Getting to know you: Ajaya Sodha

What do you currently do?
I am non-executive Chairman and founder of Key Travel, a travel management company specialising in the non-profit sector. We work with over 2,000 non-profit organisations including Oxfam, Save the Children and World Vision. Our clients also include church groups, international aid and development organisations and academic travellers. 
I started the company in 1980 and formed a strong board in the last few years to enable me to work on strategy rather than day-to-day management. I have grown the business from a small, two-man operation which was something of a ‘bucket-shop’ for tickets, to one of the top 50 travel agencies in the UK that employs over 150 talented staff across five offices in three countries.
I also play a role in industry bodies. I am on the Executive Board of the Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC) where I am currently Vice Chairman. I am the Chairman of the Air Working Party, a member of the Regulatory Working Party and represent the GTMC on the UK Air Passenger Joint Council. I am also a Board Director of the Guild of European Business Travel Agents (GEBTA) which has its secretariat in Brussels.
I am also a school governor and keen golfer – and a Spurs fan!
What is your inspiration in business?
I wake up each morning determined to deliver greater value for money to charities. Serving charitable causes is a source of great satisfaction and I am always pleased that my staff and I are doing our bit for society. There is no better feeling than ending a hard day’s work knowing that our actions will have helped charities deliver their aid and support to the neediest people around the globe.
Who do you admire?
There are so many people who I admire, from those who are innovative, such as Steve Jobs at Apple, and those who create great companies where staff are treated well, like Bill Gates at Microsoft, to social entrepreneurs like Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank and social workers like Mother Teresa. They are, or were, all passionate about what they do and in many cases worked hard against all the odds.
Looking back, are there things you would have done differently?
Everything evolves at the right time. I don’t think some of my ideas would have occurred earlier and, even if they had, I wouldn’t have had the maturity to act upon them. I look back with satisfaction that things have worked out well and have no regrets. 
What defines your way of doing business?
The key is to develop values that everyone within the business can get behind. In the case of Key Travel, our values are to be caring, clear, open, passionate, bold and trusting in everything we do. These are not just words we stick into sales literature – we use them as part of our daily life. All staff appraisals are carried out with these values in mind. We even run incentives for staff who are able to demonstrate these values.
I didn’t wake up one morning and discover that these were the values I liked. Instead, I discovered them from talking to my staff. These are values that they felt were important to them.
We put our customers at the heart of what we do. We service the charity sector but we also endeavour to support them in other ways too. 
Every year we invite charities to apply to be our Charity of the Year and then put a final shortlist to a vote by Key Travel staff. This year we are supporting Action Against Hunger, a wonderful charity that does very valuable work in preventing child malnutrition. 
Environmental responsibility is also an important principle and we are delighted to have recently achieved ISO 14001 certification in recognition of our high standard of environmental best practice. 
This includes regular environmental audits, the use of energy efficient computing platforms, electronic invoicing, a comprehensive recycling system and a sustainable sourcing policy for office supplies. We also have a ‘carbon calculator’ on our website which allows clients to evaluate their impact on the planet and yes, we also suggest ways they can offset this!
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Believe in your product or service. Passion is central to any start-up. Temper it with good business planning but don’t let that constrain you. It’s important to talk to stakeholders – customers, suppliers and staff – regularly. You will be surprised at how many good ideas they will bring to you! Some ideas might focus on improving the existing product, others about new products or new customers. My first customers were religious organisations.
They recommended us to charities through their close connections and from there we became involved in the academic sector. Our products and services have evolved over the years as client needs have changed.
Create a company you would be proud of, even if it is just a one man band. Efficient, profitable but with a soul!