"How I went from £1m to £46m in 9 years" – ferry boss Matt Davies


Direct Ferries boss Matt Davies tells Asa Bennett the benefits of mastering your niche

Matt Davies has some ferry good numbers to trumpet.

His first year as director of Direct Ferries saw 450% turnover growth to £1m (he took over operations of the three-year-old business from his father in 2002). The company grew by 700% over his first two years.

Last year’s turnover hit £46m – and he’s looking forward to even greater heights.

Not bad for the family-run ferry-ticket search engine and booking website, which works like a sea-faring equivalent of Go Compare – without any fat Italian opera singer.

Given Direct Ferries’ storming success, I caught up with Matt at his Farringdon HQ to find out more.

How did you come to be running Direct Ferries?

It was a family business. My father was always involved in transport.

In 2000-2002, he started selling ferry tickets for passengers on non-commercial lines [i.e. passenger ferries]. I joined the company just before 2002.

My father is about 30 years older than me so not really an e-commerce internet person. At the time, we started with non-commercial stuff, and it was when the internet was growing. Fortunately for us, when we started doing [e-commerce], no-one was doing it. That is why there was such big growth in the first year [that I was boss].

What does Direct Ferries seek to offer?

We’re like Go Compare, an aggregator. We sell tickets generally at the same price the ferry companies do, but people can compare them.

How are you doing now?

In 2002 we turned over £1m. We’ve grown every year by at least 13%… but of course the growth has slowly but surely got less and less.

Last year, we had £46m in turnover. This year? We’re still growing.

Have there been any rough patches?

It got a bit difficult when the recession hit, but one of our strengths is that we’re not just selling to the UK market, we’re worldwide.

We’re in 19 markets, so obviously the recession hit most places, but some countries were still strong. On top of that, what we sell isn’t really a luxury travel item.

If anything – I don’t want to say we benefit from recession but it’s not really a bad thing for us.

How does your company make money?

Commission on the tickets we sell. Our systems have a direct connection to the ferry companies’ systems. In most cases it is the same as someone sitting at the ferry company’s office and booking you in.

About 90% of sales are online, which has grown over the years.

How far does your network reach?

We’ve got 1,200 routes. We go to everywhere in Europe, as far north as Iceland and as south as North Africa.The furthest west would be the Canary Islands and east would be St Petersburg.

Do you get a perspective on people’s travel habits?

In difficult economic times, people have started to use less expensive routes. People are gravitating towards the cheaper services.

The route that most people seem to know about is Dover-Calais. I should think in 2007, only 10% of our UK business would have gone through there, but now it’s about 25%. It is substantially cheaper than other routes to France.

It’s hard to say how solid the movement is because we’ve not had a bad year yet… touch wood! We had our worst growth last year, and that was 13%, so it’s difficult to know what’s going to happen in the next few years because we haven’t had a bad year.

Do you have many competitors?

When we started selling ferry tickets, a lot of travel agents also tried to sell tickets. There were a few companies that sold only ferry tickets and there were a few companies that sold ferry tickets with camping holidays and “self-drive” holidays. Over the years, they’ve either gone bust or have been bought by other companies.

So Direct Ferries is in a niche?

I’d say so. It’d be very difficult for anyone else to try and get in there. Other companies that have tried generally haven’t grown very quickly, haven’t been able to find that place in the market…

We’re fortunate as we have quite a large turnover so we’ve got quite reasonable buying power. Other companies wouldn’t have the database we have, or the reach.

Great, thanks for your time Matt!