Bruce Poon Tip: capitalist with a conscience

Trinidad-born Bruce Poon Tip exposes travellers to adventures around the world with his Great Adventures People company

A group of explorers at the Great Wall of China. Photograph courtesy GAP AdventuresEgyptian family adventure. Photograph courtesy GAP AdventuresExploring Antarctica among the penguins. Photograph courtesy GAP AdventuresGalapagos wildlife up close. Photograph courtesy GAP AdventuresGAP Adventure founder Bruce Poon Tip. Photograph courtesy GAP AdventuresPeruvian family adventure. Photograph courtesy GAP Adventures

Like Mary Poppins, Bruce Poon Tip is practically perfect.

That’s certainly the impression you get, talking to the people who surround him. Perfect husband, perfect father, perfect son, perfect employer. Fairly young, very good-looking, and oh yes, let’s not forget rich. Very rich indeed.

Rich but not greedy—Poon Tip, besides being a phenomenally successful businessman, is also a quiet philanthropist who is determined to give back to the communities on which he’s built his success. He’s a capitalist with a conscience. And one who’s been honoured by more awards than you can count using fingers and toes. Just thinking about him is enough to give a normal person a raging inferiority complex.

And yet Bruce Poon Tip is as regular a guy as you’ll ever meet: matter-of-fact, unassuming. Not the slightest trace of pretension mars his friendly greeting, and it is obvious that Armani is not his habitual workwear. Instead, his lanky frame is comfortably clad in jeans and an open-neck shirt. His office employees appear similarly relaxed.

But don’t be misled into thinking that “relaxed” means “slack”: GAP (Great Adventure People) Adventures, Poon Tip’s revolutionary adventure travel company, is one of the most respected businesses in Canada, a pioneer in its field and a model in every possible way.

Launched in 1990, almost literally out of a backpack, GAP now employs almost 500 people worldwide, and generates Can$100 million in gross annual sales. Not bad, for a little Trini boy who started off raising and selling rabbits in his Calgary backyard.

Bruce Poon Tip was born in Trinidad 40 years ago, but he didn’t stay there long. His parents, Lelia and Elsworth Poon Tip, moved to Canada when he was very young.

In Calgary, Elsworth went into business, running an Esso gas station, but, Lelia says wryly, “He wasn’t that successful, let’s put it that way.” Bruce himself, in another interview, has affectionately described his father as “the world’s worst businessman”.

Despite (or perhaps because of) such infertile ground, Poon Tip’s business abilities manifested themselves at an early age. By 12, he had two newspaper routes, which he sub-contracted out to younger children. He was also raising prize-winning rabbits, and hiring out their stud services. At 13, he wrote a book about caring for rabbits, and sold it to local pet shops. And when he was 14, he won a Junior Achievement gold medal for his innovative business idea: creating colourful bookmarks out of temperature-sensitive material, he sold more than 10,000 in his first year.

That was probably the turning point. “I was successful, and determined to start a business,” says Poon Tip.

“I really viewed myself as unemployable very early,” he explains. “I’ve only had two jobs (one of them at McDonald’s) and was fired from both.” Apparently, the teenager’s attitude was a problem. “I was considered a trouble-maker.”

After high school, Poon Tip enrolled in business school in Calgary, but also became lead singer in a band that called itself, almost masochistically, Modern Exhibition. Deciding to seek fame and fortune in the Big Pond, the band moved to Toronto, where Poon Tip also intended to complete his business studies. Modern Exhibition does not appear to have posed a serious threat to the Rolling Stones, so “As time went on,” his mom shrugs, “he had to have a job, to eat.”

He worked in a travel company, and it didn’t take him long to decide that he could do it his way, and better. After a trip to Thailand in 1989, backpacking and living by the “$15-a-day” guidebooks that were the Bible for youthful adventurers, Poon Tip says, “I developed my philosophy of what I wanted to do.”

His idea was to offer a grassroots travel experience, “totally counter to the mainstream”, which, at that time, was all about luxury cruise ships and coach tours. He wanted to focus on the type of travel that “put people in touch with people”: a cultural experience that involved interaction rather than exploitation. He envisioned using local transportation and small guesthouses, instead of isolating his travellers in air-conditioned buses and five-star hotels. Long before “eco” was a buzzword, Poon Tip was determined that his business should not be detrimental to the places he visited: his groups were, and remain, very small, maintaining strict standards of conservation.

Organised “adventure” travel might be the trend these days, but back in 1990, the idea of hauling tourists around on Third World buses was considered outrageous. Moreover, the first Gulf War was in full swing: there was little confidence in travel as a growth industry. So when the 22-year-old backpacker approached the banks and venture capitalists with his business plan, he was politely shown the door.

A more sensitive soul might have given up in despair, but Poon Tip is made of sterner stuff. He calls it “internal confidence”.

“When I come up with an idea of what I want to do,” he says, “I get very passionate about it.” (That’s another word that everyone seems to use to describe him, from his wife to his employees.)

