A FORCE FOR GOOD hub | Penny Spencer’s Inspiring Story, Be brave, you will never regret it!
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Penny Spencer’s Inspiring Story, Be brave, you will never regret it!

Penny Spencer – Managing Director – Spencer Travel
Powerhouse Penny Spencer is one amazing entrepreneurial female who really epitomises the word BRAVE for all of us in the Travel Industry.

Penny Spencer, Managing Director of Spencer Travel, would be among the first to agree that entrepreneurs are not born. And what better case study than herself?

Penny started her own business at the age of 32 and has never looked back. She now has 80 staff with five locations, a 24/7 after hours solutions business and a total turnover of $55 million. “You grow into one through your learning and by being inspired by others you see doing it,” Penny tells Jito.

Until you spread your wings you have no idea how far you can fly

Growing up in New Zealand, Penny was drawn to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a nurse. And that’s exactly what she did, starting her career in Christchurch. But it didn’t take long for her to realise that this wasn’t the right path for her – just eight months in fact. She got up and left after an exam then simply never went back.

At just 18 years old, she decided to spread her wings and booked a one-way ticket to Australia. Penny landed in Brisbane and began making her way around every travel agency looking for a job – even offering to work for free.

One travel agency took her offer up and she worked there for six months stamping brochures for free while working nights as a cocktail waitress to pay the rent.


Find your voice

It was here Penny learnt her first lesson as a female in the business world – the importance of speaking up.

After six months, Penny approached the owner and asked if there were any other jobs she could learn to do in order to get paid.  “I didn’t realise you were still not being paid,” the owner replied. “What do you want to do? Ticketing? Sell holidays?”

Say Yes to Adventure

If you don’t ask, you never advance – an important lesson!

Penny worked at the agency for a while before heading off travelling. Then it was time to give Sydney a try. At the age of 20, she landed a job working for Atlas Travel, specialising in Pacific Islands.

“I worked as what they call a ‘Girl Friday’,” Penny tells Jito.     “I ran around the city getting passports, sitting on reception – it was great learning. I really learnt everything from the ground up.” Her next move was to World Travel HQ which was family-owned.

“That is where I met most people in my life – many of them became mentors and lifelong friends,” she reveals. Starting as a domestic consultant, Penny worked on the News Limited account looking after Lachlan Murdoch’s unaccompanied minors bookings. “I had some great accounts,” she says. “I was really working really hard and started to understand the level of service you had to give for those sorts of clients.”

The next step up was to become an international consultant’s assistant. Penny spent her time typing itineraries and ringing hotels for her colleague Maggie, which she loved because she learnt so much. Maggie who she learnt from then, now works for her!

“Not everyone aspires to be a leader – some people are happy being top senior consultants and are the best in their field, just like Maggie,” Penny says. Ursula King Travel was the next stop for Penny, where she spent seven “fantastic” years.

“She was a female owner and I was really inspired by her running her own successful business,” she recalls. “That got me thinking that this is something I really want to do myself eventually.” At the same time, Penny was involved with the Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA), really getting stuck into the industry and networking. “I was a sponge,” she says. “I craved knowledge and I just learnt as much as I could.”

Only those that risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go

Penny left Ursula King to help start another business for four years where she took on the role of business development manager for four years. “It was very new to me and another great learning curve but after four years I decided I really wanted to go do this myself,” she says.

‘I was 32 years old and I got married and started a business in the same year,” she says.

Starting with just herself, one other consultant and a part-time book-keeper, they rested their computers on phone books. It was the early days of the Internet and they would check emails once in the morning and once at night.

“Oh, how times have changed,” Penny laughs. “It was pretty tough though as I didn’t know anything about running a business.    I knew how to do my job, but nothing on how to grow a business.”


Your wings already exist all you have to do is fly

Penny describes those early days as “brave but flying in fog”.

“After one year, the business was growing and I needed to employ staff so I needed to learn how do I do that, and I didn’t know anything about what to do about a P&L,” she admits. To address these gaps in her knowledge, she joined a mentor program operated by the New South Wales government and Westpac which helped her make some realisations.

“All the clients wanted to deal with me and I realised I could not deal with all the clients and run a business,” she says. “I had to employ people that I could kind of clone.”

With a few new tricks of the trade under her belt, growth came rapidly. By year five, she was doing up to $10 million worth of business which Penny puts entirely down to word of mouth. But she wasn’t out of the woods yet. “Understanding financials was my biggest challenge, so what I did was hand it all to an accountant,” she recounts. “I thought that job is done, I don’t need to worry about that any more. But I came to realise the year before he had ripped me off for $100,000.”

Penny quickly realised that she needed to understand financials so she could have a handle on everything. “That was very painful as $100,000 back then was a huge amount of money to our business, but you learn by your mistakes,” she says.


Intuition is your Super Power

It has taken 18 years to learn to manage people and get the culture right, Penny tells Jito. But she admits she still hasn’t perfected it. Now she makes sure that she hires people based on their values, ensuring they align to the company values.

It’s not just talk. Penny admits she made many wrong hires by not listening to her gut instincts and by sometimes being too slow to fire staff who had damaged the business. But she has learnt to listen to her intuition and now her interview process includes a values questionnaire.

“Creating the right culture is all about values, having an open door policy and communication so we use Tiny Pulse which is a software that allows staff to provide anonymous feedback,” Penny explains. “We do that fortnightly and we listen – it helps us adjust and improve and it gives everyone a voice.”

A mother of two, Penny continues to be an avid learner and gives back continuously to the industry through her Travel Industry Mentoring Experience (TIME) program that she has been proudly operating for over six years.

Embrace your inner lion, she says, and you will never look back!

Penny Spencer

  • Be brave – you will never regret it.
  • Treat people the way you would like to be treated, especially staff.
  • Know a little about a lot – know what each job involves.
  • Take risks, if don’t make mistakes we don’t learn and grow. It is a great feeling when you step out of the comfort zone and achieve!

Article written by JC – Inspiring Greatness Early 2017.


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