Small Business

Seven characteristics of an entrepreneur

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Entrepreneurs are the hearts that pump enthusiasm into the veins of growing businesses and economies. They provide the goods and services Aussies consume and create jobs and opportunities for so many people.

Over the past decade we have seen a veritable tsunami of new-age entrepreneurs. They have been inspirational and tenacious. They have thought outside the square and they have been spectacularly successful.

Years ago, after the exploits of Christopher Skase and Alan Bond, the word ‘entrepreneur’ fell into disuse because of the negative connotations attached to it. But hard-working business owners have in more recent times resuscitated the word.

Bob Cowan, who in his time, secured multi-million dollar contracts with the US Navy to supply recompression chambers, might prefer to be known as just a ‘bloody hard worker’!

When you employ more than 40 workers and you wind up building these recompression chambers for Uncle Sam for many millions of dollars, then go broke, have to sell your house and move your family into a caravan while you fight for your dream, then you are an entrepreneur in the real Henry Ford meaning of the word.

Important business lessons

I remember attending an excellent conference a few years back called ‘Encouraging Entrepreneurs – How to Build on Their Ability’ at the Australian Graduate School of Engineering at the Warren Centre in Sydney. This was not an academic blab fest, but looked to people who had actually done it, searching for the lessons everyone in business needs to learn.

Early in the day, Barbara Cail, co-author of the Karpin Report, forecasted “the most successful entrepreneurs will be small to medium operation with a technology bent, and Asia will be the place where a lot of the future will unfold”. How the future becomes real!

Barbara highlighted the seven personal attributes of a good entrepreneur:

  1. Creativity
  2. Imagination
  3. Confidence
  4. Energy
  5. Commitment
  6. Good health
  7. Luck.

This sentiment was supported later in the day by Michael Quinn, co-founder of the successful company Memtec, who agued strongly that you needed just two things to be a good entrepreneur – brains and dumb luck!

He also emphasised that you can make your own luck by hiring and developing good people. As Quinn put it, “80 per cent of a business is people, and a good business is a function of good people”.

Cail offered the same advice to entrepreneurs on the up. They had to be technically literate and “they had to know their workers”, who would increasingly be knowledge workers processing data in the growth areas of finance and information technology. The business strategy of being in touch with your workers to know your business will stand the test of time.

Exploiting opportunities

I’ve got to admit that we did get one presentation from an academic. Happily, he did not put me to sleep. Trevor Cole, Professor Emeritus and who at the time was the executive director of the Warren Centre, lucidly defined the entrepreneur and showed us what characteristics they possessed.

He said that people shouldn’t think they’re an entrepreneur just because they started a business. Everyone in business innovates – some well, other poorly, but entrepreneurship is one level above innovation, according to Cole. The core attribute of the entrepreneur is an ability to make decisions, but essentially they stand out because “they search for change, respond to it and exploit it as an opportunity”.

Bob Cowan certainly did all that. His story gives this title of ‘entrepreneur’ a good name again. Cowan was no ‘fancy pants’ engineer, but a tradesman who started up a sheet metal factory 30 years ago, virtually in the bush. But that did not hold him back from seeing an unusual opportunity and exploiting it.

The lucky break came on a fishing trip to Cairns, where a mate was talking about recompression chambers and how US naval contracts were available for someone who could knock them up economically, but to a high standard. Cowan observed how they look like basic sheet metal work, so, as he put it: “I educated myself … built a mobile recompression chamber … the US Navy wanted it!”

While the idea to the receipt of payment ended up being years, his first contract brought in $2m, Cowan’s second with the US Navy was worth $10.2m. While this sounds like good money, it is in fact repayment for a job well done – and one done the hard way.

Along the way, Cowan had a continual battle with governments who could not share his dream. The quest resulted in Cowan and his family living in a caravan until ‘pay dirt’ was hit.

At one stage, he had a gutful of bank knock-backs, so he went down to the head office in Sydney of a bank (which would no doubt prefer to remain nameless). He provoked them to ‘get off their bums’ and come onsite to see what recompression chambers were all about. The ensuing visit shocked the lenders and made money matters easier after that.

The Cowan success story is all about persistence, focus and determination to win, and considering the value of the contract and the toughness of the client – the US Navy tested the chambers at the North Pole before they gave the deal the nod! – the success is Olympic-like.

If you’re looking to work on your business rather than being stuck in it, book in for a complimentary business assessment today with Switzer Business Coaching.

Important information: This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

Published on: Friday, March 23, 2012

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