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Farelogix CEO Jim Davidson learned persistence and salesmanship from the imperfect contents of a blue suitcase that he lugged door-to-door in his Elmira, New York, neighborhood at age 8 with his dog, Lucky, at his side.
It was the 1960s and Davidson’s father, a pressman at Artistic Greeting Cards, would bring home birthday-card rejects that got battered or mangled when they got fed through the plant’s folding machine.
The elder Davidson, also named James, instructed his son that “you have to keep going back to make the deal,” and the kid-entrepreneur wouldn’t take no for an answer when peddling his product in the neighborhood.
“I would wait a couple of days if they said no and go back again,” Davidson recalls. “That instilled a lot of the spirit that you just keep doing.”
An instigator and proud
Davidson has done a lot of “doing” in the intervening years, and as one of the people trying to jostle the status quo in an-often recalcitrant travel industry, he’s going to need that persistence and drive.
CEO of Miami-based Farelogix and, somewhat counterintuitively, former head of Amadeus North America, Davidson is providing technology to help airlines change the way they sell tickets and other flight products to their customers, and along the way he’s had some well-chronicled run-ins with Sabre and some travel agencies that deeply desire to blunt new ways of doing business. (Other big travel agencies work with him, but they are reluctant to go public.)
Davidson’s Farelogix and many airlines want to personalize the way airline tickets are sold to frequent flyers, and he gives a verbal headshake as he realizes that even the hardware industry — meaning companies that sell screwdrivers and lawnmowers, not computing equipment — can seem like a beacon of enlightenment compared with the travel industry because of the conservative forces stifling progress.
The Lowe’s app tracks purchases so customers don’t have to remember the color paint they bought previously, Davidson says. “When a hardware company outpaces us, we’re in real trouble. Now Lowe’s is making us look bad.”
Lightning striking again
Davidson, a Miami resident who’s married with two adult children, often serves as a lightning-rod in the travel industry. He’s actually the kind of guy you’d enjoy downing a few brews with in a South Beach restaurant, but with a bunch of bobble head videos slamming the powers that be to his credit, many of his detractors would rather throw beers and darts at him.
Critics sometimes roll their eyes at the mention of his name, arguing that he’s in the pocket of the evil airlines. Davidson and his supporters, they charge, are trying to render comparison-shopping for a flight across different airline sites as difficult to decipher as airport codes to a neophyte.
“One of the things I learned from my father is that none of this is personal and when it is personal, you cross a major line,” Davidson says.
A fun-loving and affable guy, albeit very annoying to his entrenched competitors, Davidson is nothing if not passionate about his views and where he thinks the travel industry needs to be heading.
It all stems from the journey that took Davidson from Elmira, and selling his father’s skewed greeting cards, to facing off against travel industry heavyweights who tried to put Farelogix out of business.
Railroad roots for the guidance counselor
People in the travel industry would be shocked to learn that Davidson started his career as a guidance counselor, working with underprivileged kids, after earning a masters in business administration from Western Carolina University in 1979.
Davidson’s grandfather was a railroad engineer, and the grandson at one point wanted to land a career in the railroad industry, but wiser minds talked him into pursuing opportunities in other parts of the transportation industry.
Instead, he ended up working at OAG in Chicago in the late 1980s after having written a college thesis and making a presentation to Piedmont Airlines executives about the hub-and-spoke system, and where the airline should focus expansion efforts.
Davidson became president and CEO of Amadeus North America in 1998, but left two years later when a business school friend faxed him a picture of $1 million check, the proceeds from a startup. It wasn’t just about the money, though.
“He told me you got to get into this Internet thing, but Amadeus wasn’t very interested in the Internet,” Davidson says.
Push came to shove
Davidson says what some many perceive as his combativeness, “grows out of necessity.”
In 2005, Davidson was hired as president and CEO of Toronto-based travel distribution company Farelogix and, like Lebron James, he took the company and his talents to Miami. The necessity to fight came about as Farelogix was providing airline data to large travel agencies, and then Sabre terminated an agreement that imperiled the survival of Farelogix by cutting its access to the Sabre system.
Sabre played bully when it perceived a threat, however small, to its market clout.
“No one likes getting stepped on, and getting stepped on sometimes brings out the best in people,” Davidson says. “When we decided no one was going to come to our rescue, we decided to take it [the fight] on ourselves.”
A humongous carphone in a Subaru
An early adopter of technology, purchasing clunky carphones for a Subaru, fax machines and mini-laptops, Davidson is a bundle of seeming contradictions.
He was en route yesterday to Washington, D.C., and then to Capetown, South Africa, for an IATA conference after speaking with Skift, but the travel industry veteran hasn’t taken a real vacation in years.
“Ten years ago I took a two-week vacation,” Davidson recalls. “I got so far behind at work that I got freaked out.”
Although he takes long-weekend getaways, sometimes for a self-appraising “think,” Davidson lives in one of the cruise capitals of the world, and has never taken a cruise. He did dine once on docked cruise ship with Carnival Cruise Lines icon Bob Dickinson, its former longtime CEO, but that doesn’t count toward a cruise-sailing credit.
What went wrong?
What does count is Davidson’s sometimes-frenetic efforts to nudge the travel industry forward. But, how did things get so stale?
“On the whole, our industry doesn’t attract the fresh talent,” Davidson says, noting that the airlines are struggling with merchandising to passengers and sometimes don’t have the personnel to get it done. “We tend to swirl a lot and we don’t tend to bring fresh talent into the industry.”
Part of the problem is that the airlines, which tend to drive industry trends, were struggling for so long that they didn’t have money to reinvest.
Then there’s the dominant players, such as Sabre and Travelport, that have asserted control over the distribution marketplace, in Davidson’s view. “This has probably inhibited outside investment from coming into the market,” he says.
But, with airlines becoming profitable and putting resources into improving the customer experience, Davidson “sees, in fits and starts, how things are opening up.”
On the course and seldom off the record
And, that keeps Davidson motivated and going.
There are parallels in all this with Davidson’s golf game. As with almost everything, he doesn’t mind being politically incorrect, and he rarely backtracks or takes a reporter off the record.
Davidson says he plays golf a couple of times per month, and “sucks at it,” adding, “I have a woman’s high handicap.”
He knows there are certainly plenty of women who can kick his butt in golf, but he won’t withdraw the quote.
“I move along,” Davidson says of his time on the links. “I don’t spend time looking for a lost ball that clearly is not findable.”
And, that’s reassuring in some ways because by implication, Davidson wouldn’t waste his time trying to change an industry if he thought it wasn’t changeable.