Chewbacca. Dorothy. Those creepy Na’vi from Avatar. You’re likely to recognize those characters on the cover of this issue of PROFIT, although you’re unlikely to recognize the people who play them.
They’re not members of a theme-park theatre troupe or costumed revellers separated from their Halloween party. They’re employees of the company formerly known as Gap Adventures, which rebranded as G Adventures on October 1 after losing a trademark-infringement battle with U.S. clothing giant Gap Inc. (They don’t dress like that for a typical workday, but they did at the recent Gapstock employee retreat in Niagara Falls, Ont.)
You might also recognize the man in the middle: Bruce Poon Tip. Just shy of this magazine’s 30th anniversary, Poon Tip becomes the first entrepreneur to be the star of our cover story twice—and it has been only 3.5 years since his first appearance on the front of this magazine.
Back then, “Growth Guru” identified many of the practices Poon Tip used to develop his business from a startup funded by personal credit cards in 1990 into the world’s largest independent adventure travel company, with 2007 revenue of $87 million. Along the way, it made eight appearances on the PROFIT 200 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies.
So much has happened since that profile was published, just 10 weeks after Gap Adventures made headlines globally— although for the wrong reasons, when one of its cruise ships sank off Antarctica with 154 passengers and crew on board. (Thanks in no small part to unusually calm seas, no one was seriously hurt.)
Gap Adventures’ stellar reputation for creating once-in-a-lifetime experiences persisted, but Poon Tip soon took much of what he believed about his company and tossed it overboard. As Joanna Pachner writes in “The Gospel According to Bruce” (page 20), in mid-2008, Poon Tip suffered a crisis of faith in his company’s direction and his own leadership skills. Competitors had almost caught up, offering tours whose quality wasn’t noticeably different from Gap’s; employees were working more for themselves rather than for customers; growth opportunities were becoming less plentiful and less obvious.
It was, as Poon Tip puts it, “the summer of great despair.”
He soon discovered the source of the problem and its solution: company culture. Blech. Culture is an overused buzzword that distracts executives from what really matters—things like product and finance and sales. Right?
Wrong, Poon Tip would argue—and I’d back him up. Over the long term, the harmony of staff and a set of values that resonate with your marketplace —culture, in a nutshell—is the ultimate source of competitive advantage. It guides your people, defines your product and can’t be replicated by your rivals.
I am skeptical of anyone who claims to know how to create, refine and sustain a culture. Yet, Poon Tip appears to have cracked the code. Different cultures work for different companies, so Gap’s culture is unlikely to suit your firm. But there’s merit in Poon Tip’s principles.
Try them on for size. Trying on a Chewbacca outfit as part of the process is totally up to you.