Book extract: Owen Glenn - Business my way

By Owen Glenn

In his new book, the multi-millionaire details the lessons he learnt from building a business

This is an edited extract from Making a Difference by Owen Glenn. Published by Random House NZ, $39.99. Release date: July 17.

I calculated it all once and realised I'd made well over 28,000 sales calls in my business time - all over the world, everywhere from Beijing, Cape Town, Adelaide, Oslo.

Whenever I arrived in a new country, I'd smile when they'd invariably say to me, 'Well, Mr Glenn, it's different here, you know.'

I've always thought, What's different? People are people, psychology is psychology.

What I believe is that to be a very good salesman you have to be an extremely good listener. It's not what you say, it's what you hear. I helped devise a sales course that was the cornerstone of my success. I held the course 28 times, I delivered it, I knew it backwards, it's part of my life.

It was actually based on one delivered by Emery Air Freight who were, in a way, the company that taught me everything in the beginning. Theirs was a five-day intensive course; you grasped the essentials and then you went out with a trainer for two days' active selling.

You made actual appointments, went right through the process and the trainer just sat there, observing, I suppose. And it was on one of those calls I discovered I had something beyond just a natural selling ability, a natural calling.

It was the first call I made. It was on the sixth day of the course, on a Monday morning in Sydney, to Twentieth Century Fox. I was sweating because I had to remember all the stages of what I had to say and do.

Near the end of the call I said, 'Mr Jones, if you become convinced that using Emery Air Freight would really improve your service and you can meet your deadlines, who would you have to call to implement your decision?'

And the client said, 'Well, it's Johnny Roxborough in Hollywood, he's in charge of the procurement.'

I said, 'Are you convinced?'

'I'm definitely convinced.'

'Would you mind ringing Mr Roxborough now?'

'Not at all.'

I thought, What the hell have I got here?!

The trainer looked at me and said, 'I don't believe you just did that.'

That was when I realised that I had a real gift for sales.

It's not so much a matter, as some would have it, that you do your bit, you do your best, and then the decision is ultimately up to the client and, hey, if you've done it right, they'll buy. Not at all. For me, I know what the outcome is going to be because, if you look carefully at what I did, there is a crucial point, a pivotal moment. In fact, this is the critical sentence in the whole course: 'Are you convinced', not 'if I convince you'. I've never heard 'no' to that.

And you do not say anything else until he answers. It doesn't matter if the silence lasts for a minute. You can repeat it, 'Shall I repeat that question, sir?'

'No, no, I understand what you're saying, just let me think about it. Okay, I am convinced ...' You can see the turmoil; you've got them on the hook.

I was 26 when I did that course. I went ahead in leaps and bounds as a salesperson at Emery. It honed my skills, it gave me confidence; it changed my life.

I set my own standards. Always. I always wanted to be the best for myself. If I happened to be in competition with others, they were just there.

That said, to be honest, I never started off with a business philosophy. I simply saw an opportunity after TEAL and Emery.

Emery taught me a lot. They were, in my opinion, the best freight forwarder at the time. John Emery senior, who started the company, was a World War II naval commander: he'd been in charge of a substantial part of the US Navy's procurement and supply, and had the opportunity to start his company after the war. They were the first freight forwarder to receive a carrier certificate from the United States Government; he had some very good thoughts on how to run a company, how to measure things. He was very thorough and an absolute whizz on human relations. While I met him only once, the way he ran his business had a significant impact on me.

It's interesting to mention here that whole father-and-son business idea. While I was so impressed with John Emery senior, I met his son (John Emery junior) and he simply wasn't a chip off the old block. The old man was something very special.

For me, he even outdid J.W. Marriott who, of course, prided themselves also on this father-and-son relationship philosophy.

J. Willard Marriott, the guy who started the hotel company, had this thing, like a tagline, really, which was: 'If you've got a problem, ring me.' Staying in a Marriott in Torrance, California, in 1993, I had the opportunity to put this claim to the test. I had no hot water in my room. I couldn't get anywhere with the management and so, as the tagline suggested I should, I rang him. I got through to his private secretary and I said, 'Ring him.'

