Thomas Cook risked failure without the leadership of interim boss Sam Weihagen, the group’s chairman said on Wednesday.

In a speech to shareholders, Thomas Cook chairman Frank Meysman said Weihagen and chief financial officer Paul Hollingworth “grasped a very difficult situation and led us through some really stormy weather where others would probably have failed”.

Weihagen took over as acting chief executive in August following the resignation of Manny Fontenla-Novoa after a third profit warning in 12 months triggered a loss of confidence among investors and collapse in Thomas Cook’s share price. Weihagen previously ran Cook’s successful business in Scandinavia.

The group was compelled to negotiate new credit facilities at the end of last year as it fought to survive. In December it announced a substantial write down in the value of its UK business.

In a trading update and results for the first quarter issued on Wednesday, Cook announced an increase in seasonal losses but better-than-expected booking levels in the UK.

Meysman, who joined the group four months ago, said: “Sam was the right person at the right time. He has bought me sufficient time to run a thorough search for a future chief executive officer.”

Addressing the group’s annual general meeting, Meysman said: “I’m not interested in who took which decision, why and when. The main point is we understand how we got to where we are in order to avoid it happening again.

“There is a clear need for change and action. The economic environment is not running in our favour. The consumer continues to change . . . Our balance sheet needs change, and we need a different company culture.”

Meysman said the group strategic review underway would “indentify which core assets need to be built upon and which peripheral activities need to be eliminated or strengthened”. However, he said Cook “will not tread down the path” of “a fire sale of core assets”.

He confirmed that bonus payments to senior executives would in future be subject to deferral and clawback, following widespread criticism of the bonuses paid to Fontenla-Novoa – agreed when Thomas Cook was a FTSE 100 company.

Meysman said a first round of interviews for a new chief executive had been completed and he expects to make an appointment by the end of March.

Weihagen told shareholders: “Today you find us doing well despite the difficulties we went through at the end of last year. While winter remains challenging, we are encouraged by how bookings are developing for the summer. In the UK we have broadly maintained our market share for both seasons.”