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He was born Thomas Thomas, but he’s just plain Tom to everyone who knows him in this business.
We’re talking about the Founder and Owner of Perth, Australia off-airport retailer Gateway Duty Free, who has decided to retire this year after 28 years running his own business.
This Wales-born Australian is one of the great characters, true gentlemen and pioneers of our channel, all wrapped into one.
He has been in the duty free business all his working life, from the age of 17 when he took a job with the Navy Army & Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) in the UK, a role that took him to Gibraltar, Malta, Singapore, Hong Kong and Aden.
In what must surely be a unique claim to fame in this industry, Tom says: “I have managed duty free shops on cruise liners and car ferries as well as onboard aircraft carriers and destroyers.
“I have sold duty free goods in Heathrow Airport as well as Perth Airport and – most satisfying of all, in my own Gateway store (below) in Perth’s Murray Street Mall.”
In 1968 he joined the Trusthouse Forte’s new shipping division and spent a number of years managing ships onboard various Fred Olsen and Chandris Lines vessels. The picture below shows him onboard the SS Australis, 40 years ago.
In 1977 the great love affair with West Australian duty free began when he worked as State Manager for James Richardson at Perth Airport. In 1980 he opened Gateway Duty Free and a proud family saga in the annals of travel retail history began.
But it hasn’t just been a family success story – Tom has given enormously to the industry, contributing vast amounts of voluntary man hours (and even more commonsense) to the Australian Duty Free Association, of which he has been a board member since 1996 and President since 2003.
Now, at the age of 65 – as our top picture shows, life in the sunny climes of West Australia has kept him frozen in time looking about 42 – he is stepping away from it all. He thought of selling his business; had offers in fact to buy it.
But Tom Thomas is Gateway Duty Free and he was not confident about passing his heritage on to new owners with different motivations and styles of doing business. So he’s just closing the store – lock, duty free stock and barrel.
Partly it’s because he wants, in his own words, to “smell the roses” and spend more time with his lovely wife Lynley. Partly it’s because he is “battle weary” from years of fighting external crises (the Bali bombings, SARS) and, more recently, battles with the regulators for the very survival of the off-airport business.
The LAGs issue, potentially crippling to Tom’s sector, was the final blow. Government promises to assist by introducing dispensations were not kept and Gateway’s liquor sales – so crucial to the business – went into sharp decline.
“Devastating” is his choice of word to sum up the impact. Within weeks of the LAGs legislation being introduced, sales of spirits, wine and fragrances were off by -40%.
And so Tom is saying ‘enough’. “I have no confidence in the future of the Australian off-airport industry,” he says.
So let’s salute this great servant of the business, a straight-talking, free-spirited entrepreneur who calls a spade “a bloody shovel” and is always around to help others.
He never turned down a request for an interview or discreet guidance on tricky legislative or trading issues and was always good value at industry conferences due to his straightforward style.
Let’s hope he rethinks his decision not to attend the TFWA Asia Pacific show in Singapore in May as he deserves the swansong that a whole lot of people want to give Thomas Thomas – so good they named him twice.