I’ve often been asked to talk about my experience and I’ve struggled to articulate it, not because I don’t have a lot to tell, but more relevantly, because there’s a lot to tell, beginning in 1970 and still going strong!
People often think that because you’re in your 60’s you’ve stopped learning, you’re just there to share experiences and learnings. This isn’t so, learning is a never-ending process. Just ask my 91 year young mother, who is still studying, writing and painting.
I digress, so back to the question. What experiences should I refer to that will enhance my relevance in a given context.
Well, of course, most don’t think a guy who has worked for over 40 years in a global mining giant, could relate to small business. A common misconception in my case at least. I was fortunate enough to have started work at a time when large companies offered a breadth of experience you could only dream of now.
I started work in costing for Mineral Exploration Division within BHP during the mineral boom of the early 70’s and was responsible for preparing monthly accounts for the Division by the time I was 18; all on paper ledgers, but thankfully basic calculators had arrived.
I moved into Transport costing (road, rail and ship) and during this time I was responsible amongst other things for paying the stevedore wharf labourers. This involved carrying a brown suitcase containing cash filled envelopes to pay each wharfie. On one occasion, I had to climb a rope ladder dropped over the railing of BHPS’s Iron Derby carrying the brown suitcase filled with cash. On this day, Port Phillip Bay was running a heavy sea. Luckily, I knew enough about boats to know that I had to jump from the deck of the timber tender at the top of the wave, holding the leather bag handle between my teeth and land hard against the ship’s side, grabbing the rope ladder to avoid missing altogether. All the while climbing carefully, knowing the consequences of not delivering the crew’s pay. Of course, I was sent on this assignment just to test my mettle and these couple of examples give you some insight into the way management trainees were prepared. Remember most of my managers in those days were men hardened by the experience of the Second World War. My own father by this age (18) had been fighting as a commando in the jungles of Borneo. Perhaps this was some of my own motivation to take on such challenging assignments.
I moved into voyage chartering, where I had responsibility for chartering ships to bring all BHP’s Ferro Alloys and capital equipment into Australia and then on to International Marketing, where I was very fortunate to have some wonderful mentors, who guided and taught an arrogant upstart how to communicate and relate to customers across multiple cultures. Finally, given my first big break, I was appointed as the youngest ever overseas Country Manager by BHP to manage PNG and the Pacific Islands.
This one period of my life probably taught me more about business and survival than any other. I had the extremes. On the one-hand I was on first name terms with Sir Michael Somare (PM), I had the whole BHP Board to my very small and humble timber house in Lae for dinner, I chartered planes and helicopters for them and flew in the Company G2 jet across to Bougainville and helicoptered to the top of the then Ok Tedi wilderness. Long term BHP Director Gordon Darling, would often call the house unannounced at around 5.30am to see what I was working on! He taught me to think big and not be afraid to refer big plans and big ideas to the Board.
Conversely, I was also Sales Manager for the Steel business and wire businesses. BHP’s interests in those days, were unusually disparate, thanks mostly to the influence of people like Gordon Darling. We owned or controlled Steamship Trading Company, who in turn held the Coca-Cola franchise, Koppers treated pine posts, AWI, Brownbuilt office furniture, Lysaght Building Industries, New Guinea Industries and others which involved significant and remote travel and relating to village customers. My last old world example goes like this. I received a letter asking for a visit to discuss pricing and availability for welded mesh to build Tuna boats. I flew from Lae to Port Moresby, from Pt. Moresby to Rabaul, from Rabaul to Kieta Bougainville; then from Kieta to Honiara in the Solomon Islands. Here, at dawn the next day, I climbed on board a tuna fishing boat, where I sat on the deck with my briefcase as we sailed away over the horizon until we reached a tiny lagoon, made famous for a major WW2 sea battle. As we entered this lagoon, I looked down through the crystal clear aqua blue waters to see live large bombs lying amongst the coral under the boat. I also saw the Manager driving an old Green Landrover down the dusty track (the only track), to the jetty to greet me. I met the wily old Scotsman who provided dinner and a bed for the night in the one and only residence atop this tiny atoll. I sold him a few large rolls of welded wire mesh over a glass or two of whisky, enough to build his tuna boats and then reversed the entire procedure back to Lae. I was often away from home travelling for up to six weeks at a time with no mobile phones to call home!
These are just small examples of the kinds of experiences it was possible to have, that illustrate my point that working for a big corporation isn’t all about size.
In my next blog, I’ll take a giant leap forward and talk more about modern and more relevant insights gleaned in more senior and challenging business environments.