ANDREW Latham was 21 and working as an assistant in the Royal Household at Balmoral when he almost knocked a pregnant Princess Diana down the stairs.
“It was 1984 and she was expecting Prince Harry,” he says. “I was carrying luggage - it was a slightly worrying moment.”
Luckily no harm was done and Latham survived his 13-week stint at the castle, his first job out of university, which he describes as a “huge privilege”.
I’m meeting Latham, 53, in his office at the Leeds headquarters of holiday comparison website icelolly.com. The brand messages are emblazoned on the walls of the office and Latham is very much on-message but its easy to see why.
In the last three years, the chief executive has transformed icelolly, which was founded in 2005, into a slick operation which aspires to be the UK’s leading holiday comparison website.
Latham was parachuted into the company in 2014 following the sudden departure of its chief executive Dave Clayton, six months after a £17m management buyout backed by private equity firm Palatine. The company had moved its headquarters from Bradford to Leeds but it wasn’t working out at the top.
“There was a disconnect in the direction of travel between the principal investor and the chief executive and they decided after a period of time that it wasn’t appropriate for him to continue,” says Latham. “Palatine asked me to join on an interim basis.”
Latham, who took the job permanently after six months, rebranded the business, relaunched the website and boosted its profile through a TV advertising campaign. The firm currently has a £10m turnover and over 50 staff, “The business has really grown up,” he says. “Less shooting from the hip and more of a detailed business plan.”
He adds: “We are the means that customers can use to find their perfect holiday. We’ve got a professional team in place and the website is now much more inspirational in terms of its design and activity. We’ve also made sure the product is appropriate for the market.”
Icelolly,com handles over 130 million holiday offers a day from some of the UK’s largest travel companies, with more than 20 million visitors to its site every year. The company makes its money when customers who find a holiday make a phone call to one of its 30 partners.
One of the biggest changes for the company has been the rise of mobile technology. Other developing areas include an improved cruise offering and holidays further afield.
According to Latham, icelolly customers typically range from manual workers through to middle managers. “These are people who have a limited income, they can afford to go on holiday but they’re not going to go on a luxury world cruise,” he says. “Typically people will find a one or two week holiday to the Mediterranean in a three or four star property, usually all inclusive because that’s the best value for money.”
The holiday sector has had a challenging year with a number of terrorist incidents in Europe, a coup in Turkey and Britain’s vote to leave the EU.
“We’ve seen some very good increases in people searching for holidays but I think there has been less enthusiasm for actually phoning up and booking,” says Latham. “July’s not been a great month.”
Icelolly has responded to that challenge by pushing the bargains on its website and targeting its 1.6m customer database with special offers.
“The western Mediterranean is very strong - all the Spanish resorts and Majorca,” he says. “People are more nervous about the Eastern Mediterranean but its now strengthening again because the Western Med is at capacity so people are looking elsewhere.”
The most fundamental change in the business, according to Latham, is its focus on the customer. “We’ve worked very hard on how the customer experience works,” he says.
It appears to be working. The website has over 3,000 reviews on Trust Pilot with an average score of 8.6 out of 10 for the service it provides. It also has a net promoter score of between 45 and 55, slightly ahead of Waitrose.
Customer service was drilled into Latham from an early age. Born in London, he learned about business through his family’s firms, grocery firm, Lathams Dairy, and catering business, Lewis & Clarke.
“My great grandfather started the grocery business in 1921 and he and my grandfather would go to new areas, introduce themselves and find out what they could do for people. I think that customer service has stuck with me,” he says.
Latham studied hotel and catering management at Brighton Polytechnic before his brief stint at Balmoral. His career has seen him work for a number of large hospitality providers, running pubs, restaurants and catering firms. He was one of the team involved in launching the Premier Inn brand and later became chief executive of Slug and Lettuce owner SFI Group. He also ran a firm which built hotels and was managing director for Jockey Club Catering for nine months before joining icelolly.com, “I’ve always been ambitious,” he says. “I’m fascinated by how things work and what makes people tick.”
Latham resides in Leeds during the week but his home is on the edge of Crawley, West Sussex, with his wife, Zena, and their 10-year-old black labrador, Jess.
In his spare time, Latham is a senior volunteer with St John Ambulance where he has worked for 42 years, He is also a first responder with South East Coast Ambulance Service. “One always wants to try to make the world a better place,” he says. “I enjoy people.”
Andrew Latham Fact File
Title: Chief executive
Date of birth: March 12, 1963
Education: Caterham School in Surrey; hotel and catering management at Brighton Polytechnic; Masters in hospitality at Oxford Brookes
First job: Washing up in the family business
Favourite song: We’re all going on a summer holiday, by Cliff Richard
Favourite holiday destination: Rhodes where we went this year.
Favourite film: Any of the James Bond films
Last book read: Keepers of the Kingdom, by Alastair Bruce
Car driven: Land Rover
Most proud of: The turnaround and success of Icelolly as a team