HRG deal complete, Amex GBT's CEO talks next steps

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Two of the world's largest travel management companies have become one. American Express Global Business Travel last Thursday completed its 410 million British pound takeover of Hogg Robinson Group to create a TMC that handles a combined $36 billion in annual transaction value. The mega of all megas now has mega integration work ahead.

Integration of the two organizations, their people and their technology has begun in earnest.

"The real work starts now," Amex GBT CEO Doug Anderson said in an interview. "We've done a lot of planning, but planning is a desktop exercise."

The new company named Amex GBT executive vice president of traveler care Joanna Macleod as chief transformation officer "to facilitate the successful integration of the companies," according to Amex GBT. Meanwhile, HRG COO Bill Brindle joined Amex GBT's executive ranks as COO. Already announced, former HRG CEO David Radcliffe has joined Amex GBT's board.

"We'll be working hard on three primary objectives around bringing together our complementary global footprint, our highly complementary tech stack and then the best of both in regards to our people," said Anderson. "My principle around this from the beginning has been to find the best of both organizations and bring them both together so we end up with one plus one equaling three or four or five."

Anderson spoke with The Beat (a Travel Weekly sister publication) to address integration and next steps. Below are some key areas.

Timing

How long does a complex integration of the people, systems and operations of two large, multinational organizations take? Anderson wouldn't commit, saying only: "It will not be done in 2018, but I think there will be visible changes in the organization and our face to the market that will be visible immediately. This will take some time. I'm not going to put a date on it."

Technology

Each of these TMCs operates a variety of technologies -- internal tech stacks to carry on their daily operations, as well as client-facing technologies in the realm of mobile, data reporting and booking.

A common theme in Anderson's remarks was "best of both," and that applies to technology. "Already, company leaders have undertaken a technology review," he said. "We intend to harmonize or consolidate onto best-of-both platforms for front office, mid-office, back office on the internal and operating side and also on our client-facing technology. The longest time line of activity will be around the products and technology because we're deployed in the field with independent technology stacks."

He continued: "As we make those decisions, we'll be in communication with clients, making sure that they're comfortable with any changes we want to make. Our objective is to offer up a set of solutions and services that are as good as or better than what they have today."

People

When the deal went public in February, Amex GBT estimated that job cuts would decrease the combined workforce by 6% to 8% once fully combined.

"We're in a growing environment right now with strong client retention, so we will lean, I believe, toward the lower end of that range or maybe slightly lower than the lower end of that range," Anderson said.

For the 12 months ending March 31, 2017, HRG employed an average of 4,360 people per month for that fiscal year, according to its most recent annual report. Amex GBT, meanwhile, has stated it employs around 12,000.

Asked what employee groups are most likely to see cuts, Anderson said "support areas: not areas that support clients but areas that support functions and infrastructure," he said.

He gave accounting as one example: "When you think about supporting the accounting system, we'll move to a single suite of back-office technology to support accounting and other functions and we'll need to support one rather than two systems. That's where some of those reductions will come in, and you can think about similar opportunities across other support areas. We'll also have some opportunities where we have overlapping client management."

Meanwhile, Amex GBT has lined up a senior management team, said Anderson, as well as the next level down.

Prior to the deal's completion, "we haven't been able to make formal job offers. But we have had those discussions and do know who is going to be in those permanent roles in the first two levels of the organization."

Geographic reach

Expanded geographic presence was among the rationales for the deal. Amex GBT picks up a few new wholly owned locations, while the combined network opens up several new wholly owned locations for HRG clients in the long run. They number by the handful, not by the dozen, said Anderson.

"Our geographic footprint will expand," he said. "We have proprietary business in some markets where HRG today has partners, and HRG has proprietary business in some markets where we have partners." Anderson further noted that in markets that rely on affiliate partners, the combined company will explore "where it might make sense to take equity or ownership" and bring on additional wholly owned locations.

In addition to bringing on new locations, Amex GBT strengthens its presence in multiple markets: "HRG is bigger than we are in Canada, for example," he said. "We're bigger than they are in the U.S. There is complementary scale in several markets in Europe."

New Distribution Capability

Amex GBT has espoused a view that NDC stands for "not direct connect," highlighting its preference for global distribution system-based distribution, not one-off application programming interface connections to individual carriers. HRG, on the other hand, has demonstrated at least some desire to hook in content directly from airlines. IATA has certified the latter as a Level 3 NDC-certified travel seller.

"The rich content that the airlines want and are starting to distribute under the NDC initiative is an area that GBT has been interested in pursuing," said Anderson. "HRG is farther along the path on NDC, but our strategy around NDC is highly complementary. We're working hard and will continue to work hard to give clients access to full content regardless of source. We've both invested in channels to drive omnichannel platforms."

Amex GBT's multi-source content-aggregation system is called Content Hub, HRG's is called OneView. HRG's website describes OneView as its content solution that "will enable us to access NDC content across GDS, aggregator and direct channels and ensures that customers have more choice while offering our suppliers more channels to market."

Where HRG already enables direct connections with airlines for individual clients, "we'll continue to support those relationships and support those clients. We're not going to walk away from those client commitments."

Anderson also noted: "As is the case with the other technology investments, we'll pursue a best-of-both strategy around NDC. On the back of HRG's work around NDC, I can see us accelerating our adoption going forward on a combined basis. That is separate and distinct from direct connect."

Branding

A "work stream" is underway around future branding of the combined organization, said Anderson. Don't expect the HRG name to immediately go away. "The HRG brand and logo will continue to exist, and it will be underpinned with a tagline: 'This is an American Express Global Business Travel company,'" he said. "We'll leave the HRG brand in place for the foreseeable future." Beyond that, "we'll be looking at brand strategy going forward as we work through this integration."

Messaging to clients

HRG and Amex GBT come together each with its own set of client relationships, contracts and obligations.

"They will see no change initially," Anderson said of current clients. "We'll focus keenly on delivering business-as-usual service in both organizations. We want to retain our clients, and both companies have high retention rates in previous years and year-to-date this year. As we start to harmonize technology, we'll have discussions with clients around changing platforms where it makes sense."

Supplier relations

Amex GBT's and HRG's combined travel transaction value is unrivaled by any other TMC.

"Our scale will deepen our relationships with our supplier base," said Anderson. He said Amex GBT vet Mike Qualantone will continue to run supplier relations for the combined company.

"We'll be working hard to bring added value to the supplier base," said Anderson.

When Amex GBT renegotiates with hotels, airlines and others on contracts "will more or less line up with existing contract terms, but we're looking at that as an opportunity for our supplier partners to deepen their reach and distribution across the client base."
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Source: The Beat

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