She said, 'I'm afraid he's busy now.'

And I said, 'Can someone call me back?'

'One moment please ... J.W. Marriott here.'

'Ah Mr Marriott, look, I'm in Torrance, here's the problem ...'

'And you're on the top floor, are you?'

'Yeah, I'm in the suite, so I'm the first one to run out of hot water.'

'Let me come back to you.'

Next thing the general manager, the assistant general manager, and eight other people came up to my room.

'We'll move you, sir.'

The guy told me that when they designed the building, they didn't put in an adequate holding tank for the hot water.

And I said to him, 'But you've been open three years.'

He told me they'd been having an argument with the builder, and so forth. I told him that they simply couldn't do that to people.

He said, 'No, you're quite right, sir. Under Mr Marriott's instructions, you are not to be charged for your stay with us.

We apologise.'

Then everything arrived, fruit, wine, the whole bit. That's all fine, but what I wanted was hot water.

It taught me something.

I employed the same philosophy, that idea of being as available as possible to the clients. And as my company grew there was a phase and a period there when I thought I was getting too aloof from the company. I was so busy opening up and buying companies. So we put a survey out to our clients asking them to 'Tell us what we're doing right and then tell us what we're doing wrong'. A lot of criticism came back. I was very surprised, and I realised that I was out of touch with my company. So I put that right. I did a number of things, but one of the first things I did was put in a hotline through to me. Of course every bugger rang!

But it was a very positive step. Even the biggest companies said they were very impressed. The comment I remember was from one of our biggest supporters, who said, 'Owen, I wouldn't ring you in the middle of the night but the two or three times I've had to make a complaint or had a problem, you've dealt with it.'

I later filtered it back down to my regional managers, although I still had my name on it and said to certain clients, 'Call me if you get no satisfaction.' They called me less and less as they dealt with other people. But it taught me something.

What I also did was encourage my people to ring the customers and ask if anyone in the business had given them really exceptional service, and then we mentioned them in our monthly newsletter. That human relations aspect - both internal and external - was very important in the company.

These little things sometimes make a difference but they were all things I had to teach myself. I taught myself most of the aspects of running a business because I didn't have time to study. When I went to Harvard Business School it was like the pieces of the jigsaw finally came together and I could see the picture. I got taught internal controls, human relations, cashflow management. Collect my receivables quicker, pay my payables a bit slower: that's what I learned. I got all of that. But I learned something else critical, too.

The professor, Marty Marshall (officially Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus Martin V. Marshall), said to all of us, 'Now, you're going to go back after this course and create havoc in your company. You'll want to change everything at once.

Take my advice: don't do anything.'

He was so right: wait until the third bounce. So that's exactly what I did; I waited. I stood back, watched it all differently with new eyes. I talked to people in the business. I'd ask them what they thought of certain things. Watched. Waited. Observed.

Listened. That's what I learned from Harvard. And that was worth every cent.

I'd certainly say without question that one of the things that drove me was not wanting to end up in a position of penury or starvation. And as I said in my speech when I received my honorary doctorate, clearly I've survived the first because I've sold my company for nearly half a billion dollars and I look all right for the second! I'm not starving.

If some sort of threat or potential hazard to the operation came up, I'd just go back to my thoughts and ask myself: Am I doing the right thing? And if I feel I'm doing the right thing, that's probably the best argument I've got for taking the next action. It's my call.

That's how I liked it. I never had a board of directors because I always own 100 per cent. I had an executive committee which, at its peak, had 13 members. I used to say to them, 'You've all got a say, you've all got a vote but never forget I've got 14 votes.'

Of course I would listen to them but ultimately they would say, 'Owen, it's your company.'

If anyone challenges that or suggests it's unusual to not have a board of directors, I simply look at the evidence. I turned $2000 into $600 million, therefore I would say that I made more right decisions than wrong.

My view is that a board of directors would have interfered.

