He was a “giant” both in business and in life – and who died doing the job he loved.
Now tributes have flooded in for John Hays, after the Hays Travel founder’s shock death at the age of 71.
During his glittering career, the Sunderland entrepreneur turned a business started in his mum’s kid’s clothing shop into the UK’s biggest independent travel retailer.
Friends and associates have remembered a man who was a true champion of the North East, creating jobs at a business that is one of the region’s great success stories.
“The world lost an exceptional man today,” said Paul Callaghan, of the Leighton Group.
Hays Travel announced on Friday that Mr Hays died after collapsing at the firm’s head office in Sunderland “while doing the job he loved”.
Footballers and TV stars have since honoured a legacy which extends beyond the business world.
Among them, Niall Quinn, who was a member of the Drumaville consortium which bought Sunderland AFC back in 2006.
The former striker, who became chairman with Mr Hays acting as vice-chairman, said: “Players have teammates in the dressing room, and when I became chairman John was my teammate in the boardroom.
“He was there alongside me every day, for no other reason than because he loved the club.”
Others who have reacted to the tragedy include ex-Black Cats manager Peter Reid, and TV stars George Clarke and Steph McGovern. The latter said he “was one of the good guys in business”.
And it is the business world where John made his biggest mark. His firm grew so much that, a year ago, he and wife Irene bought the Thomas Cook travel agency after it went bust last year.
His passing has left the region’s business community numb.
James Ramsbotham, chief executive of the North East England Chamber of Commerce, said he had known John for over 30 years.
“This tragic news goes far beyond Hays Travel and will be sorely felt throughout the North East business community.
“John established a great company that did so much to help so many people over the last 40 years.”
That included jobs and apprenticeships for thousands, while Sunderland University bestowed an honorary doctorate of business administration on him in 2010, in part due to his lifelong commitment to supporting enterprise and philanthropy – especially in his home city.
“John was an outstanding businessman and someone totally committed to the city of Sunderland,” said the university’s vice-chancellor Sir David Bell.
The Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliot, added he was a “true champion of all things Sunderland” while Sunderland College recalled how in his own time, he would visit Travel and Tourism students to pass on his wisdom.
His love for Sunderland resulted in the freedom of the city being bestowed on him back in 2016.
“Whether it was promoting apprenticeships or his involvement with Sunderland AFC, John was a player in the life of our city as he remained very true to his roots and his community responsibilities,” said Sunderland City Council leader Graeme Miller.
“Our thoughts and sympathies go out to his wife Irene, family, his many, many friends, and everyone at Hays Travel.
“The death of John is a great loss to everyone in Sunderland, to the region, and so many people across the country and the world.”