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Survival of the fittest
Survival of the fittest

Survival of the fittest

Coaching in the news

WE all know what a boot camp is. The term was originally coined to describe the intense, only-the-fittest-survive, first-stage training for US Army recruits.
Brian Birley's company PACE Corporation has adopted the model for the business world, offering a series of boot camps to take business professionals through their paces, with the emphasis on focus, brevity, clarity and passion.

"I am at a stage in my career where most people would want to be," says Birley.

"In 30 years I have run seven businesses in four industries and on three continents, but there comes a point when you think, 'This is no way to raise a family.'"

With his job in Adelaide and his family in Melbourne, Birley decided to drop the interstate commute and take control by exploiting the core assets built up over his working life - business knowledge and hands-on experience.

"I felt I knew a lot, and I wanted to use what I knew to make a difference.

"I knew I wanted to work with the owners of companies, with CEOs and with managing directors - people who were in the driving seat. So I have targeted SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprises)."
For the 1.2 million SMEs in Australia, Birley points out there is a confusing plethora of resources and qualifications, publications and networking organisations that they can access.

To the average pushed-for-time business owner such a breadth of information can prove overwhelming. And to Birley the answer is in simplicity and a focus on answering two simple questions:

- Where are you now?

- Where do you want to be?

To help businesses find the answers, Birley set up PACE Corporation in 1997.

"The first three-and-a-half to four years setting up the business, establishing a process, were perhaps the hardest part of my business life. But they have also been the most rewarding.

"My intellect has grown through contact with clients, and I have control. I can pick and choose clients. I can be clear about the values of companies I want to work with."

Peter Lees, business mentor and founder of Sharpening Stone, reached similar conclusions after 20 years on the corporate ladder - which included time as a software entrepreneur when he successfully set up, ran, then sold a software business while still in his 20s.

He moved on to senior roles in multinationals.

"I remember sitting on the balcony at home one morning," recalls Lees.

"I had just missed one of the children's birthdays. I was going to miss another one, then I realised that I was going to be in the US for my wedding anniversary. I knew something was not working."

Lees decided to create a business that allowed him to work with others, passing on what he knew.

His company, Sharpening Stone, adopted a Hebrew proverb as its core business value and its point of difference - "as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another".

"At one end of this market there is the business coach, who'll work on your business. At the other is a life coach who'll look at the person. We plumb the middle ground.

"We work on the individual to allow them to better run their company," Lees says.

"As a CEO my role was about finding the diamonds in the dust and that's exactly what we do at Sharpening Stone: find the diamonds, pull them out, polish them up and see where they'll go."

Brian Walker is two years into setting up his consultancy business, The Retail Doctor.

Walker is very aware stepping from doing business to advising isn't simply a question of stepping over the fence from one field of activity into the next.

"You are an entrepreneur yourself. You are responsible for everything, from developing the intellectual property and business planning to washing the dishes. There is a huge learning curve.''

But his motivation is clear.

"When I was the manager of The Athlete's Foot we saw a lot of consultants coming in and telling us what to do. They didn't follow up with the how. I want to get that right, so I call myself a resultant, not a consultant.

"We emphasise the strength of our results and we don't simply walk away. One feature is the post-project health checks to ensure that everyone is still on track in the months after the project is complete."

All three men agree on the power of word of mouth for any small business, especially one that relies heavily on good relationships.

"I've never advertised," says Peter Lees.

"I initially called around my contacts in business and in Venture Capital who work with struggling businesses and I let them know what I was doing. Beyond that, it is word of mouth."

All three have benefited from mentoring relationships in the past, or as part of their ongoing business lives.

"Whether they are informal relationships, or formal advisory boards, you need to have strong support networks if you are starting out on your own, to help you develop your business and to keep you challenged," says Walker.

For Birley the secret to making the most of the opportunity to go it alone - or any opportunity - is preparedness.

"There is no such thing as luck, but if you can combine preparedness and opportunity, you can make your own luck."

To view this article in its original format click here.

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