Freight is very much a detail business, there's much you have to absorb and know. I would've read millions of words and spoken to thousands of people, not just customers but people all over the world. Shipping companies, lawyers, I was up on Capitol Hill many times in Washington, dealing with the FMC, the various regulatory bodies. How can a board of directors compete with that sort of personal, hands-on experience?

One of the obvious examples of my way of doing business was that no matter where in the world I went and opened up, no matter how much money was at stake, no matter who I dealt with, I always maintained utmost integrity. I never, ever took a bribe or paid a bribe to anybody. Ever. Even in places where it was considered standard practice. Whatever was offered, I never ever took it and I never authorised for anyone else to either.

I question, sometimes, whether my way of operating could even be called a philosophy as such: for me, it was just who I was, who I am, the way I operate. That said, if someone came to me and asked me for my five basic business philosophies, it would come down to something like this: Number one is passion; you've got to have a passion for whatever you want to do. Even if you're a humble postman.

Look at this characteristic in the broadest human sense: not everybody is cut out to be a success in business; we can't have everybody charging around like Captain Marvel, it's just not going to work. But whatever you do in life, in your inner self you must be committed to it. And if you're going to be successful, become passionate about it, whatever it is. If you want to be a postman be the best bloody postman you can be. Go and figure out how to subdue dogs! Whatever it is you have to do, whatever it takes to be the best postman.

Number two is your work ethic. First, take a look at yourself: have you got it? Second, are you willing to employ it to whatever lengths are necessary to make you successful? I believe a work ethic is something that you're born with; I don't think it's something you acquire. It's in you or it's not in you.

That work ethic is essential.

Number three is integrity and everything that goes with that - trust, honesty, accountability. Not just in business, but in your personal life as well. Your handshake has to have the same worth as your word. My father taught me that. He said, 'Son, if you shake somebody's hand, it's very important that you look them in the eye and say, "You have my word."' And that has to count. Never mind bits of paper and lawyers and court: if your personal integrity is ever questioned and you don't measure up to it, you're not worthy of doing what you're doing. That was always at the forefront of my mind. When I offered my hand and shook on it, it could be trusted completely.

I just had a case in the sale of OTS, where they started to try to monkey around with the prices. So I wrote to the chairman of the investing company: 'We had a handshake agreement and you said to me that you believed and your grandfather believed that the handshake was the mark of the man. In this transaction, which is now bouncing around the walls, what happened to integrity? I look forward to your answer.' That's all I said to him.

He wrote me back a very nice note. He'd immediately got himself involved back in the deal, because he'd become aloof from it, and he simply said, 'We made a deal, let's stick to it.'

There was some adjustment to the price, and reasonably so, so I met him - maybe not halfway, but a lot of the way there.

But this number three, which I think is very, very important, it applies throughout life; it applies when you're buying a house, it applies when you play sport, it applies dealing with your common man or woman: integrity. People assess you from your actions. Not your intentions.

Number four is be magnanimous with your successes and be gracious in your defeats. All is not lost ever; there is always a path to recovery if you're down. When you're up it's important to be chivalrous to your opponents or your adversaries. If someone's gone down, lend them your shoulder, just understand their despair, give them some dignity, some face: because they will always remember that.

What happens in international business is that people form opinions, a consensus develops, and a momentum develops.

I've heard said of other people, 'Oh he's okay, he's a good guy, you can take his word for it.' I think that's what enables a person to rise with the cake and say: 'You can work with him,' or 'His word's his bond.' Critical.

Is there a number five? If you can absorb all that and practise all that then the fifth thing has to be something that perhaps doesn't have that much to do with business but has a lot to do with life, and that is: really, really do something meaningful to help those who can't help themselves. Whatever the reasons for a person being where they are in life - abuse, or just general circumstances, it doesn't matter - if you can, help them.

Your life has to round up, that's the last page, the personal side. Someone called it squaring the circle. That'd have Pythagoras squirming in his grave, but that's what it is: make a difference.

- NZ Herald

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