The founder of Hays Travel has died after collapsing while working at the company’s head office in Sunderland.
John Hays, 71, who started the travel firm in 1980, was married to co-owner Irene Hays.
The pair were praised in October 2019 when they prevented thousands of former Thomas Cook staff from losing their jobs by purchasing all 555 of the collapsed tour operator’s UK travel agencies.
Hays Travel said in a statement: “It is with the deepest sadness and regret that we have to announce that John Hays, the founder and managing director of Hays Travel, died today while doing the job he loved.
“John, who with his wife and co-owner Irene Hays bought the Thomas Cook retail estate a year ago, was at work in the company’s Sunderland head office when he collapsed.
“John built Hays Travel into the UK’s largest independent travel agent providing jobs and careers for thousands of young people over 40 years.
“Throughout this past difficult year he did everything in his power to save jobs and protect the travel industry.
“He was held in immense respect by his staff, colleagues, family and friends and was recognised throughout his life for his many achievements.”
“He was equally proud of his loyal staff who, under the direction of the board and senior management team, will ensure that the business continues to serve the customers of the UK’s largest independent travel agent as he would have wanted.”
More than 7,000 people are employed by the firm, which had a turnover in excess of £1 billion in 2018.
Mr Hays was a former vice-chairman of Sunderland AFC, and was awarded the freedom of the city in 2016.
The football club said in a statement: “John was a champion of the North East and the city of Sunderland. Our thoughts are with his wife Irene, his family and his friends at this time.”
Mark Tanzer, chief executive of travel trade organisation Abta, said: “We were shocked and saddened to hear this afternoon’s news that John Hays has passed away.
“John was a major figure in the travel industry over many years, and created one of the industry’s most successful companies.
“Hays Travel is a longstanding Abta member, and John was known to many of us. Our thoughts and sympathies are with his wife Irene and his family, colleagues and friends at this very sad time.”
Derek Jones, chief executive of luxury travel company Kuoni, said: “John was an inspiration and a true legend of the industry, but more importantly he was a great friend.”
Sunderland City Council leader Graeme Miller said in a statement: “John and his company are household names across the North East and the Hays brand is well respected across the country, and across the travel industry.
“He built up a major high street presence, a national and international brand from a room in his mother’s shop and this took dedication, drive and determination.
“He was always very loyal to Sunderland and the North East as the company kept its roots here, its HQ did not move to the City of London, it remained in our city centre, and hundreds of Hays employees are based here.”
He added: “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.”