Why happy employees are the key to success for all companies

Bruce Poon Tip founder of G Adventures on happy employees

Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures, has seen demand for sustainable tourism rocket since he launched 25 years ago. Here he talks about growing a £100m social enterprise, hiring for culture not skill, having happy employees and building a winning team

Although Bruce Poon Tip founded G Adventures in 1990, the boss of the global travel company describes his business as a “25-year-old start-up”. And it seems a fair comment – the social enterprise has experienced double-digit growth year on year since the Canadian entrepreneur launched the company, using credit cards while at university.

“When we started, the world was very different,” he recalls. “Back then there were few holiday choices – it was cruises or resorts or people got a guidebook and did it themselves. We wanted to organise backpacking, giving people freedom of independence and flexibility but offering cultural experiences.”

The award-winning business, headquartered in Toronto, Canada, has enjoyed phenomenal growth in the past two decades and now has 1,200 employees worldwide, offices in 21 countries and people from 119 nations booking trips every year. There is no one, says Poon Tip, offering the service on the same scale:

“As well as adventure tours to places such as Mongolia or the Amazon rainforest, we work with government agencies building community projects – and have a positive impact on the ground.”

“We run homestay programmes in local communities, we build restaurants that are community-owned and run, and supply training and jobs to people, and we have eye camps that restore people’s vision. We have gone beyond being a travel company and I think that’s why people are attracted to us.”

Creating a great company culture has been crucial, says Poon Tip, to the success of G Adventures. “When you build a business that’s an industry leader then everyone wants to be part of that. You have to create a winning mentality among your team.”

“You see it with sports franchises; when a team is winning it’s easy to get good players, when a team is losing it’s more difficult. It’s the same in business – when you’re a company that has a culture of winning, everyone wants to be involved, including customers.”

The key, he says, is to hire for culture not skill: “You can teach people the skills they need but you can’t teach culture. The biggest challenge is whether you’re prepared to hire and fire based on your culture.”

“One of our philosophies is to hire slowly and fire quickly – take your time deciding and don’t risk damaging your company culture by bringing in a ‘brilliant jerk’, meaning someone who is good at their job but isn’t a good personality fit. If you do make this mistake, you need to realise quickly and then fire fast.”

Know your audience

Happiness and happy employees, says Poon Tip, is the best way to boost performance. “I believe that happiness drives successful companies. If people are happy within an organisation they will go that extra mile and they’ll do everything better.”

“Leadership is everything when it comes to the success of high-growth businesses,” he adds. “You hear advice all the time about being passionate about the work you do because then it doesn’t feel like work – but it’s true, and crucial, if you want to maintain long-term growth. Growth is about knowing your customers – and leadership.”

How does he describe his leadership style? “I’m fair, I’m aggressive, I give a lot of autonomy and freedom, but I never apologise for demanding excellence. The performance of my people defines the business and if people wilt under the pressure of delivering excellence then they shouldn’t be working for us.

“People might say I’m somewhat unpredictable – I will freak out at the colour of our logo on a brochure, but if we lose a million-dollar contract I’ll say, ‘let’s learn from that and move on’. When you’re a high-performing company like we are, you reach a place where mistakes are seen as opportunities to grow.”

The biggest problem with leaders, says Poon Tip, is that they often find it difficult to recognise their weaknesses. “Entrepreneurs are very self-centred by nature and over-confident. But if a leader doesn’t know their own weaknesses they won’t be able to fill those holes with talent.”

“I like to refer to it as the ‘Michael Jordan effect’ – as amazing as he was on the court, he knew what he couldn’t do and he filled those holes. There were no other stars on his team, but collectively they were capable of extraordinary things. My strength has always been knowing my limitations.”

In the last decade the role of social media has had a huge impact on business – and G Adventures, says Poon Tip, has reaped the benefits. “It’s a huge part of what we do and has helped us create a more intimate relationship with our customers. We sell an extremely emotional product and it has allowed us to form more points of connection with our customers, which has created extreme brand loyalty.”

In the last five years the firm has expanded into developing markets in Asia, which, says Poon Tip, has supported its growth. “These are markets such as China where we are now able to sell our tours rather than simply operate them.”

His plan is to double the business in size by 2020 – organically, not through acquisitions. “Right now we lead in our space but we’d like to branch out even more. I hope that we’ll have a greater impact on the travel industry as a whole, and that more people will stop going on cruises or to compound resorts and choose active and sustainable forms of travel.”

“We have a saying in our company, ‘If you can’t travel with us, travel like us,’ and I’m hoping we will be seen as a beacon for sustainable travel around the globe.”

To find out more about the company, visit gadventures.co.uk


Fact file

Name Bruce Poon Tip

Age 48

Favourite place “Brighton is among my top five favourite places in the world. I like art and creative environments, and the city is phenomenal.”

Way to relax? “I love spending time with my kids, or I do yoga. I also enjoy watching live sports.”

I’m fascinated by karma “I love remote, spiritual places and I’m attracted to the idea of karma and how that type of theory can have an effect on business.”

About author

Hannah Baker

Hannah Baker

Hannah Baker is deputy editor at Think Publishing. Previously she worked as a features writer and sub-editor for Director magazine

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