MY BIGGEST mistake happened in Finland: the mistake I made was to let two cars go without letting the hard currency hit our bank account. The cars were a Jaguar XJS (right) and an XJ40 saloon, which would together retail at about pounds 70,000.
It was the first business where I was the managing director, and my first overseas posting, and to be honest there was a level of naivety and trust - I had been there about four or five months and assumed I could take things at face value. Inevitably when selling cars, you were dealing with some bad guys who wanted to pay you in cash. The paperwork had seemingly come in to us to indicate that hard currency had been lodged in a third- party bank, who were in the process of getting the money to our bank account. I let the cars go in good faith. It was an expensive learning curve.
We did hire a private investigator to find the cars, but he eventually saw the cars in a compound in Moscow, and his report said: "I am not going to go in and get the cars - there are lots of Rottweilers." We wrote them off, and it was a salutary lesson, because it was a loss- making business at the time. It would have been easy to take from that experience that the people I was selling to were not to be trusted.
The real issue was that, within the business, we didn't have a robust enough process by which decisions could be made in good business faith. What I principally took from it was that at a cursory level, an MD could look at a piece of paper and seemingly make the right decision, without the absolute rigour of a process which would have prevented that paper getting to my desk without the monies already being in the account.
It had a massive impact on me: it was a defining moment. It got me to focus on the fact that if you have solidity of process in a business, and if the detail is gone into - in the sense of the managing director having a prerogative to challenge detail where he wants to - then I think you have a solid context for the management of a business against a consistent performance criteria.
If expectations are laid out in a controlled environment, we are better able to measure how the business is doing. You come to a platform where you can give individuals a clearer context to develop their own personalities and characters, to take responsibility to do their own thing within a process-oriented environment, and to come up with exceptions which might well be quite good ones as an alternative to the bedrock of process.