admits: “It was not the smartest career move in my life. They were turbulent times in retail: consolidation was rife.”
Despite pleas by Thomas Cook’s now group chief executive Manny Fontenla-Novoa to stay on,
Browne took up an offer from First Choice boss Peter Long instead. “I have no doubt Manny wanted me to stay but I don’t think the corporation did at the time. That’s when Peter Long telephoned me: I think he was trying to grab talent early and it felt like the right thing,” she says.
After two years at First Choice, Browne got a call to run the group’s airline Air 2000 and found a similar male-dominated culture.
“When I got to Manchester I heard one of the captains say “they are sending a woman to run the airline, what will they think of next?”,” she recalls.
The airline itself was in stark need of change. “It felt like an ex-RAF flying club, not an airline.
The board was a collection of individuals not a team. Managers very hierarchical and they considered their position as really for time served.
“We wanted to make Air 2000 based on customer service and we had to make it truly profitable. We were losing far too much money in the winter.”
The shakeup – following the terrorist attacks of Septmber 11, 2001 – meant replacing 67% of the management team, changing the fleet, inflight entertainment and seats. In 2004, First Choice became the first European charter airline to install Boeing’s new interiors for its 767-300 aircraft.
“We reshaped our fleet around what our tour operation and customers needed,” she says.
“Everything was transformed but everything that could have gone wrong did. We had specially manufactured seats that were too heavy and inflight systems that blew up. The fact those years didn’t turn out to be bad years financially proves there are good times even in tough times.”
Under Browne’s watch, First Choice was also first to sign up to Boeing’s 787 Dreamliners, and the new merged Thomson Airways will be the first UK carrier to fly the aircraft, with 23 on order.
“When they do get here we still believe these aircraft will revolutionise longhaul holidays by air.
Being first was important because we get a better deal,” she adds.
The merger of First Choice Airways and Thomsonfly into Thomson Airways in 2007 has been one of the toughest challenges for Browne, particularly winning over Thomson management.
“The hardest thing was not making sure we had the right safety procedures, it was standing in front of the staff at the Manchester HQ. That was tough. But if the decision was right then, it’s even more right now.”
Browne’s tendency to focus on the staff meant there was early dialogue with the unions to reach a three-year deal. Last year’s agreement with pilots to take a 5% pay cut has allowed the airline to keep hold of talent it would otherwise have been forced to lose, she says.
“We worked very hard to help our people through these challenging times. It paid off. We managed to keep our key talent despite challenges to that talent.”
So what else would she like to do?
“One thing I would like to change is seat pitch in economy but pepole won’t pay the extra few quid,” she said.