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Paul CaveHe took on the bureaucrats and won. As tourists climb the spectacular arch of Sydney Harbour Bridge, they can be thankful that entrepreneur Paul Cave is not one to give in easily.

BridgeClimb’s Paul Cave is a fighter.

He took on four different government departments over nine frustrating years to ensure his business dream of people walking over the treasured Sydney Harbour Bridge came true.

And he fought his funding partners, who were getting tired of the battle with government and who tried to convince him to accept a three-year lease on BridgeClimb. Cave, stubborn to the end, hung tough against his mates and ended up with a 20-year lease.

The magnitude of that defiant, determined decision can only be fully appreciated when reading the financial figures: BridgeClimb reaps revenues of $45 million a year and profits of $18 million. You  don’t have to be Jack Welch to work out that 20 years of $18 million a year is a whole lot better than three years worth of it.

The nature of Paul Cave is shown in his willingness to go the distance in the fight against city hall. In form that is typical of government, when he finally convinced Big Brother that the idea to sell spectacular walks across the bridge was viable and safe, a public service bright spark suggested that they would have to put a licence out to tender!

Cave’s reaction? He went to the Independent Commission Against Corruption – and again he won.

With the all-clear to launch BridgeClimb, Cave created a highly systemised business that makes one of the most exhilarating man-made tourist adventures a piece of cake for the young, the old and the very scared. The world loves it. This is not just empty, jingoistic PR hype: a survey of British viewers conducted by the BBC television network in the United Kingdom puts BridgeClimb at number 12 on a list of “50 things to do before you die”.

So how did Paul Cave the entrepreneur emerge? The answer to this question goes a long way to explaining the success of his iconic business.

Cave thinks he was programmed to be an entrepreneur, but parental pressure created distractions.

“A proper career was always going to be in law,” he explains. “If you’re going to be underpinned by something, then give me a qualification. My old man was a tradesman who started life as a tradesman, but he was really ambitious. He ended up as the chief executive of three companies that was taken over by a predator every time. He was a sportsman. I was just interested in watching him. He did his leaving certificate when I did mine.”

Though he admired his father, Cave reflects on an enduring memory that his family mentor never made any serious money working for others. Building a business on your own without the protection of a big organisation, he believes, is about guts and self-belief.

“I think it is probably a question of whether you are prepared to put your balls on the line and how big a risk you take,” he says. “But that’s restrictive and there are lots of other things that drive you, like being married with kids and needing security.”

Cave didn’t cut his entrepreneurial teeth on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Before that he built one of the most enduring brand names in home renovations through Amber Tiles. He is no longer connected to the business, but initially it was his ‘baby’.

“I think the lessons I learnt at Amber were good to get before Bridge,” he says. “ I remember one in particular … We used to buy ex-service station sites and turn them into Amber outlets. We were trying to buy one in Chatswood on the Pacific Highway, which was the site alongside our Amber site.”

Cave’s neighbour agreed to the proposal and he secured verbal approval from a council officer and proceeded to close the deal. That was not the end of the story, however. His next visit to council provided a valuable lesson about dealing with government and risk management.

“I ended up in court twice after they knocked back my DA (development application) and 18 months later, with a vacant site for two years and a cost of well over a million bucks to me, I won the battle, winning both court cases, but I lost the war,” Cave recalls. “It took my eye off the business to concentrate on the legal case. I learnt that lesson about working with bureaucracy.”

The most powerful business lessons you learn on the street are about risk management, according to Cave. Even if you study risk management, comprehending just how big these issues are is difficult until you see your money disappear down a courtroom drain.

“There’s no question the risk issue is real,” he says. “You learn a lot when you are against the wall and all these things are coming at you from all angles. The textbook can never give you that. If you are lucky enough to get experience and lessons, you can capitalise on the lessons. That’s the cumulative growth curve that most entrepreneurs have.”  

While Cave acknowledges he is street smart, he also has a healthy respect for what he got out of books.

“I think the benefit of a university education is the discipline you developed to pass the exams,” he says. “You had to do some work. Therefore, the research you did and getting yourself organised for that exam and getting assignments in was the discipline of the process. The discipline of the process, especially when it comes to research, is an important part of business.

“That really underpins anything that I do now in business. For example, we’re affected by terrorism and other issues in large projects that we are looking at — the thoroughness of research now is in whatever we do.”

Cave’s biggest lesson redirected the evolving entrepreneur on to a more successful path that has ultimately delivered today’s Paul Cave.

“I used to believe that the customer is always right, but it was lip service,” he confesses.

