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Canadian Travel Hall Of Fame 2024 Profiles: Michael Merrithew & Louise De Grandpre – Making It On Merit

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When both halves of a married couple work together in a business, how do they keep work and family separate? The answer is simple, according to Merit Travel founders Michael Merrithew and Louise de Grandpre: they don’t.

“Honestly, it’s not really possible,” says Louise, better known as LouLou. “We talked about our day at work and the industry every night at the dinner table, on the nights we could be together as a family. It was very much part of our lives.”

That goes for Michael and LouLou’s three sons as well, all of whom worked in the business in some form or another over the years. Eldest son Jason was handing out brochures at ski shows at the tender age of five.

Michael Merrithew and Louise de Grandpre

Michael Merrithew and Louise de Grandpre. (Photo Credit: Michael Merrithew)

“Our kids thought all parents worked together. When they would see neighbouring mothers and fathers leaving for work in separate cars, they would ask why they didn’t just drive together. And they thought every family had their own business,” says Michael.

The story of Michael and LouLou begins much earlier, in 1978, when they met while studying at the University of New Brunswick. LouLou earned degrees in Phys. Ed. and Business, while Michael achieved an undergrad Business degree, before later completing an MBA in Switzerland.

They both worked in the corporate world, with Michael bringing his sales and marketing skills to major companies of the time, including Xerox and Nortel Networks.

Michael Merrithew

Merit Travel is transitioning its leadership team as Merit Founders Louise de Grandpré and Michael Merrithew (pictured) have announced their intention to leave the company. (Photo Credit: PHOTO: Merit Travel)

Despite corporate success, Michael had the instincts and attributes of an entrepreneur. “I wanted to own my own business. So I started looking for something affordable to buy. We didn’t have a lot of money. I looked at all kinds of businesses, including a company suggested by LouLou’s father. It made casket handles, and I thought about it briefly – about 10 minutes – before deciding I wanted something more uplifting.”

While waiting for an appointment one day in 1991, Michael saw an ad in The Globe and Mail for Uniglobe Travel. “Be your own boss!” shouted the headline. Having done a fair bit of travel together including during Michael’s studies in Switzerland and a couple of years in the UK with Nortel, it seemed like an idea with potential.

“I called Uniglobe Eastern Canada and talked to a guy named Frank Dennis,” Michael says. “I thought, ‘this is a business guy,’ and I liked what I heard. Travel was already a big industry, and I thought it would continue to grow.”

Uniglobe Advantage was a Mississauga-based franchise whose owners John and Joanne Simons were ready to sell. “I always thought it was easier to take on an existing business and make it your own,” says Michael. “So buying a franchise with a group that offered lots of training and a strong owners’ association made a lot of sense.”

It was around that time Michael was introduced to Gerry Heifetz, a lawyer who specialized in the travel industry. “We got along incredibly well and he became an important mentor. He walked us through the purchase and helped us with things like IATA and TICO. He gave us incredibly valuable advice and we couldn’t have done it without him.”

Uniglobe Advantage was a typical Uniglobe franchise of the time, with a couple of full-time agents and one part-time, a business mix that was 85-90% corporate, with a bit of leisure sales. Michael quickly came to an important revelation: “Having travelled a lot had nothing to do with running a travel business.”

Louise de Grandpre

Merit Travel is transitioning its leadership team as Merit Founders Louise de Grandpré (pictured) and Michael Merrithew have announced their intention to leave the company. (Photo Credit: PHOTO: Merit Travel)

It wasn’t LouLou’s intention to work in the business with her husband, but that changed about three weeks in when an employee asked: “When are you going to pay us? ‘How often do you get paid?,’ Michael replied. ‘Well, usually every week,’” the employee said.

“I never really thought about payroll,” said Michael. “So I asked LouLou, ‘How do you do that?’ She said, ‘Just go to Grand & Toy and get a payroll book.’ ‘Could you do that?,’ said Michael. “So she did, and she never left.”

Michael soon realized that success in retail travel required critical mass. It could be achieved organically over time, but he thought the process could be sped up through acquisitions. Once again, Gerry Heifetz entered the picture. “He knew everyone and introduced us to so many people who were looking to sell.”

Wateraid

Merit Travel has committed $30,000 to WaterAid. (Photo Credit: PHOTO: Merit Travel)

Michael says making acquisitions was a key turning point in building what became Merit Travel, one of the largest independent travel companies in Canada, advising on and booking trips for up to 350,000 travellers per year, with annual sales of $2-billion.

