John and Irene Hays, the couple from Sunderland who rescued Thomas Cook, are the acceptable faces of capitalism. Even the most ardent Left-winger would be pushed to take exception to the pair.
As self-made entrepreneurs from north-eastern mining stock, they built up their company, Hays Travel, into one of the UK's leading travel businesses and have created a small army of jobs.
They are the antithesis of the cynical, get-rich-quick merchants who infest the City. Everything about them speaks of stability, sound good sense and old-fashioned values.
Saviours: John and Irene Hays have stepped in to rescue Thomas Cook from oblivion
Their company last year broke through the £1 billion sales mark, but they live modestly. They both drive 12-year-old cars, and haven't taken money out of the business for 11 years, preferring to invest it all back.
Irene could easily afford to be shod in Manolo Blahniks or Louboutins, but when we meet she is wearing block heels from Marks & Spencer.
A couple of years ago they went on one of their own holidays along with their customers, and ended up working.
'We read about this trip to Vietnam in one of our brochures and we were inspired,' says John. 'We told the team we really fancied it and they said, 'OK, you can go, but can you lead the group?' '
It's refreshing to hear anecdotes such as this when the image of corporate Britain has taken a ferocious battering over the past couple of years.
Firms have been riven with uncertainty over Brexit, threatened with tax increases by Labour and hit by rows over executive greed, including at Thomas Cook where former bosses were slammed for their enormous rewards.
The high streets of Britain, where the Hays have their expanding empire of travel shops, have seen a string of well-loved retailers fall into administration.
But then along come John, 70, and Irene, 65. Not only did they save Thomas Cook after it fell into the hands of the Official Receiver, they seem to defy every dispiriting orthodoxy about modern British business.
They bought all of Thomas Cook's 555 shops, swimming against the tide of internet holiday booking. On top of the 1,800 existing staff at Hays they are taking on many of Thomas Cook's former employees, 2,345 of whom have applied for a job, along with 675 people from other organisations. They recently launched an appeal for a further 1,500 staff and apprentices.
And the Hays have certainly won the gratitude of Thomas Cook staff who would otherwise have faced an anxious Christmas. It could almost be turned into the script for a feel-good movie, along the lines of that festive favourite, It's A Wonderful Life.
All very cheering – but why do they believe that their formula will succeed? 'We believe tech can go so far,' says Irene, 'but holidays are a major purchase and an emotional one. You are selling people dreams, so they want to interact with a person.'
There's more. Unlike many firms which are addicted to borrowing, the Hays are debt-free.
'We have never had any debt – never,' says Irene. 'It's our northern roots. When we were asked questions about how much debt would we need for the Thomas Cook deal, we said we didn't need any. They reframed the question because they thought we hadn't caught on!'
John adds: 'Not having debt means we are in a better position to deal with it if there is a downturn. Thomas Cook had so much debt. Servicing it meant that they had to make £48m before they did anything.'
Loyal staff is another part of their recipe, with many of their shops staffed entirely by people who started as apprentices.
The pair seem to be perfect examples of caring capitalism. So do they think the attacks on business and capitalism by the Labour Party are unfair?
'We're not getting political, but capitalism has had a bad rap,' says John. 'We are capitalists, unashamedly. We say we expect to make a profit, because if we don't we will let the staff down. Profit is not a dirty word. How are we going to create jobs and apprenticeships and give to charity if we are not making a profit?'
John and Irene may not quite be rags to riches but they have certainly worked their way up.
Both their fathers were miners and they were raised in pit villages in the North East. That instilled them with rock-solid principles, including a ferocious work ethic and a lack of pretension.
They are warm and friendly, but you can sense the steel beneath. Neither of them is anyone's fool.
He wears it lightly, but John won a scholarship to study maths at Oxford.
Anyone arrogant enough to try to take advantage because of those lilting northern accents would soon find out their mistake.
John, who is the managing director, set up the business in 1980 in the back of his mother Peggy's children's clothing store. Irene, who now works full-time as chairman, had a long career in local government. They have five grandchildren and four children, one of whom, Caroline, works in the business as head of communications.
'All of them have worked here at one time or another,' says Irene.
The couple live in Whitburn, a little village on the coast about three miles away from their new headquarters, which is in a square at the end of one of Sunderland's windswept shopping streets.
The Hays are being heaped with praise for saving Thomas Cook, but are aware of the risks and satisfied themselves they weren't biting off more than they could chew. 'We couldn't destabilise a very good company, which we had, by taking on something of this magnitude without very serious thought,' says Irene.
'We were not planning it until Thomas Cook went down on 23rd September,' she adds. 'We did the deal at seven minutes to midnight on October 8th, so there was not a lot of time.'
The couple worked around the clock at a circular table in John's office and decided to bid for all 555 stores just three days before the deadline.
'We have done deals before so it was the same procedure. We worked through it piece by piece, stress-testing the impact on the business,' John says.
'Because we went through it forensically, we didn't have doubts or worry we had done the wrong thing. We know it is a huge responsibility to our existing staff and Thomas Cook staff. We are heroes now but we know that could change in a minute. We live locally and we have to look people in the eye if something goes wrong.'
The pair have recently returned from a sales managers' conference in Turkey, where they both put on Hays Travel uniforms and served snacks on the plane.
'We weren't very good as cabin crew,' says John. 'Well one of us wasn't,' Irene interrupts. 'We had apprentice badges on and we weren't allowed to serve hot drinks because of health and safety.'
At Christmas the two of them are going to Kolkata, followed by a trip down the Ganges and a week on the beach in the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. John says: 'We will have a week lying on the beach. Just the two of us.'
It will be a brief break before the work starts again in the new year on one of the most audacious and heart-warming deals of 2019.
Can they pull it off? The risk of failure is always there in business, but if anyone deserves to succeed, you want it to be John and Irene.