“So my job description these days as a managing director of the business is to put that consumer-is-right culture into the business. But people know they are not going to get a kick in the bum for a complaint. They know that complaints  are so valuable when we get them. There probably isn’t a week that goes by that we don’t make a change in the business as a result of a customer saying something, and that’s the true value of a customer if you focus on them. We’d probably get through 400 positive emails or letters a month and we might get 10 or 15 suggestions, comments, complaints or issues. They’re valuable.  There is no question about that. I never let a crumb fall through the cracks. I’m really obsessive about it. You can’t learn those lessons from a book.” (Maybe this book, thanks to Cave, will teach that lesson!)

Cave, now in his 40s, admits it took a while for the penny to drop about customers. BridgeClimb is the beneficiary. When some customers got a little sunburnt, management upped the protection factor on their sunscreen. When some customers said their eyes watered during the climb, handkerchiefs were attached to climbers’ wrists.

In the old days, Cave believes, a complaint was seen as a potential cost. Now it is viewed as an investment in building a better business and a smarter entrepreneur.

Cave’s success, however, can be attributed to more than just learning on the job. He has had to force himself not to give into the ways that stifled success in his early days in business.

“I was a procrastinator earlier in my life,” he admits. “I’d get good ideas but only do one in 10. I had to fix that up, so I started the habit which I do every day. I clean my teeth in about three minutes and think of three new things to do of varying importance. A C-rated goal might be something simple like cleaning my shoes, but an A-rated goal will be something of consequence.”

And he has learnt that life is about more than just business. A cancer scare a few years ago means the non-business Paul Cave looks after himself a lot better nowadays.

“I’m fitter now at 60 than I was at 21 when I was playing first-grade football,” he says proudly. “I think business also teaches you that life is not just one marathon. It’s always about multi-marathons and you’re either there for the long haul or you’re not, and you have to dig deeply to make key changes.”

On his success with BridgeClimb, Cave emphasises the importance of secrecy.

“I kept the idea under wraps and it was really critical to have all of my ducks in a row in case someone tried to rip my idea off,” he explains. “It took three years before anyone knew what I was doing. You couldn’t even think of going to potential funders until all of the work was done. It required a lot more work than I ever thought necessary.”

The success of BridgeClimb underlines the difference between the public and entrepreneurs. Joe Public looked at the Sydney Harbour Bridge and saw a fabulous bridge. Paul Cave saw a business opportunity.

How did the idea evolve? Well, for starters, Cave is a bridge tragic. His father-in-law left him the first rail ticket that was issued when the Harbour Bridge opened in 1932 — ticket number 00001, Milsons Point to Wynyard.

And then, in 1989, Cave was involved in organising a climb over the arch of Sydney Harbour Bridge as part of an international business convention.

“We climbed 600 people from YPO (the Young Presidents’ Organisation) and that took a fair bit of organising to make that happen,” he recalls. “There was one particular guy on the bridge who was part-owner of Wembley Stadium and I said ‘I would love to make a business out of this’ and he said ‘If you do, I’ll buy some tickets from you’. He was watching the reaction of people climbing the bridge and saying it was so special. I had no idea that it would take nine years to make it happen and had I known that I never would have started.”

Once he had the idea, Cave went to his trusted YPO and formed a group to discuss it. Four members became shareholders (Jack Cowan, Hungry Jacks; Brett Blundy, Sanity and others; Peter Smaller, Southern Steel Group; and Pat Elliott, Magnesium International).

Mates notwithstanding, there was division over the BridgeClimb lease when the government offered just three years. Cave insisted on 20, but some of his shareholders wanted to take the money-in-the-bag, shorter option.

Cave held his ground. BridgeClimb has 13 years to go before the lease is up and the shareholders must be happy that their colleague is a stubborn sort of a bloke.

The power of passion

Paul Cave advises entrepreneurs to brace for a conflict between their passion for a project and the objectivity of potential backers or venture capitalists. Personal experience tells him it can be a harrowing experience.

“Most entrepreneurs are passionate about what they’re doing, so there will be pain and I’ve certainly felt the pain many times,” he says. “Investors bring discipline with some pluses and minuses, but I think the passion suffers for an entrepreneur.”
Cave is realistic, though, about entrepreneurship and his own early history.

“I was doing it as a young kid,” he recalls. “Having said that, I’d made my first million dollars by the time I was about 27 via Amber Tiles, but I became the thing that held up its progress. I was in there for too long.”

The key, Cave argues, is to recognise your limitations and strengths as well as acknowledging the skills of others.

Published on: Sunday, August 30, 2009

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