A FORCE FOR GOOD hub | James Thornton Shares his SECRET SAUCE…
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James Thornton Shares his SECRET SAUCE…

James Thornton Shares his SECRET SAUCE…


Article By Helene Taylor

Helene Taylor sits down with James Thornton, the Global CEO of Intrepid Group, to discover what is Intrepid’s Secret Sauce…

There’s something unusual happening at Intrepid Group. It’s impossible not to notice that the Melbourne-based company is standing out in a crowded market place right now. While some travel companies are struggling to grow this year, Intrepid are continuing to grow strongly and gain significant “cut through” in the market. In fact, the new “Be Intrepid” campaign resonated so strongly with a group of Flight Centre agents that they got the tattoo!

So, what’s Intrepid doing differently? The general consensus is that they know their ‘secret sauce’ – that unique combination that sets them apart – and they know how to make sure that their customers do too.

I asked Intrepid Group CEO James Thornton to share his insights into the market and while we are at it, we asked him to share his recipe for success.

James is the kind of business leader who empowers his team, employing good people and then giving them the freedom to develop themselves and the business. James says he’s benefited from mentors in the industry, so he believes he has a responsibility to share what he’s learnt and help others grow too

I asked James “What’s is Intrepid’s secret sauce?”

“The secret to our sauce is that we don’t have secrets! We’ve realised that transparency makes us a better business.

Three years ago, we had a pivotal change in our business. Intrepid Group went through a shareholder split, changing from being a publicly-listed company to an independently-owned company. We like to say it was a ‘conscious uncoupling’ because we realised that we just didn’t want the same things. TUI was focused on delivering short term quarterly profits for shareholders and we wanted to focus on building a business that benefits all our stakeholders in the long-term. We moved from being a solely profit focused company to a company who focused on purpose beyond profit” says James.

“Being independently-owned gives us the freedom to be open and transparent about our business and our vision. That renewed focus on sustainable travel and on having a purpose beyond profit has been game-changing for us” says James.

James is on the cusp of being a millennial himself and that means he understands millennials better than most business leaders. He’s open to ideas and change, those qualities coupled with great leadership make him inspiring to speak to, says Helene Taylor.

“Social media helps you understand what customers want. You rarely see someone sharing – this is my big house or my expensive car, but you do see people sharing about this amazing meal or this incredible travel experience” says James.

Aligning your product to what matters to the customer is key to success and it’s important to understand just how much travellers have changed over the years.

“Travellers care about the planet and they care about sustainable travel. They care that plastic is removed from the environment”.

Companies talk about making a difference but often it is not at the core of what they do. Intrepid do more than just talk about it. Four years ago, Intrepid became the first global travel company to ban elephant rides. At the time most travel companies brochures to Asia had a photo of riding an elephant on the front cover.

“Now you wouldn’t see elephant riding in a itinerary, let alone a brochure, but at the time it was a big commercial decision” says James. “It showed us that if we did the right thing that our customers would support us.”


2014 becoming the first global tour operator to end elephant rides. This is why we no longer ride elephants 

Intrepid has publicly increased its commitment to purpose beyond profit over the last three years, while working behind the scenes on the massive task of becoming a certified B Corporation.

With 23 legal entities around the globe, it’s been no easy task. That’s why James is so thrilled to share the news that Intrepid Group has certified, becoming the largest B Corp company in the travel industry globally, as well as the largest B Corp in Australia.

Intrepid now joins companies like Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and Stone & Wood that are leading the way in business.

Certified B Corps balance purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment.

It’s this type of independent certification that sets Intrepid Group apart from other companies, as a business that’s a real force for good.

There are plenty of companies that “TALK” a great game but this new ingredient of being a certified B Corporation is proof Intrepid walks the talk and yet another unique ingredient in their secret sauce.

B Corps meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. Intrepid is a private company, but they are willing to be transparent, to share their numbers and their profit and be held accountable. It is no secret that this authenticity resonates with customers.

Markets move quickly these day’s no matter what industry you are in. Young travellers have changed how they want to travel. Intrepid is the global leader in sustainable experience rich travel, and this style of travel has become the new mainstream. Coupled with Intrepid’s cutting-edge marketing and strong PR it is no wonder they are leading the way.

If you have seen Intrepid’s great marketing and PR you will understand how their purpose is resonating with customers.

The next generation of travellers care even more about sustainable travel than previous generations and they want to travel with a company that walks the talk.

“While I was overseas the team was at the NTIA awards and I was thrilled to hear that Intrepid Group was awarded the Best International Tour Operator by the industry. It means a lot to us because Intrepid’s style of travel had previously been seen as niche – but now our style of travelling is increasingly becoming more mainstream. It was great to be acknowledged by the industry” says James.

James shared some great advice for Jito that applies for all companies, both inside and outside of the travel industry, including

  • Pick what you are going to stand for
  • Then list 10 things and write your strategy – don’t deviate.
  • Be accountable
  • Be transparent

“It was inspiring to see Alan Joyce take a stand for marriage equality. Alan was personally passionate about advocating for change, but more importantly – Qantas had done the work and led the way. You can give your opinion but you need to do the work first. You need to make your own stand and advocate for what you are passionate about” says James.

Equality has been a focus for Intrepid, who will yet again be a sponsor for the next International Women’s Day event in 2019, hosted by Helene Taylor, an event now in it’s third year of passionately helping drive diversity in the industry.

James says “…we have not just focused on our customers, we have had a strong focus internally. We have hired brilliant people, clearly articulate our strategy to them and then we get out of their way. We let them come up with the ideas. The idea for us setting a goal for female tour leaders in India came from one of our team members.”

Intrepid has taken their mission even further with helping more women become tour leaders in all the places the company visits, including  India and Morocco where it goes against society norms.

It’s just one way Intrepid is helping drive change towards equality globally. According to James, the ingredients for Intrepid’s secret sauce include:

1. Pick things you are going to be passionate about and own them.

For Intrepid some of these things are…

  • sustainable travel
  • empowering communities
  • diversity & inclusion
  • and creating shared value for all stakeholders, through a business that has a purpose beyond profit.

2. Be totally transparent

3. Be accountable

4. Hire brilliant people who are hungry and ambitious, giving them clear direction and then let them come up with the great ideas, and get out of their way.

5. Become a storytelling machine – but first make sure you have an authentic story to tell

6. As a leader know the 3 things you’re good at and just focus on delivering on that

For James his 3 things are:

  • Connecting and communicating with people at all levels from cleaner to Owner
  • Know my numbers
  • Telling our story

“I don’t get involved with creating product etc, I have a great team who does that” says James.

7. The market cares about sustainable travel, cares about the environment (these are the people who have been getting upset at Coles over the reintroduction of plastic bags) so provide products that align

8. Provide a work environment that is fun and rewards your people (we built new offices with a table tennis table, a beer garden and provide regular social events, wellbeing and yoga)

9. Communicate your message really well.

10. Take advantage of the shift in consumer space

Mixed together it’s a great sauce.  Well done Intrepid and thanks James for sharing.

So now the question to all the readers is …. What is your secret sauce?




James Thornton, Global CEO, Intrepid Group

Article By Helene Taylor


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