MY BEST ...When I started Air Foyle, I remained in touch with my aunt Christina (who ran Foyles). Six days before she died in June 1999, she invited me to see her at her country house, where she promptly made me director of Foyles. On her death, I was made chairman and MD. The bookshop turnover was collapsing rapidly, the place was in chaos and morale was low. Nothing was computerised, and there was no accountant. The staff were demotivated.
Then we discovered that a massive fraud had been going on for 18 years, with the general manager working in league with outside suppliers. It had probably cost the company about £20 million. If we'd carried on like that, we'd have had to close the business within two years. So I had a decision to take: to sell it or turn it around. I decided to turn it around.
Foyles still had a great brand name, an enormous range of titles that couldn't be matched by any other bookshop, and a quirky individuality.
What we needed to do was to keep all these but remove all the non-user friendly practices.
MY WORST ...
I made my biggest mistake in my aviation business. I'm not a risk-taker: I grow businesses organically. I managed aircraft for people and acted as an aircraft broker, but after a while people in the company asked: why didn't we buy our own aircraft and become a proper airline? An opportunity came up in 1999 when Irish airline City Jet was about to go bust again. Part of its business was operating aircraft under contract to Air France. I did a deal with Air France that if I bought City Jet for £1 and took on its debt, they'd make it their principal European subcontract airline and treble their business with it. I injected £4 million into the business and bought 51% of the shares. Air France took 25% and put in £2 million. The due diligence indicated that the company was losing about £300,000 a month, but that with the new business from Air France it would break even by the summer. Instead, we lost £1 million a month, so the due diligence was a load of crap. I ended up selling my share to my opposite number at Air France for much less than £4 million.