The owner of one of the country's biggest independent travel agents has saved 550 Thomas Cook stores from closure today - protecting hundreds jobs, just weeks after the travel agent crashed into liquidation.
Hays Travel founder John Hays and wife Irene have been hailed heroes of the high street, saving hundreds of branches, which would have otherwise been wiped from the high street in the collapse of the company.
Stores will now re-open under Hays branding - selling Abta and Atol protected holidays with help from former Thomas Cook workers.
But the firm's legacy dates back years.
The travel agent started as a one-off store at the back of John's mother's childrenswear shop, Peggy’s, in County Durham, in 1980.
Today, he's been hailed not just a hero in the travel world, but also one of Britain's best bosses, famed for his open garden parties every summer - and incredibly generous bonuses.
So much so that he's got a 78% CEO satisfaction score on recruitment website Glassdoor - with workers praising it as 'good for progression' and offering a strong 'benefits' scheme.
But what's so special about it?
In a move that echoes the Richer Sounds Model , John made a name for himself two years ago when the company hit the £1billion mark.
He marked the occasion by giving every member of staff a £100 bonus for each year of service.
This year, the couple threw open the garden of their Whitburn home to welcome hundreds of employees for a huge celebration.
The firm has been hosting an annual garden party for staff for decades, but this year’s event was the biggest yet, with 580 members of staff descending on John and Irene’s garden, where they enjoyed an afternoon of prosecco, a hog roast, and entertainment from cover band Foxx.
It also marked John's 70th birthday.
“We've been holding staff garden parties for more than 30 years now,” he said.
“It started off as just a BBQ in the garden for a handful of staff to say thank you for all their hard work.
“This year I still wanted to say thank you, but it was a slightly bigger affair, with nearly 600 people partying the afternoon away.
“I absolutely love seeing everyone enjoying themselves.”
And there was one particular highlight of the afternoon for music lover John.
“I felt particularly emotional when the band surprised me with a rendition of one of my favourite songs – Wonderwall by Oasis – to celebrate my 70th birthday that’s coming up,” he said.
“It was wonderful looking out seeing all the amazing people who I work with singing and swaying along.
“I feel very lucky and very proud.”
The Hays story
Now more than 40-years-old, Hays first made its presence on the high street in the year 1980, before opening a second branch in Vine Place, Sunderland two years later. By 1987, the firm had seven outlets.
A wider company - Hays Travel Independence Group - was then formed in 1995 and the firm introduced homeworking in 1997.
On Wednesday, little over two weeks after the collapse of Thomas Cook, Hays Travel announced plans to acquire a total of 555 Thomas Cook stores around the UK, providing re-employment opportunities for around 600 former Thomas Cook workers.
The company has already hired 421 Thomas Cook employees and has made further offers to dozens more.
David Chapman, Official Receiver, said: "I am pleased to announce we have reached an agreement with Hays Travel to acquire Thomas Cook’s entire UK retail estate, comprising 555 stores across the country. This represents an important step in the liquidation process, as we seek to realise the company’s assets."
Jim Tucker, at KPMG and Joint Special Manager of Thomas Cook’s Retail division, said: "This is an extremely positive outcome, and we are delighted to have secured this agreement. It provides re-employment opportunities for a significant number of former Thomas Cook employees, and secures the future of retail sites up and down the UK high street.
"We are pleased to have achieved this in a short time frame and in the context of a complex liquidation process, which is testament to a lot of hard work from a number of parties.
"Over the weeks ahead, we will work closely with Hays Travel and landlords to ensure a smooth transition of the store estate."
John and Irene Hays, Managing Director and Group Chair of Hays Travel Limited, said: "Thomas Cook was a much-loved brand employing talented people. We look forward to working with many of them."
TSSA General Secretary, Manuel Cortes, hailed the deal that will save hundreds of jobs.
"This is very welcome news offering real hope of reemployment to former Thomas Cook retail staff, many of whom are our members," he said.
“We have been clear from the start that Thomas Cook was a strong brand and that it was likely parts of the business would be able to move forward as a going concern.
“Throughout the industry the talent, commitment and skills of our members working for Thomas Cook was well known and I have no doubt they will bring the same dedication to Hays.
“We will now move swiftly to gather more details about the deal and are seeking an urgent meeting with Hays about the part our union can play in supporting what will be a significant expansion for them across our high streets.”