A FORCE FOR GOOD hub | James Thornton’s Inspiring Story, Age over experience…
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James Thornton’s Inspiring Story, Age over experience…

James Thornton – Global CEO – Intrepid Group



There is no question that James Thornton is an inspirational leader and his story challenges one of the core perceptions held by many in the travel industry; those years of experience translates to success.

James’s story resonates with me. It inspires me and fuels me with new ideas, and his path to greatness serves as a reminder that we are all capable of success regardless of our age, as long as we believe in ourselves.

Many within the travel industry use age as an excuse for why they can’t embark on a new venture or career. The reasons for this are many and varied, but simply, excuses stand in the way of regret and it’s easier to say no than to fail. But the question remains, does age factor into the equation, or is it simply an excuse to avoid the inevitable discomfort that comes with change?

Naturally, there are exceptions to the rule, but too often people use age as a justification to avoid actioning ideas and passions that could lead to greatness.


However, James’s story is a shining example of how success is within reach, regardless of age. As a global group leader at the tender age of 35, James has an impressive portfolio under his belt encompassing 6 tour operator brands and 17 destination management companies, responsible for carrying 250,000 pax on trips around the world every year. He heads up over 1,650 staff across 27 countries, which begs the question – how did he make it to the top so quickly?

As James explains, it all began when he embraced his love for travel. “When I was young I had dreams of being a pilot or a footballer but I realised I didn’t have the skill or eyesight to do either! I came out of university and travelled, and like many others that developed my passion for travel,” James recalls.

Inspired by his father who James proudly claims was his “great role model”, he was also exposed to different cultures and countries from an early age. “My dad was a working-class man with no qualifications, but he studied an apprenticeship and became a passionate engineer in the motor industry. He lived all over the world in countries like the U.S., Brazil, India, Malaysia, and this gave me the taste of an international life,” he says. “Like many, I thought I had to step into a corporate office job wearing a suit and commuting five days per week. But after three years in the investment industry living this life, I realised it was an existence that held no interest. It was bleak and boring, and I see so many people who allow themselves to be trapped in this type of life rather than doing something they are passionate about. So I took a risk, left and joined the travel industry.”

PASSION cannot be underestimated

James concedes that fear stands in the way of many people following their passion. Much of this comes from pressure, he says, with so many young people pushed to define their career early on. But he also insists that people should not stress about making career decisions based on assumptions, as careers develop in a multitude of ways.

“So many young people want everything immediately; the big salary, travel, great job.”

“It’s important to take opportunities when they present themselves, but being prepared to be a little uncomfortable is really important,” he says, adding that there was “no way,” he thought he would be running a global company in Australia.

Taking risks that seemed hard to swallow at times were also crucial to James’s success, along with a lot of hard work. “I took a 50% pay cut in my early career to join Intrepid because I wanted to follow my passion. There are a lot of people who wouldn’t be prepared to do that, it takes a lot of guts,” he says.

Nothing beats HARD WORK

“When I joined Intrepid, there was a group of us that were passionate and willing to work really hard and long hours because we knew we were creating something great. People can’t underestimate the power of hard work. People that roll in at 8.59am and clock out at 5.31pm can’t expect to develop their career.” Starting with Intrepid in the UK in 2005 as a sales rep, James moved to Australia in 2007, progressing to become General Manager Global Sales in 2010 at just 29 years old. By the time he hit 31 years of age, he was Managing Director with global responsibilities and now at 36 years, Jame’s is now the Global CEO for the Intrepid Group.

James’s rise to the top is nothing short of impressive, and while passion is at the heart of what he does, he claims that his success comes down to taking opportunities and being prepared to take risks.

To do great work is to LOVE WHAT YOU DO!

“I was raised to believe if you work hard and you are well presented then you will have opportunities. Moving from England to Australia twice helped to facilitate my career development. Most people wouldn’t be prepared to shift countries to progress their career, but working in different countries gives you valuable experience which can help you progress,” he says.

BE PREPARED to be a bit uncomfortable

Listening is another key asset that James admits didn’t come easily at first. “Travel is a very gregarious business, and you need to listen and be prepared to learn. In my early career when someone would be confrontational in their style I would often be confrontational back but I have learned through watching and observing others to take a more measured approach. I often see young people talk, talk, talk, but I prefer the two ears versus mouth principal. Your best negotiating tool is often to say nothing”

As a young leader gaining credibility with more senior staff who often have decades more experience is something James has worked hard on mastering.

“I don’t pretend to know everything so I surround myself with talented and smart people who are great at what they do and offer me sound advice. Everyone who reports to me is well over 10 years my senior, so one of the challenges of being a young leader is to establish credibility when you haven’t done what your team is doing. This is the true test of real leadership because the only way to maintain trust with the people you work with is, to be honest.”

Being YOUNG you are WILLING to take MORE RISKS

James expands: “My role is not to provide answers but to create space where people are willing and able to share their talents. But make no mistake about it, as a leader you must be prepared to put your neck on the line and make a call when required. Sometimes you get things wrong. That’s ok. I try to be open about my mistakes, own them and learn from them, and I encourage others to do so too.”

James concedes that working for an entrepreneurial and innovative company has given him the breadth to grow professionally. He takes his hat off to Intrepid owners Darrell Wade and Geoff Manchester for their continued belief and support. “I think they saw a little of themselves in me, and I would not be doing the job I am now without them,” he says.

With an average employee age of 33 and average traveller age of 37, Intrepid is a company for young people. James says, “It would have been easy for the owners to employ someone much older with lots of global experience but they backed me.” James modestly admits that his ability to relate to others has allowed him to shine in his current role. “I am good at three things. I get on with most people no matter their level of seniority, I have a degree of confidence to sell the business and myself, and I am comfortable with numbers,” he quips. “But I do think young people are also more willing to take risks.”

Everything is a LEARNING experience

Like many successful managing directors, James says life at the top can be an “isolating and lonely job”, and he has had his moments of self-doubt. But having a supportive team has helped him realise that perfection doesn’t exist, even at the top tier.

“I have had bad days – losing 20% of our global business was a bad day – it takes a while to bounce back. But you have to realise this is a process and it’s a learning experience – I have learned how important transparency was – and how important face to face relationships are,” he says.

But it’s Intrepid’s philosophy that has maintained James’s interest for an entire decade. “Our leaders have a philosophy that it’s okay to make a mistake. That’s how we learn, and we embrace this in our culture,” James says. “When I first started, my manager shared a story how he made a terrible mistake costing $25,000. He called one of the founders to admit he had made a huge mistake, and Darrell Wade said ‘what did you learn about it, and it’s okay just don’t do it again’.”

Career development, passion for the company, and a genuine belief in the products are some of the finer points of the company as far as James is concerned. But Intrepid’s enormous growth is also hard to ignore, growing from $45 million in his early days to a $280 million-plus company in 2016. “While I have been here 11 years, I have never been in the same job for more than three years. Three years is a healthy amount of time to spend in one role. The first year you get to know it, the second year you get it, and by the third year, you’ve nailed it. After that time, the company should want you to move up,” James says. And Intrepid has done just that, giving James a number of opportunities to take his career to the next level.

“Every job I was promoted into, I was never ready for but I asked for the opportunity and made sure I would make it work. I backed myself and Darrell and Geoff believed in me. Their attitude resonates in the culture,” James says.

James recognises the need to be nimble and respond to the demands of the market. But he also understands the need to engage young people and keep them challenged but not overwhelmed. “Snapchat, Facebook, Airbnb have young leaders for a reason. Most people working in travel are millennials, and you need to understand what makes them happy. Young people love rapid change, so as a young leader, I love changing environments. A lot of more mature leaders still have the hierarchy mindset and this disengages millennials in a business. Younger leaders are more adaptable and more comfortable conversing with the cleaner as much as they are with another CEO,” James says.

YOUNG LEADERS are leading the way

James is a strong believer in balanced leadership and working in collaboration. He says taking ownership and thinking long term is crucial to success. “I hate when people think ‘that is not my job’. If you work for the company, of course, it is your job,” he says.

He also believes that companies use money as an excuse for not making things happen.   “I feel strongly that constraint breeds invention, self–reliance and resourcefulness.”  But above all, he believes that leaders must deliver and drive results. “A lot of people accept mediocrity and this is an alien concept for me,” he says.

A seemingly confident, well presented professional, James is everything one would expect from a successful CEO of a global company. But he admits he is “confident on the stage talking to 500 people and 1-1 with his leaders but social events and networking do not come naturally. Once you keep challenging yourself over time, it can become second nature, like public speaking did for me,” he says. “Strategy is an over-used word and the basics of running a business are so important. You need to set a clear vision, communicate constantly both internally & externally, empower your team, celebrate wins and allow mistakes” he insists.

You need to BELIEVE IN YOURSELF otherwise who else will?

James is surprisingly comfortable with his work-life balance.  He puts it down to his supportive wife, Natalie, and four-year-old son, Art. But the key, he says, is being disciplined and focused when it comes to distractions. “I am a regular guy who loves to have a beer with his mates and play sport. But if you don’t believe in yourself no one else is going to,” he stresses.

“There are enormous distractions with email, social media, and chatting to others at the coffee machine, so I make sure I am disciplined when I am working. I have dedicated time to talk to staff and dedicated reading time as I’m a firm believer in reading to improve yourself. But when I eat dinner with my family, I switch everything off so that I am fully present.”

James will no doubt continue to solidify his position as a travel industry heavyweight in the years to come. But for now, his advice to others looking to grow their career is to work hard, follow your passion, and take opportunities. “Be prepared to be uncomfortable and make sure you can communicate with everyone in the company – from the CEO to the cleaner and don’t let age limit you,” he concludes.

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