Against his parents’ pleadings, he plunged headlong into his dream, maxing out his credit card for seed money. His own travels had taught him that politics, even wars and terrorists, will not deter true travellers: “The adventure traveller is one who will change where they go, but they’re not going to stop travelling. They’re addicted.” It was an addiction he intended to feed.

GAP’s early trips, to the jungles of Ecuador and Belize, and the Galapagos islands, were researched by Poon Tip and a friend. They did a lot of “guerrilla marketing”, giving talks to “anyone who would put a group together”—mainly university students. Response, he says, was lukewarm: “People still did not understand what we were doing.”

Their first expedition managed to scrape together six customers; today, a mere 15 years later, GAP services 45,000 travellers a year, running 1,000 trips to 100 countries, on every continent. In 2004, the company purchased a small, rugged expedition ship, the Explorer, to offer tours in the Arctic and Antarctic.

GAP’s growth has been exponential, and throughout, Poon Tip has been a hands-on leader, never one to sit in his office dictating memos. His relaxed yet rigorous management style has paid off big-time: both he and his company are the recipients of awards too numerous to list. Poon Tip has twice—in 2002 and again in 2006—won an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award; he’s been listed among Canada’s Top Forty Under Forty; this year, he was honoured among the Asian community as Chinese Entrepreneur of the Year.

As for GAP, it has twice been listed among Canada’s 50 best-managed companies and Canada’s Top 100 Employers, in recognition of its exemplary workplace environment. Lelia Poon Tip says her son is “tough to work for, people tell me; he has high expectations of his employees. But he’s very good to them, very generous with them.” In terms of perks and benefits, GAP has also been recognised as one of the ten best companies for employing young people.

But undoubtedly, the accolade that means the most to Poon Tip is the Ethics in Action award, which his company won in 2001, in appreciation of its responsible, respectful approach to tourism. Poon Tip believes in low-impact tourism, benefiting the host country as much as the travellers. Local guides are trained and employed, local accommodation is used, local customs are respected. Groups are seldom larger than 12–15.

But merely acting responsibly was not enough for Bruce Poon Tip; he felt the urge to give back. So in 2003, he founded Planeterra, a private non-profit foundation dedicated to raising money to fund a raft of community projects in some of the places GAP visits. It might seem a contradiction in terms, a non-profit organisation being run by a for-profit company, but it’s a synergy that works amazingly well.

Soliciting donations for Planeterra from its customers, as well as through various fundraising events, GAP matches all money collected, dollar-for-dollar, and covers all of Planeterra’s administration costs. This allows every penny raised to be directed to about 30 projects that include housing street children in Ecuador, building community schools in the Amazon, and a women’s weaving project in Peru. Conservation projects to save rainforests or wildlife species also receive funding.

“Because we’ve always been so community-based,” Poon Tip explains, “it made perfect sense to give back to the community where we, as a company, have made money taking.” He refuses to see himself as a philanthropist: “I just believe in a right and wrong way to live, karma, all that stuff.”

And, since he remains unabashedly a businessman, he has found a way to interweave Planeterra’s mission into GAP’s. As the foundation’s director Danielle Weiss explains, Planeterra projects “have to be in an area where we operate, so our travellers have the opportunity to visit them.” The Peruvian women, for sure, are happy to have a buying public delivered to their doorstep; and the visitors get to observe a traditional art form, from beginning to end.

GAP is also developing “volunteer tours”, on which travellers spend part of their vacation working with a community project. Exclaims Weiss, “Bruce is a visionary; he comes up with these amazing ideas, and it just seems that everything he touches turns to gold.”

If “unorthodox” is the word that best describes Bruce Poon Tip, it pales to inadequacy when applied to his wedding, seven years ago. Poon Tip met his wife Roula in 1996, at a party. In her words, “When he walked through the door, my heart fell down to my stomach.” When they decided four years later to be married, a straightforward ceremony would have been too much to expect of this renegade groom.

“We got married in the Amazon, and it was quite an adventure,” recalls Roula. To get to the spot where the ceremony was performed—a lodge “in the middle of nowhere”—55 guests (all the lodge could hold) had to travel by rented planes, then trucks, then river-boats; then they had to hike into the bush, then canoe to the lodge.

Since Roula’s family background is Greek, an Orthodox priest was also subjected to this marathon, to perform the ceremony. Then the local villagers performed a tribal wedding ceremony, in honour of Bruce and his commitment to responsible tourism. “You really should see the video,” Roula enthuses.

Like just about everyone else, Roula Poon Tip is totally blown away by her unconventional husband; she can’t say enough good things about him. “He has very good-natured, human qualities,” she lists. “He’s cultured, travelled, very kind…

“At work, he’s probably the most passionate, hardworking person I’ve ever met; he’s strong-willed and determined to make a change to people’s lives, in his lifetime.”

On the personal front, “He brings out all my best qualities; we kind of complement each other. He’s a great husband, my best friend.” And as a father to their two young daughters: “He’s such a wonderful dad—he totally makes that a priority.”

Did I say perfect? Only for lack of a better word.