My first million: Liz Davies, Just Flights

It’s never easy starting your own business. So the last thing you need is your former employer trying to make life even harder. But that’s what happened to Liz Davies.

It's never easy starting your own business. So the last thing you need is your former employer trying to make life even harder. But that's exactly what happened to Liz Davies.

In 1985, she was working as an airline broker for a firm called Viking. Her job was to book flights for tour operators with charter airlines.

But when Viking bought another company, it "inherited these wide-boy characters who didn't know an awful lot about aviation and seemed to come in and upset things".

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Eventually, after an argument with the new marketing director, Davies resigned and decided to start up on her own.

But Viking wasn't going to make it easy for her. The company wrote to suppliers "saying I'd left very abruptly... it was all a bit dramatic." Davies was going to have to start from scratch. But luckily she had built up a good relationship with the airlines when she rang around her contacts and explained what had happened, "everyone was more than happy to work with me".

Working from serviced offices near her home in Brighton "a little cupboard under the stairs" she began building on the good rapport developed with clients over the previous five years, and trying to do more or less what she'd been doing before.

However, Viking kept getting between her and potential clients, threatening not to do further business with airlines who worked with her. This forced her to hunt for a new market, which she found in the scheduled airlines.

The likes of BMI, Logan Air and British Airways weren't doing chartered flights at the time, "but we sold them the idea that it was a very good guarantee of income they weren't responsible for filling seats, but they got paid regardless".

Without much effort, airlines could increase business, as Davies would sell flights on their planes at the weekend, when they weren't so busy. And because Viking weren't working with them, she could finally shake them off her heels. "So it was just an ideal merger, really."

By 1988 she was organising about ten flights a week, taking in almost £2m in turnover, of which about 2% was profit. Her next move was into the ski market, another area untapped by her ex-employer. High-end ski operators were more open to hiring scheduled airlines to take their passengers, as these airlines offered a full onboard service.

"We started to look at new destinations, like Chambray. I think with any business you don't stay in the now because that's just boring you try to think, what else can we do?' And Chambray was interesting because nobody went there."

At its height, the business was turning over £11m, but that has slipped to £8.5m in recent years amid competition from budget airlines. However, Davies thinks that this is a golden opportunity for more upmarket airlines to sell themselves on the service they offer.

With budget travel, "you get nothing for your money, sitting on a large plastic seat with people who don't give a damn about you", she says. "I think people are going to do a whole 360 and say hey, this isn't a great way to travel, let's do something better than this and pay a little bit more money'."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.