Learning from personal experience
Very few people can go straight from school into a business of their own. Most of us must find employment, whether full-time or casual, and spend years working in someone else’s company. For many this is frustrating thinking that, I could do this better, I am making a profit for some-one else or, I just am not happy working in this environment. Today’s economy is forcing more people to consider just how they create an income for themselves. The important thing not to lose sight of is that while you are doing this you are also learning, learning what not to do and if you are lucky enough to work with a great manager, learning what to do and the right way to do it.
My first serious learning experience
In my early career I worked as Assistant Managing Director of a steel fabrication and construction company called Aquila Steel. The company specialised in large agricultural and industrial buildings and, from its Australian base, manufactured and shipped buildings around the world. We had made 1,000 farm buildings and shipped them to Libya, a major rice storage complex for Myanmar, Flemington Markets in Sydney and storage buildings and silos in every Australian State. It was with this background that the company made a bid for four very large storage complexes in Saudi Arabia.
The Managing Director of Aquila Steel was Ted Jarvis, an impressive figure who had been a British Ambassador to India and the veteran of many trade deals. Ted always wore a black pinstripe suit and dark sunglasses no matter whether he was outside or in the office, senior staff were somewhat threatened by his appearance and very tough management style, they called him ‘the Godfather’. At times I had seen Ted berate a senior executive and cause him so much stress that the executive snapped a pencil he was holding in his mouth.
The first meeting I had with Ted was when he appointed me to the position. I had been with the company for only one day and he decided to set me a task. The Flemington Markets project consisted of four large steel complexes and Ted had the suspicion that the project was falling behind in the time schedule. My task, as he outlined it, was to review the entire manufacturing process, establish where the project sat in relation to completion deadlines and work out the end cost and the date it would be completed. Having arrived at the company the day before Ted gave me seven days to complete the task and write a report. I was 23 and naive enough to think I could do it. The next seven days were hectic, but I did come up with a report and some conclusions, one of which was that the financial management of the project was a problem. Presentation day came and I was summoned to his office to be introduced to the company’s Chief Financial Officer who, as it happened, was responsible for the direct financial management of the project. I was asked to read the report and give my reasons, rather a daunting thing to do given the circumstances. I delivered the findings and to my surprise Ted, the Managing Director, agreed with every point, which was the starting point for the next seven years of working closely together. The Chief Financial Officer also accepted the points I had made, and we became friends and worked on many projects.
The lessons I had learned from this were many, firstly do as much homework and investigation of the facts before you open your mouth and secondly, if you are going into a meeting, try to find out who else will be present.
As an aside and an anecdote about how fearsome Ted was, we were out of the office at a meeting together with a client in another city. Ted needed some information and called the office, the phone was answered by the office assistant, an 18-year-old male. The conversation went something like this;
Ted: “I would like to speak with the factory manager please”
Office assistant: “He’s not here”
Ted: “Can I speak to the accountant please”
Office assistant: “He’s not here”
Ted: “Can I speak to the assistant factory manager please”
Office assistant: “He’s not here”
In a fit of rage Ted screamed down the phone saying;
“Who is speaking???”
The office assistant’s response was:
“I don’t know, I don’t recognise your voice”
Ted was lost for words and for the first time he saw the irony in the question and burst out laughing. The office assistant kept his job because how could you fire someone for giving a perfectly correct answer?
Aquila Steel’s first experience in Saudi Arabia
To finalise and secure what was, at the time, the largest contact ever awarded by Saudi Arabia to an Australian company required visits to meet with the client, The Saudi Arabian Ministries of Finance and Agriculture.
Ted spearheaded the deal and met with the Ministry of Finance in the capital Riyadh. The meeting took place in the morning and adjourned over lunch with the direction that it would resume at 2pm. Ted returned to the Ministry at 2pm to find it completely empty, hundreds of rooms but not a single person in sight, until he was rushed by soldiers and arrested. At the prison they took him to he found out that King Faisal had been assassinated that morning in the next building and, being the only foreigner in sight in an empty ministry they assumed he was connected to the death. Fortunately, the truth came to light and Ted was released. That time Ted really was in the wrong room at the wrong time.
On my way to Saudi Arabia
Ted won the contract and preparations were made for me to move to Riyadh and cement the communications between our company and the two ministries. Ted booked a first-class flight for me to meet him in Beirut a few days later. This was to be an experience of its own.
Prior to landing in Beirut, the captain announced,
“Any passengers disembarking in Beirut do so at their own risk. The situation on the ground is dangerous and the crew will not be leaving the aircraft”.
Not a good start. I got off the aircraft, found a taxi willing to take me to the city and headed for the Martinez Hotel where Ted was to meet me. Checking in to my room I took a nap to be woken up by very loud noises, I phoned reception and was told it was a practice drill for evacuation. This was not true, it was an Israeli air raid. I later met Ted and we decided to go out for dinner to a boutique hotel on the waterfront, The Vendome.