“You could grow faster, with a better chance of profit. You could buy businesses with some money down and the rest paid over time. And the bigger we got, the more attention we would get from suppliers, with support and overrides,” Michael says.

Merit was an early adopter of niche specialization, including golf and ski packages and small-ship and river cruises. “We were selling a lot of European river cruises in 1996-1997, when coach tours were still the big thing,” Michael says. “Specializing gave us the potential for wholesale as well as retail sales.”

The 1990s were a time of growth and success for Merit Travel, and then came 9/11. The company still earned 75% of its revenue from corporate travel at the time, and business travel came to a virtual halt for about four months.

“That was brutal. But we kept everyone on at the same salary,” says LouLou. “That loyalty paid off, and our staff followed us. We had town halls before there were town halls. We’d huddle in one office and speak plainly and honestly about the challenges. It made a real difference.”

The next major milestone for Merit came during the recovery period from 9/11, when the owners of Just Vacations approached Michael and said they were looking to sell. Eventually, a deal was made, and Merit entered new territories of loyalty and affinity travel.

“Just Vacations did fulfillment for a CIBC points card, that led to the CIBC Aventura travel credit card. It became the single largest part of our business,” says Michael. The acquisition also included affinity accounts like the Canadian Association of Retired People, and a strong cruise agency. “It just turned out to be an incredible transaction,” says Michael. A later transaction brought student travel company TravelCuts into the Merit fold.

Private equity companies had come knocking over the years as Merit continued to grow. But for many years, Michael and LouLou “were tempted,” but not enough to give up control. “When you have a partner, no matter what the percentage, they have an equal say,” says Michael. “We had an amazing staff, and a private equity partner would want to cut staff when things got tough. We wanted to keep our staff and team together and just build the company.”

Providing employment for hundreds of Canadians is a point of pride for Michael and LouLou. “It’s an absolutely fantastic feeling,” LouLou says. “We had many two-income families with both parents working for Merit. I was the only person recruiting for a long time, and we were more of a family. When we acquired companies we wanted to retain the people and the clients. We wanted our people to grow with us. Our turnover was very low.”

Over the years, Michael shared his expertise with the industry in many ways – as a member and chair of the TICO Board of Directors, an ACTA Board member and chair and as a board member for the ASTA International Chapters Council.

Michael Merrithew

Michael Merrithew indulging in one of his passions. (Photo Credit: Michael Merrithew)

In 2016, after 25 years, Michael was beginning to think about taking on new challenges, while LouLou and son Jason were happy to keep performing their roles at Merit.

“Out of the blue, I had a call from a law firm that said they had a Japanese client who wanted to meet about potential areas of cooperation. They asked to meet in New York City, so I went by myself and there were a dozen of them around a boardroom table. We talked about our companies and got to know each other and I went home. Later the lawyer called and asked how the meeting went. I said it was interesting, but I wasn’t sure of next steps. The lawyer said: ‘They want to buy your company.’”

Michael said he wasn’t interested in negotiating multiples or EBITDA, so he just said: “Here’s the number.” H.I.S Travel, a large Japanese travel conglomerate, agreed.

“As a family we just said this was the right decision,” says LouLou. “There were lots of ups and downs along the way, our house was on the line along the way. And you never know what’s going to happen in the travel industry.”

Michael, LouLou and Jason stayed on for a time following the deal, and Jason served as President of Merit Travel from 2016-2018.

John Kirk, Founder and President of TravelPulse Canada and founder of the Canadian Travel Hall of Fame, has watched the careers of Michael and LouLou for decades.

Michael Merrithew John Kirk

Michael Merrithew and TravelPulse Canada’s John Kirk. (Photo Credit: John Kirk)

“I have known Mike and LouLou throughout my career in the travel industry. Their leadership throughout their careers has been selfless, and their contributions made through their roles on various boards, including ACTA, TICO, ASTA, are everlasting. Their contributions do not stop there. Their family has scholarship programs and bursaries in place at the University of New Brunswick in their family names and in Mike’s Fathers name. That’s just who they are.“

Michael, Louise and Jason continue to work together, in a family private equity and venture capital investment company with holdings in the travel & tourism, technology and real estate sectors.

Asked how they responded to the news of being inducted into the Canadian Travel Hall of Fame, Michael said: “There’s a lot of people who wouldn’t consider me to be easily humbled, but to be part of this is a real honour.” LouLou added: “We’re representing the people of Merit Travel. This honour is a reflection on the people who helped us get there.”


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