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Travellers make Lonely Planet their key to freedom

18 May 2006 | Megan Wahr | No Comments

I entered Lonely Planet noticing a huge box of thongs bound for East Timor. The young surfer at the switchboard phoned through that I had arrived and I was led to Maureen's small windowless office. Two things caught my eye, a photo of Maureen with the Dalai Lama and several cards with love heart decorations. It felt warm. "I'm not here all the time, so it made more sense for me to only have a small office," Maureen told me when I expressed surprise at her meagre space. I asked her about Lonely Planet's beginnings. Ingenuously she answered, "I didn't think it would succeed."

Lonely Planet began in 1973 when Maureen and her husband Tony arrived in Sydney with just 27 cents in their pockets after travelling around Asia. They wrote a backpackers' travel guide which they typeset, sold, promoted and distributed themselves. They attended trade fairs, book fairs, travel shows and talked to everybody. In 1980 they published their book on India - a big investment that made them a lot of money. They took on staff, a partner, had their first child and realised their business could really work. Now a mother with traditional ideas, Maureen was finding it harder to travel. She was stuck in hotels breast feeding while Tony raced around taking notes. At home she picked her children up from school, put them to bed at six and then worked at night, "If you really don't want to spend time with children why bother, why not stay childless and get on with your job?"

Establishing Overseas and Become an Industry Leader

In 1983 the Wheeler family temporarily moved to the United States to establish their American base. It was stressful, put-ting huge amounts of money in and not getting much back but it all paid off - they now have 500 staff around the world and produce 500 titles. The company sells over three million books per year and 90% are exported around the world, in fact, 85% of overseas travellers coming to Australia carry a Lonely Planet book. Turnover has doubled in the last three years to $55 million.

Lonely Planet is the only independent company of its size publishing travel guides. Penguin Books publishes some, but travel is only a section of its company, and there are some very small independent travel publishers. Ongoing success is attributed to Lonely Planet's total focus on travel information. New products include its website which attracted 8,000 hits in its first month, in-flight videos and a possible television series. People are constantly surprised that their company, being so successful, is Australian.

Maureen really enjoys her work. "I've got great people with great ideas. I get to choose which projects they do and they go and do all the work." She is involved in all the decisions for change or growth but not so much the day-to-day running of the company. Tony and Maureen keep on top of their market by travelling two to three months a year, mostly backpacking. Maureen never flies first class and doesn't stay at Hiltons. Raffles Hotel, yes, or the Peninsula in Hong Kong but most of the time it's mid-range accommodation where she meets real people.

Staff - the Most Vital Part of the Company

For Maureen, staff are the most vital part of the company. You have to be prepared to take on board what they think and listen to them. If staff feel that what they are doing is worthwhile and have a sense of pride, they're going to want to do the best they can do. Profit sharing, bonuses and gym mem-bership are just some of the facilities and perks at Lonely Planet. "If you don't have good staff then forget it," explains Maureen.

Why Lonely Planet Will Not Go Public - Maureen never wants the company to go public.

"I would not work in Lonely Planet if I did not have control. I find it disgusting - a business being run on the basis that the people who own it, but don't work in it, can dictate the fact that it lays people off or whatever. To me the whole thing of doing anything is to create something, not just profit. Profit for us dictates what we can do next year, what projects we can get involved in, fun things we can do. For Maureen, "The last 26 years have not been about accruing a house or two houses, or three houses. I have a house in Richmond, not Toorak, but Richmond. We each have a car. Tony has a Ferrari because he had always wanted a Ferrari, I have an Audi because that is sensible. I have some nice clothes and jewellery and that is the extent of my possessions." Her big extravagances are a personal trainer four times a week and the ability to be able to travel all the time. Some rings up, invites her away and she can say yes. Admittedly, she takes a Lonely Planet book and checks facts, but for the first time in her life she is free and loving it.

Survival Tactics - What if it all Went Crash

We talked about what would she do if it all went crash. She mused that it would be different, "I would salvage some-thing from here, so I'm not starting from scratch. I would be looking at a business that I could contain, keep my freedom." She wouldn't put 26 years into something again nor be responsible for so many staff. "That's another reason I would never go public. I would never want to be responsible to shareholders for what I do when their only interest would be money."

The Future

She doesn't see her children taking over, it isn't something she has considered. It perturbs her that her fiftieth birthday is in February, but she can't imagine not working. "What would I do?" she asks.

"I don't have great plans, I don't have great concepts of what's going to happen, I live very much on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, I dislike plans. Even when Tony and I go travelling, until recently we never booked the first night's accommodation." She likes throwing out ideas of what could be done, possibilities and hates sitting down, working out how to pay for it, how to manage it. "That sort of thingbugs me and Tony's even worse.

"If Tony and I could be seen as doing anything very smart it would have been jumping on possibilities as they hap-pened, realising something was potentially a good thing, and being flexible and prepared to take risks. If you try to do things the safest way, apart from being very boring, I think you miss out on huge opportunity. You've always got to be prepared to take risks and at the same time be flexible to change and if the thing isn't working drop it."

3 Key Pieces of Business Advice

  • Don't do it for money. If money is the motivating factor you may make money. It isn't that hard to make money. I think it is far more important to find something you enjoy doing. Have fun. Life's too short. At the end of the day when you're 70 or 80 living in a great big house and you've got this great big car what damn good is it if all you've ever done is work all your life to have it. Don't make money the motivating factor for anything you do. Make it the enjoyment of what motivates you the money will come later.
  • Be prepared to work extraordinarily hard. That's why it has to be fun, because if you're working 12 hours a day or more, which we do sometimes, it's got to be enjoyable or else it's a hell of a waste of your life.
  • Be flexible

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Megan Wahr

Megan Wahr founded the Australian Businesswomen's Network (ABN) in 1989. She is currently a full time mother and continues to contribute to the ABN.

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