The Vendome was a place Ted had previously visited, it was owned by a French woman and had impeccable ratings. We went to the rooftop bar managed by an Australian by the name of John Sidney and found that we were the only people other than staff in the hotel at the time. We enjoyed a drink to the sounds of gunfire in the streets as Beirut was on the verge of civil war. Dinner was delightful and a pianist was playing classical music on a grand piano. Leaving the Vendome, we headed back to the Martinez Hotel just a few blocks away and passed a nightclub “The Tube” from which we could hear music. We entered and found the place empty of customers, sat down near the band and ordered a drink only to be informed that if we were not accompanied by a woman, we would need to move tables and sit at the rear. It’s amazing how formality can preside over chaos and war.
The next day I was free to do whatever I wanted, so not to let the events in the city spoil visiting a new country I hired a driver to drive north along the coast to the ancient town of Byblos. Along the way there was a cable car known as the Telerifique that went from the shoreline of the Mediterranean to the peaks of the mountain some 2,000 feet above. As the only passenger concern had not set in until it stopped hallway up, at which point artillery shells were being fired from the peak towards the city. I carried on to Byblos and returned the same day to the Martinez.
The following day saw an escalation of the fighting and the rule of law totally broke down. Teenagers were running through the streets with machine guns, people were being killed and bodies were being stacked in the hotel foyer. Time to get out. The Australian Embassy in Beirut knew we were there and assisted in holding off both sides whilst Ted and I made a run for the airport where we boarded a plane for Riyadh.
Landing in unknown territory – Riyadh
On a previous trip Ted had rented an apartment on Al Batha Road, which turned out to be the only road with a name in Riyadh. At that time the city had no named suburbs, no street names and no house numbers, a nightmare for finding your way in a place where no one spoke English. Ted had made a map and we instructed a taxi driver using sign language. Apparently, the apartment block was one of very few new constructions, it was basic concrete block, not air-conditioned and situated between two rubbish dumps. This was to be my new home. It was mid-summer and street temperatures consistently exceeded 50 degrees Celsius. Inside the apartment was like an oven that would not cool down, at one stage I recorded a temperature of 70 degrees Celsius!!!
An instruction from Ted
As Ted left for Australia, I was given one instruction. He said,
“I do not care if you cannot do the job, the most important thing is to stay alive. I have set up two contacts in Riyadh that you can reach out and let know where you are or where you will be travelling in the country”.
Unfortunately, within days both contacts had left the country and I was on my own. As there were no phones in the apartment, no public phones and few ways of communicating with Australia I had to decide how I would handle the situation.
I was aware that the Saudi Government had a contract with Vinnel Corporation to train Saudi military and that Vinnel had 100 (ex-mercenaries) employees staying at the old Riyadh Hotel. I went there to find it empty but did find out that they all came back about 5pm and sat in the foyer. Saudi Arabia was and is an alcohol-free country and at that stage there were no organised sports, no cinemas, few restaurants and very little entertainment. I hatched a plan, get to the hotel before they arrived, sit in one of the chairs at a large table and wait. At 5pm they came in and silently sat in the foyer, no one spoke much so I started a conversation. After a few days I had made new friends and I had a backup safety plan in place. As there was little to do two of the mercenaries Mike Scroggins (a demolition expert) and Bill Steele and I went for a rock-climbing trip to the desert. Halfway up a steep face sitting on a narrow ledge was a large unexploded bomb.(As we later found out we were on the army’s test range). We stood on the ledge while Mike defused the bomb and carried on our way, a little excitement in a boring place.
Erecting the buildings
Aquila Steel had hired a Saudi Arabian construction company The Bahareth Corporation, owned and run by Sheikh Mohammed Bahareth and his son Mazin. Materials had arrived from Australia and ground was broken at four sites, Riyadh, Jeddah, Yanbu and Dhahran under the supervision of Fouad Chamoun, a Lebanese engineer and The Bahareth Corporation’s General Manager.
Construction went well and I decided to return to Australia when Fouad invited me to visit his family in Beirut on the way back home. I looked at Fouad and asked him if he was joking as we were lucky to escape last time, and nothing had improved. Fouad assured me that everything would be fine and I would be safe as his uncle would look after us. Still not feeling comfortable about this I asked how his uncle could do that, to which Fouad replied, “My uncle is Camille Chamoun former Prime Minister of Lebanon, and he has his own army”. I respectfully declined Fouad’s offer and returned safely to Australia.
There are many things I learned by being placed in situations that were unknown and challenging and ones where some thought was necessary to achieve the outcome or solve the problem. None of this would have been possible had I not worked for someone else but all of it I have used in later years to help me build my own companies.
If you are still working for someone else or have started your own business recognising what you have done in the past and how you achieved it will help you to manage the future of your own company.