Building up a Dynasty

Building up a Dynasty
Mr Perry Neo (right), Chairman, and Mr Clifford Neo, 38, Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer, of Dynasty Travel at their office.

SINGAPORE - A decade ago, Mr Perry Neo heard from friends in the travel industry about an ailing travel agency on the market for a "shockingly low" price.

He snapped it up immediately, but could tell it was beset with problems which would take years to fix - Dynasty Travel, in existence since 1978, had already spent many years in the red.

The 62-year-old and his son, Mr Clifford Neo, more than managed to turn things around, however, and last month sold their family-run business to Japan's leading travel firm JTB. This makes Dynasty Travel the first local travel agency to be acquired by a global travel company.

While the Neos did not want to disclose the transaction price, a media report in Japan put it at "several billion yen". A billion yen is about S$12.5 million.

This is a far cry from the sum Mr Perry Neo bought it for in 2004 - less than $500,000 - when he "took over a company full of problems".

The elder Mr Neo, a businessman who previously owned petroleum and property businesses, recalls that the agency then offered tour packages only to Australia and New Zealand and had a low turnover.

"I knew I had my work cut out for me," he says.

He had owned travel agencies in Australia and China, but says they were much smaller. He sold them before he bought over Dynasty.

Mr Neo says: "As a businessman, I always look for opportunities to make money, I don't let my lack of experience in any industry stop me."

The agency's previous owner, who is Singaporean, does not wish to be named, he adds.

His older son Clifford, 38, came on board as managing director the year after he bought the company, after graduating from Murdoch University in Australia with a master's degree in e-commerce. He had also spent some time working in the travel industry in Australia.

The elder Mr Neo, who is married to a housewife, also has a younger son Desmond, 27, who is doing his MBA here.

Their first order of business was diversifying their tour packages.

They decided to carve out a niche for themselves by offering higher-end tours to far-flung places, such as Tanzania and Iceland, after noting a surplus of travel agencies here catering to mass-market tours to nearby countries.

The strategy began working after two to three years and the company was on the verge of taking off when they hit a major stumbling block in the form of the 2008 financial crisis.

"No one was travelling anymore. During that time, many travel agents asked their staff to take pay cuts or made them go on no-pay leave," recalls Mr Neo.

It did not help that his staff were still new as well, he adds.

"We needed to solve problems quickly, but first we had to gain staff confidence. I told them all not to panic and that none of them would be retrenched or have to take a pay cut," he says.

Mr Neo started doing sales calls himself, paying visits to old contacts who were chief executives and getting introduced to other business heads through them.

"It was the first time we had gone into corporate travel. While leisure travel was down, businesses still needed their executives to travel to gain more business," he says.

Within six months, he brought in $40 million in business for Dynasty Travel, and all staff received bonuses that year - as they have, every year, since 2004.

Corporate travel now accounts for a quarter of the agency's business.

Mr Neo credits the company's low rate of staff turnover - 2 per cent - and its continued success to its strong focus on staff welfare.

"I always think of the staff - they are like my children. Their livelihood must never be affected, crisis or no crisis."

Since then, the company has solidified its brand and now counts 75 per cent of its customer base as regulars. An extra 15 per cent are referrals from regular clients. Dynasty does both mass-market, mid-range tours and high-end, niche tours.

"In the beginning, we had difficulty even forming one group to go to Japan," recalls Mr Neo. "Now, a 60-person tour to South America - costing more than $60,000 a couple on Business Class - is full eight months in advance."

The acquisition by JTB will not mean any immediate change in the management of Dynasty Travel, says Mr Clifford Neo. He will continue to be managing director, and also take on the role of chief operating officer, while his father will continue as the chairman.

He adds that while people might think they are going to narrow their focus to only Japan tours, the agency has no plans to do so. "We are staying in Europe and still have a big focus on exotic destinations," he says.

The younger Mr Neo admits that selling the company was a hard decision for both father and son.

"We have had two years to think about it since they first made us an offer," he says.

His father adds: "Dynasty is like my baby - from nothing, I built it up until today. Honestly, I never wanted to give it up. But they made us an offer we could not refuse."

The offer was the chance to take their brand worldwide, he says.

"We've reached a peak here in Singapore, but it's a small market with many competitors, so we need to look beyond our shores," he says.

The elder Mr Neo adds that already, travellers from Australia have been booking tours with Dynasty Travel, flying first to Singapore and then joining a tour group to destinations such as China. "With JTB's global presence, we hope to have our people and products in their offices in Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia. We could have done it on our own, but it would have taken a few years, and it is faster to just join forces with JTB," he says.

jennanid@sph.com.sg


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