The co-founder of the Lonely Planet trekking bibles now wants to change the world in a different way.
Maureen Wheeler was at a motel in Katherine, in Australia’s Northern Territory, when she received the call from BBC Worldwide.
In town for a Tourism NT board meeting, she’d left her motel room for the courtyard in the hope of better phone reception.
The courtyard was a mess – rubbish, broken chairs and a few rowdy people. “Hey love! Talking to your boyfriend are you?” roared one as she answered her phone. This was not the kind of environment where you’d expect to be making multi-million dollar deals.
The nature of that phone call is now common knowledge. BBC Worldwide made an attractive offer to buy Lonely Planet, the global travel publishing company Wheeler and husband, Tony, had started in 1972.
The resulting sale took place in two parts – A$140 million for a 75 per cent stake in 2007 and a further A$67 million for the remaining shares when the Wheelers exercised their put options four years later.
The BBC went on to sell the business last year to US company NC2 Media at a loss of almost £80 million (A$145 million). But what is less publicised is the deeply personal loss Wheeler had experienced.
“Selling Lonely Planet wasn’t something I ever imagined we’d do,” she says.
“It was really precious to both of us. It was an emotional experience I thought I’d never get over.”
"Any quirky idea that comes to you that you like the sound of, don’t worry about how big it’s going to get. Just have fun with it." – Maureen Wheeler
It took a strong nerve to negotiate the sale of the world’s largest travel publishing company.
But Wheeler has never lacked confidence. Growing up in a housing estate in Belfast where most girls were getting married at 16, having babies and trying to find a house close to their mother’s, Wheeler had ambitions further afield.
“It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy there, it’s just that it was small and I knew that the world was bigger than Northern Ireland,” she says.
Wheeler knew from a young age that the only way to get on in life was to work hard. Her father died when she was young and, as the eldest of three children, she was greatly relied on by her mother.
“Growing up in a house where I was treated as an adult and expected to pull my weight, I didn’t lack confidence,” she says.
“I was always bossy. I had to look after my mum and my sister and brother, and I took charge of things very easily.”
This was evident in her dealings with the BBC. Wheeler has never had patience for long-winded negotiations.
“I said to them that you could have access to three senior staff and to this amount of information about our business and you can do that for eight weeks,” she says.
“At the end of eight weeks, if you have satisfied yourselves that you want to buy the company, you’re going to offer me a price and if it’s a good price then I will give you an exclusive to do this deal. But if it’s a silly price, I’m going to walk away.”
The price was serious enough, but the process that followed was not to Wheeler’s taste.
“It was long, drawn out and absolutely ridiculous,” she says.
“The BBC put Deloitte on it and at one stage they told me an entire floor of its company in Sydney was working past midnight on the deal. It was ridiculous because Tony and I weren’t going to be difficult. We knew what we wanted and I think in the end it was a real learning curve for the BBC and Deloitte because they were used to people making all kinds of silly demands and padding out the contracts.
"The whole thing took about eight months. They went through everything with a fine-tooth comb, as of course they should do, but a lot of it seemed very unnecessary. Anyway, in the end the deal was done.”
The beginning of Lonely Planet is a well-told story – two newlyweds who followed the hippie trail from England across Asia to Australia, put together a travel guidebook in their kitchen in 1972, sold it to friends, spruiked it to booksellers and eventually built a multi-million dollar publishing empire.
When her two children, Tashi and Kieran, began school, Wheeler committed herself full-time to the development of Lonely Planet. She brought great passion to the role, but the fun began to fade in her final five years in the business.
The push into digital publishing was becoming stronger and although Lonely Planet had been producing digital content since the launch of its website in the early 1990s, it was not a major source of revenue.
“It became evident after a while that no matter how many millions of dollars you put into it, there wasn’t that much revenue coming back from it. I think even today that’s the major problem – how do you monetise the investment that you have to make to use digital technology well?
"I think a lot of companies struggle with that and we certainly did.”
There were many elements of the business that caused frustration along the way.
One of them was the notion of branding. “After a while, it became famous at Lonely Planet that you weren’t to use the word ‘brand’ in front of Maureen,” says Wheeler.
“I remember when people started throwing the word around in our management meetings – ‘What does our brand mean?’ – and I looked at them all in horror. Jesus, they’d been working here all those years and they had no idea now what it means. What are they talking about!
“I still think it’s a terrible way to think about your business. It’s like when they started calling our books ‘products’, I was heartbroken. Of course they’re products, but when you start to think about things in this very objective way I think you’re losing the passion for what you do.”
Wheeler has little time for marketing.
“I think marketing is the biggest waste of money. All you’re trying to do with marketing is figure out what people want and then give it to them. What an entrepreneur really does is figure out what people don’t even know they want. You figure out something they don’t have and you give it to them. And that’s what we did with Lonely Planet. Marketing, to me, is just nonsense.”
After the BBC sale, Wheeler left Melbourne for London. She bought a house and devoted her focus to its renovation.
