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28 August 2004
The Herald
Time off is all part off the job

JOHN Boyle, the holidays-to-property tycoon, cut a disconcertingly blithe figure this week at an interview arranged before the much-publicised break-up of his 18-year marriage.

He could have been forgiven for declining to answer questions about his split with Fiona, which gave rise to a spate of lurid tabloid headlines earlier this month, but the Hamilton-born entrepreneur addressed the issue with equanimity, living up to his plain-speaking reputation.

Boyle's four young children are to remain with him at the family home in Glasgow, but he does not envisage any winding down of his far-flung business empire.

'I was always very close to my children before the separation happened,' he stressed. 'I would be home two days a week for homework and stuff and deliver them to school. It will require modification, but there's nothing I'll be doing that I wasn't doing anyway. There won't be a drastic cutback in my work, or alteration in my lifestyle. I've always been very involved in the children's upbringing so it will just be slightly more of the same.'

Boyle, 52, admits to working irregularly in any case - a privilege afforded by an estimated 68m fortune accrued largely through the 1998 sale of telephone booking business Direct Holidays to Airtours.

He points out, for instance, that he left the Glasgow office of his investment vehicle Hamilton Portfolio on June 22 for his house in Majorca and did not return until August 16. 'I have a great ability to delegate and am blessed with extremely able colleagues,' he grins, tongue firmly wedged in cheek.

Of Boyle's three principal lieutenants, the 'first among equals' is Andrew Lapping, the former corporate finance and tax specialist at PricewaterhouseCoopers with whom Boyle teamed up to form HP. The others are Paul Johnston, an alumnus of Ernst & Young, who also worked with Scottish Enterprise and Sony Venture Capital Europe, and Stewart Robertson, also formerly of PwC, who doubled as managing director of Motherwell FC.

Boyle retains a majority shareholding in Motherwell, after writing off 8m in investment when the SPL club crashed into administration. He still sees them play whenever possible and, on this particular day, Boyle and Robertson were looking forward with relish to a CIS cup tie with Greenock Morton.

The antithesis of the dour workaholic, Boyle insists his colleagues share his relaxed philosophy. 'Hamilton Portfolio has never been obsessed with long hours and overtime,' he says. 'I absolutely insist that everyone takes their full quota of holidays. You don't get a gold star here for working more than you need to.'

Boyle and his three acolytes own 100% of HP. There is also a parallel investment company, Northern Edge, in which Bank of Scotland owns around 25% and 10 private investors also have shares.

HP has invested more than 30m in early-stage and more established companies and hundreds of millions of pounds in property. Recently, it sold a Yorkshire distribution centre for the supermarket chain Somerfield for 39m, which had been bought for 28m.

Boyle estimates that he has sold (pounds) 400m worth of commercial property in the last two years, but is gradually reducing his exposure as the sector cools.

He said: 'The principle used to be that you could borrow money at 5% and get yields of 7.5%. That's pretty much dead now because interest rates are soft. There was that window of opportunity which lasted two or three years, but now you have to look much longer term. We've retained a few buildings for long-term income.'

Boyle has switched his attention to niche residential schemes, carried out by associate firm Hamilton Developments and investment partners through single -purpose vehicles. They have included a housing development at London's Surrey Quays and another project in the west end of Glasgow which is expected to go on site shortly.

Boyle is not deterred by mounting evidence of a slowdown in the housing market. 'We don't take the doom-and-gloom view of house prices. There might be a levelling off but not a huge decline.'

In certain areas which are 'oversupplied and overpriced', he admits that speculative purchasers may come unstuck.

'We try to go for well-constructed property in the right areas,' says Boyle. That doesn't necessarily mean prestige developments: 'Everything we sold in London went for less than 250k. The sort of thing that suffers from huge price reductions are the huge lofts in Clerkenwell costing (pounds) 500k. A townhouse in Surrey Quays costing 220,000 might go down 10% to 15% but it isn't going to drop by half.'

Boyle invests in companies to which Hamilton Portfolio can bring management expertise as well as hard cash. One of the quartet generally takes a boardroom position.

Among more than a dozen current holdings, Boyle cites Hamilton's 40% stake in Global Expense - a London-based company which handles employee expenses claims on an outsourced basis - as especially promising. HP has invested 2m in the business and has been involved for four years, but only recently has Global Expense landed a clutch of big-name clients, including WH Smith.

'It's been a slow-burner,' says Boyle. 'It can take months for a big organisation to get round to signing contracts.'

Boyle recently upped his holding in Alternative Investment Market-listed mobile phone content provider MonsterMob, having sold down his stake soon after the firm floated last year.

He believes the market has been 'unkind' to MonsterMob and the shares will bounce back. He also made an estimated 3m paper gain on the listing of Business Serve, an internet service provider that became the first to float in Britain since the dot.com era.

Ominously for his competitors, Boyle is quietly rebuilding a significant presence in the holiday business. He re-entered the travel market with brother Hugh last year with the launch of Scottish-Caribbean tour firm Go Travel Direct. That was followed in May by the establishment of Zoom, which offers transatlantic flights to Canada on the low-cost airline model. The earlier you book, the cheaper the fare.

'Zoom's load factors have exceeded our expectations,' said Boyle. 'We will be shortly be going up from two Boeing planes to four and we will be profitable in the current year. We are very firmly focused on Canada at the moment, but its model could be transferred to other routes.'

Boyle owns 20% of Zoom, with the remaining 80% split between brother Hugh and the company's staff.

Most recently, the Boyles bought a controlling interest in CV Travel, an upmarket villa lettings specialist serving Greece, Italy and the Mediterranean.

The renewed enthusiasm of John and Hugh Boyle for the travel sector has triggered rumours that the pair may be interested in buying back Direct Holidays from struggling giant MyTravel.

John Boyle is certainly keeping his options open.

'Direct Holidays has continued to perform well even though MyTravel's share price has been low,' he observes.

'The difficulty is how easy it would be now to 'extract' that business. MyTravel is a very heavily integrated company.'


Born: Hamilton, February 1, 1952

What car do you drive? 1962 Jaguar mk11 - 'like you see in Inspector Morse'

What music do you listen to? Classical and country

Greatest achievement? Having built up and developed two successful businesses, Falcon Holidays, which became First Choice, and Direct Holidays

Favourite book? Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Biggest break? Circumventing burdensome 1970s airline regulations. Charter flight passengers had to have accommodation booked to get a seat, but Boyle came up with the idea of issuing effectively worthless campsite vouchers. This helped usher in the era of cheap, mass travel. 'I don't think anyone ever used the vouchers,' he joked.


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