John Hays, managing director of independent travel agency chain Hays Travel, has been given Sunderland’s highest civic honour after being awarded the Freedom of the City.
Hays opened his first agency in the back of his mother’s clothing shop in Seaham, County Durham, in 1982.
He opened his second shop, in Sunderland, where the Hays empire has its headquarters, and has since grown the business to one with an £800 million turnover. It is the largest private sector employer in the city.
The honour is bestowed upon a highly valued member of the community or visiting celebrity.
Hays, who was honoured alongside former Sunderland Football Club goalkeeper legend Jimmy Montgomery, said beforehand that there would be a “strange irony” about the ceremony.
“My wife, Irene, was recently asked to go back as chief executive of Sunderland City Council. So I don’t really know what’s going to happen on Thursday, but Irene has already had a rehearsal for it, in full wig and gown.
“I’m delighted to be recognised by my city in this way. It’s the most proud I’ve ever felt in my life.”
Hays Travel opened its fifth shop in the Leeds Bradford area last week and will open a further six in the region in the next two months.
The chain, which acquired Bath Travel in 2013, also opened two new stores in the southwest, in Exmouth and Chard, and will open a third, in Tiverton, this week.
More shop openings are planned in the second half of 2016.
Hays said the company had employed 100 extra employees this year and had taken on more than 200 apprentices.
Asked for his views on Barrhead Travel chairman Bill Munro recently announcing he was also looking to open shops in the Leeds Bradford area (Travel Weekly, May 5),
Hays said: “I’ve lived with competition all my life. It’s just how it is.
“But we have done everything we said we would and we are rolling them out pretty fast.”