A family tragedy three decades ago ended up fuelling Kay Rogers' drive to immerse herself in the travel industry, where she has become the well-respected head of a multi-award winning agency.
This month she and her business partner of the past decade, Catherine Membery, relaunched their Bay of Plenty travel company under the new YOU Travel brand as part of the First Travel Group. In doing so, they ended their many years of trading under the United Travel banner.
Ms Rogers' early years showed no sign that she was destined to become managing director of a company employing 29 staff and generating $20 million in annual revenues from its offices in Bethlehem, Katikati and Mount Maunganui.
She was born in a taxi between Matangi and Waikato Hospital and brought up in Taupo. She much preferred sport to academic studies and left high school to work for a local accounting firm as a clerk, rather than for tertiary study.
"I spent many years before entering the travel industry mostly working in accounting jobs," she said. "I quite enjoyed the numbers game, but I didn't feel like it was something I was going to do for the rest of my life."
She relocated to Tauranga in her early 20s and began a lengthy stint working in the accounts department of the company set up by Bob Page and George Macrae, now the Tauranga engineering giant Page Macrae led by George's son Iain.
The firm's accountant suggested she take up some supplementary work doing the accounts for a small Mount Maunganui travel company that had the United Travel franchise. She ended up moving to a full-time role there and had just made the shift from the back office into the travel consulting side of the business when tragedy struck. The older of her two sons died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 16.
"It was a significant event in my life, and it changed the way I looked at my long-term future," she said.
"My travel career had just started and work for me became a haven because I could go and be absorbed in selling people wonderful holidays. It allowed me to get away from some of the trauma I was experiencing. I threw my heart and soul into it."
In 1996, she and three other women working at the agency bought the business out from the franchise owners.
"We did very well," she said. "The reason I am able to talk with confidence about the travel business is because I learnt it from the ground up."
Eventually, the other shareholders moved on and she became the sole owner and grew the business, adding an office in Katikati.
She became friends with Catherine Membery, the owner of Stars Travel in 11th Ave, Tauranga. Ten years ago they agreed to form a business partnership. Stars had specialised in corporate business, while United Travel brought a retail and marketing element.
They moved the former Stars Travel branch to Bethlehem eight years ago and 18 months ago moved to new premises with double the space.
"We decided a partnership would be advantageous to both of us," Ms Rogers said. And it had been, she added, to the point that people sometimes referred to them as sharing the same brain because of the complementary way the two equal shareholders run the business.
Ms Rogers focuses on marketing and the travel consultancy side of the business, while Ms Membery has a passion for the nuts and bolts of finance, administration and IT, although she also trained as a travel consultant. They overlap in some areas, including HR and strategic decision-making.
Ms Membery said the partnership worked because they looked after different parts of the business.
"We cross over on a lot of things, but we both have our core roles and we keep to them," she said.
"They are our strengths and what we enjoy doing; that's probably the key to it. We're not clashing or competing on anything. My background is in travel consulting, but my passion is more about the running of the business these days. Whereas Kay's passion is the travel - she loves selling travel to people."
And Ms Rogers loves travelling. She has been to some 70 countries and continues to service her own group of travel clients. Long-time customers Doug and Brenda Leigh said her service was exemplary and her recommendations spot on.
"She is great to deal with, friendly and capable. We know that we can rely on her to do the job."
Teresia Fors, managing director Australia and New Zealand for Viking Cruises, described Ms Rogers as a trailblazing travel agent: "She has successfully made the transition [from a small] to a robust and viable company.
"Our industry is known for its passion, but it takes real skill and vision to be able to harness that energy and build a thorough corporate structure, operating based on long-term strategic planning. Kay's achievements are recognised across the industry and she is a natural role model for anyone wanting to make a career in travel."
Rebrand took two years to finally complete
United Travel's rebrand under the YOU Travel label was two-plus years in the making.
Originally a privately-owned business that operated as a buying operation for a group of some 40-plus independently owned travel agencies, it became a public company over time with Australian-dominated ownership and management.
"The Australian owners wanted to create a bigger footprint in New Zealand by merging United Travel with another local travel brand and call us both by a completely different name," said Kay Rogers. "They also wanted to write a full franchise agreement that would have put us under their control. We said no."
They opted to find an alternative company to partner with. After almost two-and-half years, 37 of the 42 former United Travel companies opted to join New Zealand travel co-operative First Travel Group.
First Travel Group has been in operation for 18 years as a shareholders co-operative model, but did not have a street front branded retail operation. The new business was relaunched as YOU Travel, and United Travel was voluntarily liquidated at the end of March.
"It's really been a long journey, but we are feeling so relieved and comfortable with the choice we have made," said Ms Rogers.
Andrew Bowman, First Travel Group's managing director, has known Ms Rogers for 20-plus years.
"She's really passionate and committed about what she does - she lives and breathes it," he said.
"Kay's one of those people - as is Catherine Membery - where they arrange customers' travel as if it was for themselves. Some commentators have felt that travel was a bit of a sunset industry, but it's going through a real renaissance because of the service provided by agents like Kay and Catherine. It's all about experiences, and that is difficult to emulate with a computer."
* Role: Managing director and co-owner, YOU Travel Bethlehem, Mount Maunganui, Katikati (formerly United Travel)
* Born: Waikato, New Zealand
* Age: 63
* First job: Accounts clerk
* Recently read: Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandala.