My Biggest Mistake: Peter Needham

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The Independent Online
MY BIGGEST mistake was not doing my homework before accepting a job offer.

I had come from Australia as a pilot during the war, and when it was over I joined the Sankey part of GKN as a trainee, rising to be a head of sales of one of the largest engineering contract shops in London. I was then head- hunted into Fisons.

I had a great time there, laying the foundations for the company's pharmaceutical and scientific apparatus businesses, and I was pretty self- confident and arrogant.

Then a City conglomerate, Venesta, came along offering to double my salary and make me a main board director. Being only in my late thirties, I accepted. But I didn't do my homework. I didn't take the due diligence about the task to be done.

What I was joining was a group of companies put together by a stockbroker with aspirations to a global role. There were about 28 companies in four countries. The assets seemed strong, ranging from African forests, through packaging and building materials to copy paper and scientific equipment. But in far too many cases, the key product areas were near the end of their life-cycle. For example, there were weaving sheds and textile-coating plants in the UK, Germany and US, but no way of breathing long-term profitable life into them.

I was a competent hands- on manager. I and my young colleagues thought we could overcome anything. But we were dealing across cultures in a variety of industries in different parts of the world. It took us two to three years to realise that trying to go in and fix companies ourselves was foolish. We really were shareholder representatives; all we could do effectively was replace the local management or sell constituent assets.

We encouraged the stockbroker chief executive to go, but by then and for some years after it was akin to running up the down escalator.

Venesta appeared as a tremendous challenge. It didn't work out as a success for me, or as a corporation. I, too, along with others, was removed after a while. Some of the parts are still around, but the company itself no longer exists. As I was leaving, I wrote the board a letter, in which I said the organism was probably finished - it had undergone too much surgery, too much change, to survive.

In hindsight, the experience was an important part of an apprenticeship for what my colleagues and I do now - assisting the development of executives through a coaching and mentoring service. But this was certainly not planned at the time.

Mistakes either kill you or you learn from them. What I learned was, first, that due diligence is vital before accepting any new role, inside or outside your current organisation; secondly, that you should have a plan for entry that allows (requires) adequate time for your own on- the-job data collection, before you take decisions of substance; and thirdly, that each new role should be approached with an inner confidence reinforced by the first two rules - and tempered with due humility in respect of what is possible.

My key error was not doing my homework. In neither case, to Fisons or Venesta, did I need to move. In both cases I was captivated by the canvas put in front of me, instead of thinking clearly about what was involved.

(Photograph omitted)