How to build an $8Bn company: take some “brave pills”

May 13, 2010


The message from Sir Bill Gammell, founder and CEO of Cairn Energy Plc, a Scottish based oil company is that “there is no bar” to how far you can go. The limiting factor is your attitude and ambition. Swallow some “brave pills”. Click the image to enlarge and find out what each pill contains.

To succeed he emphasises the need for a clear vision, and determined action. Having increased the value of his company 155-fold in the last 18 years he speaks with some degree of authority.

More impressive to me is that Sir Bill – a former star of Scottish rugby – has built this impressive international business based on fundamental truths of respect, relationships and responsibility.

An example of their good principles: paying $10M to exit a contract in China when they discovered they couldn’t do business on these principles. His advice, “Only do business with people you would be happy to have dinner with” is surprisingly similar to Warren Buffett’s rule that he only does business with people he “likes, trusts and admires”. The point is that there’s a lot more to business than just money.

Like Buffett, Sir Bill is driven by “creating something with a legacy and long-term sustainable performance”. To achieve this, alignment with your shareholders is essential and to attract them you need enthusiasm, energy, passion, credibility and honesty. Adding value is a recurring theme at Cairn, and the audience were more than a little taken aback when he asked a number of people at random, “Did you add value? Did you make a difference today?”

The oil industry is dominated by a small number of very large companies, but Cairn prefer, where possible to go it alone rather than partner with these slow-moving giants: “We look for a reason to make things happen, rather than look for reasons not to do things”

Apart from his obvious personal drive and determination Sir Bill’s success is no doubt down to the ability to build a fantastic team. By “valuing and empowering good people” you can unlock success. It’s important to “encourage people to take and accept responsibility”. As an entrepreneur he was surprised to discover that in fact people are not very willing to take responsibility, and concludes there is a “great danger in not giving people responsibility young enough”. With this in mind the Winning Scotland Foundation was set up to create a “positive winning attitude throughout Scotland”.

It seems fitting that the headline on Cairn’s website says “discovering hidden value”, while clearly intended to illustrate their core competency of oil and gas exploration, it could apply just as well to their attitude to their most important resource, their people. I was inspired by Sir Bill, a true entrepreneurial hero.

Sir Bill Gammell was speaking at The Entrepreneurial Exchange, a Scottish organisation where entrepreneurs help each other grow and create businesses of scale. A sister organisation in London is coming later this year and The Entrepreneurs’ Forum has been going strong in North East England for over 7 years. Internationally, the EO is the nearest equivalent. If you’re an entrepreneur looking for support and help I can recommend any of these superb organisations.


What entrepreneurs can learn from sportsmen

September 9, 2009

My first blog post, and an unlikely subject for me as someone who really has very little interest in sport. However, I am obsessed about what makes a successful entrepreneur and what I learnt tonight from Sir Jackie Stewart crystallised something I had already worked out: the qualities which make someone excel in sport bring great success when applied in business.

Jackie is a world-wide motor sport legend, but has been incredibly successful in business too. Which was harder for Jackie? Sport – because, quite simply, if you’re not number one you’re a nobody. Your business can still be top 10 in the rankings and be a massive success, but unless you’re first in the world of sport you’re a failure.

Think of an average sportsman, think of all the preparation and practise he puts in before an event – the days of football players turning up before a match and having a quick stretch to prepare are long gone. But how many people in business do nothing more than a quick stretch to prepare for a big meeting?

To succeed in sport you have to focus then practise and prepare.

It’s the same in business. The most impressive candidates I have interviewed for jobs in the last year all had a professional sporting background and now it’s something I will actively look for. They understand focus, determination and (depending on the sport) team-work in spades.


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