Opportunities are often what we define them to be. Spare room tycoons are frequently faced not with well-defined challenges, but with ambiguous situations. What we make of such chances can change everything.
On one level, Mike McGrail's story, which begins with an encounter at church, sounds like someone who was touched by an angel. Mike doesn't see it that way. Rather, he believes that the key to his success was reacting boldly and imaginatively to an opportunity that many people might not have recognized. He grabbed the chance and thought big.
Mike spent the first two decades of his adult life working for some of the largest companies on earth. When the multinational for which he was working re-engineered him out of a job, he quickly hooked up with an exciting startup that grew quickly into a 6000-employee company. When that company was acquired, many of those employees were out of a job and Mike was among them.
Even when he had been working as a top manager in these large companies, Mike had encouraged his wife Mary to start independent businesses -- as a stockbroker, a real estate professional, and finally a trainer. After his second downsizing, Mike and Mary purchased a franchise to train executives how to be better leaders. They also offered training in job fit assessment, psychological testing, and time management, among other areas. The first few years were difficult. Even though he was able to bring in gross fees of more than $100,000, his overhead and marketing costs were large.
In fact, much of the McGrail Group's business came from selling services to friends and neighbors, many of whom were executives. (It can pay to live in an upscale neighborhood.) These referrals were generating other word-of-mouth recommendations. In short, the trends were positive, but in order to prosper, Mike and Mary needed a breakthrough.
Mike is a religious man, active in his church. He decided to become a lector, one who reads scripture to the congregation, so he signed up for a training course that the church was offering. During a break in the session, all the participants went to the church basement for refreshments. Mike sat down at a table by himself, not thinking much of anything. Then another lector trainee sat down beside him and asked Mike what he did for a living. "I own a management training company," Mike replied, and the man's eyes lit up.
"Here's my card," he said. "Give me a call Monday morning." Mike looked at the card. The stranger was general manager of a large company known for caring about its employees, just the kind of company Mike and Mary needed for a breakthrough. The first time they met, the general manager told Mike that he had a vision for radically changing the company's operations and the way it assessed its results, but that he had been frustrated because people within the company were unresponsive. The second time they met, he gave Mike a job, but it was a disappointing one. It involved one-on-one training with only one vice-president. This was far from the breakthrough his business required, but he did the work to everyone's satisfaction, and hoped for more. It didn't come.
The general manager was quite cordial when Mike came to make his pitch for more work. Later, though, he interrupted Mike in mid-sentence by throwing a book on the table. "Did you read this?" he asked. The book was The Goal by Eli Goldratt, an examination of synchronized manufacturing.
Mike was embarrassed to have to say he hadn't, especially since the book's subject was one in which he claimed expertise. But he told the client that he would read it and get back to him. When he read the book, he realized that he had been issued an important, though unspoken, invitation. The client wanted to make major changes at the company, this book suggested their direction, and in the course of his discussions with the client, he had gleaned a great deal of information about how the company worked.
Mike returned to the client not with a mere reaction, but with a detailed proposal for putting Goldratt's ideas to work in order to solve the specific operational problems the general manager had been discussing. Although Mike wasn't trained as a manufacturing engineer, he realized that just about every step in his career had prepared him to work on this task. Mike's proposal outlined how to make the most of his own expertise, as well as that of others he planned to draw on. The client accepted his proposal, a six-month project that involved an immense amount of work. As a result, the client was able to achieve a 50 percent inventory reduction, which had an immediate positive impact on the bottom line.
Mike's experience made him an expert in an area he was well qualified for, but had never thought of entering. And when Mike's client was absorbed by a larger company, for once it was good news for Mike. His program has been put to work in the UK, France, Brazil, China, Spain and elsewhere, generating new billing and new opportunities for him. He began training one employee, and now has changed the lives of thousands and helped make the company's products competitive in construction markets worldwide.
For Mike, the moral of this story is: "You have to be prepared to be successful." But he also sees it as a story about flexibility, the willingness to explore different kinds of business opportunities you haven't foreseen. A business plan is useful, but if it's too restrictive, it can blind you to opportunities that you're well equipped to realize.
Mike didn't go to church to find a client; he went because he always did. And if there is something faintly miraculous in this story, it is that his eventual client seemed from the beginning to see something in Mike that Mike hadn't yet discovered in himself.
Excerpt from Spare Room Tycoon, pages 76 to 79.
James Chan, Ph.D., President Asia Marketing and Management (AMM) 2014 Naudain Street