The founder of Hays Travel, the family-owned business that rescued thousands of jobs at Thomas Cook, has died.
John Hays, who started the travel firm in 1980, collapsed on Friday while working at its head office in Sunderland. The 71-year-old was married to the co-owner, Irene Hays.
The pair were praised in October 2019 when they purchased all 555 of Thomas Cook’s high street shops after the tour firm failed, with a pledge to rescue 2,500 jobs.
Hays Travel said in a statement: “It is with the deepest sadness and regret that we have to announce that John Hays, the founder and managing director of Hays Travel, died today while doing the job he loved. John, who with his wife and co-owner, Irene Hays, bought the Thomas Cook retail estate a year ago, was at work in the company’s Sunderland head office when he collapsed.
“John built Hays Travel into the UK’s largest independent travel agent providing jobs and careers for thousands of young people over 40 years. Throughout this past difficult year he did everything in his power to save jobs and protect the travel industry.”
More than 7,000 people are employed by the firm, which had a turnover in excess of £1bn in 2018. Hays was a former vice-chairman of Sunderland football club and was awarded the freedom of the city in 2016.
In an interview with the Guardian in April, he said the timing of the Thomas Cook deal had not been perfect, as the coronavirus pandemic devastated the travel industry. “Yes, it’s unfortunate,” he said. “Two months ago things were going fantastically but it’s not anybody’s fault and in these circumstances, all you can do is make the best of it. We’ll do what we can to protect our staff, protect the business and protect our customers. We’ve just got a positive attitude on life.”
Sunderland AFC said: “John was a champion of the north-east and the city of Sunderland. Our thoughts are with his wife, Irene, his family and his friends at this time.”
Mark Tanzer, the chief executive of travel trade organisation Abta, said: “We were shocked and saddened to hear this afternoon’s news that John Hays has passed away. John was a major figure in the travel industry over many years, and created one of the industry’s most successful companies.”
Derek Jones, the chief executive of the travel company Kuoni, said: “John was an inspiration and a true legend of the industry, but more importantly he was a great friend.”