“After about 18 months or two years, I realised that I quite liked my new life,” she says. “But I missed work. I realised how important it had always been to me.”
And so she set about creating the next chapter in her life. To the tune of £3 million, the Wheelers have endowed a chair in entrepreneurship in the developing world at London Business School, where Tony Wheeler completed his MBA.
“There’s not a lack of entrepreneurship in the developing world,” says Wheeler, “but often at a certain level there’s a lack of ability to be able to move onto the next stage. Working out what helps people get to the next stage for their business is one of the things that this chair is trying to support.
"It never occurred to me that I could be very wealthy or that I would reach a stage in my life where I didn’t have to work. And when it happened it took a lot of working out.”
The pair also remains committed to humanitarian projects. The Planet Wheeler Foundation
, which started as the Lonely Planet Foundation in 1987 but is now a much larger operation, funds about 80 projects that support the welfare of women and children in the developing world.
“It continues to operate much as it did when it was the Lonely Planet Foundation, only it’s now much bigger because we’re not tied to whatever our profits are,” Wheeler explains.
Current projects include funding a school in Tanzania, a campaign in Laos to bring basic health to remote areas, and clean water projects in Ethiopia.
“We’re also getting involved in a project with the University of Melbourne that researches how oxytocin can be administered via a nasal spray to women in developing countries.
Oxytocin is generally given by injection to help women stop bleeding after childbirth. Very often, women in developing countries bleed to death after childbirth as there are not proper conditions to keep the drug in order that it can be injected.”
Although a philanthropist herself, Wheeler believes that corporate philanthropy today often amounts to little more than window dressing.
“It’s become fashionable to talk about corporate philanthropy. Once a [corporation] decides that it’s going to be part of their corporate image, they start looking at it in the same way as they look at their business, which is ‘What do you get out of it’? My own feeling is that too many corporates view philanthropy as just another marketing tool.
“They hand out these glossy brochures with a couple of pages on how they see their role in the community and how they’re going to give back and how they take it very seriously, and then you actually look at the figures or how it’s being done.”
The Wheelers were applauded when they backed a Melbourne-based project, The Wheeler Centre, when it was still in the concept stage. The centre is devoted to books, writing and ideas and was the centrepiece of Melbourne’s successful bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature. The Wheelers made a generous but undisclosed endowment, meaning less government funding was needed, and the gift was nominated by Pro Bono Australia
as one of Australia’s 50 Top Philanthropic Gifts.
Wheeler’s new life also includes travel. She doesn’t have a favourite destination but maintains a keen interest in Asia, the region she and Tony journeyed through on their way to Australia back in the early 1970s.
Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler (right) in
Bangkok in 2002
“I think Asia has always looked to Europe and America as where they had to measure up. I can’t talk for all of Asia, but certainly some parts have become more confident in their own abilities and in their future,” she observes.
“I think China is part of that confidence. They may worry about what China’s intentions are, but I think that overall Asia is emerging as a whole and it’s being driven by this huge progress that China has made.
“We’ve been to China many times to launch Lonely Planet books in Chinese. When we did a tour to launch our biography in Chinese – it was a best-selling book in Beijing and Shanghai – it amazed me but they loved Lonely Planet and they loved the Lonely Planet story.
“And we went around to the colleges again like we used to do in Europe and America all those years ago. We got huge audiences and they would stay there and talk. We had translators because none of us speak Chinese. And what struck me was how great the young Chinese were.
“They were incredibly enthusiastic and excited about the outside world. They reminded me very much of the young Americans that we used to talk to in colleges – that 1970s generation of young people who suddenly realised that the world wasn’t confined to their country and that they could go to weird and wonderful places.”
Back at the homes she and Tony share in Melbourne and London, Wheeler occasionally ponders new business ideas.
“I did come up with an idea,” she laughs. “I thought the one thing Baby Boomers can’t control is their funeral, so we should do virtual funerals so they can choose everything they want online, because they’re control freaks.
“I wouldn’t do it because I think it’s too morbid. But I think any quirky idea that comes to you that you like the sound of, don’t worry about how big it’s going to get, just have fun with it and see what happens.”
What I've learned
This article is from the August 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.
- Keep passion in your work. “Do something that you’re passionate about. It used to horrify me, all these people who’d come to buy Lonely Planet, all these venture capitalists [would speak of] a three- to five-year window on a business – get it, build it up and then sell it for millions. Most people could probably make a business look good in three to five years – you just cut everything out that doesn’t make a profit and after three years it’s probably going to drop dead anyway. So find something you love to do.”
- Be flexible. “You have to be flexible. You have to be able to listen when someone has a better idea than you have. And if it sounds like fun and you think that it has merit, you have to be flexible and nimble enough to take opportunities and be a bit fearless.”
- Look at the bigger picture. “Always look at the big picture and that doesn’t just mean your business. You have to have respect for people who are buying your idea, respect for the people who are working for you, respect for what you’re doing.”