29 March 2020
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Climb every mountain

Paul Cave has been a committed entrepreneur for a long time.

His CV includes founding Amber Tiles, creating and launching Australia’s unique tourism attraction, BridgeClimb, and playing a key board role in the Australian franchise of Domino’s Pizza.

For Cave, being an entrepreneur comes from deep inside.

“I actually think it’s probably in your system to some extent,” he theorises. “You’re either interested or you’re not. For me as a kid growing up, it wasn’t the sporting heroes but it was the business success heroes that I probably looked up to.”

The dream was to become a business builder rather than a Bradman.

“When you think of the usual fantasy of ‘will I play cricket or football for Australia’, for me it was ‘will I succeed in business’. I think that latter seed was planted early. I started little businesses as a kid, buying and selling horses and then cars when I was in high school.”

While Cave’s father did not come from a wealthy background, he was very ambitious and a successful sportsman. “He relentlessly pursued goals, so I was bloody lucky to have a father like that. He started life as a tradesman but ultimately he ran the 10th-biggest company in Australia, ACI Glass. He was a very driven sort of bloke.”

Business is undeniably in the Cave blood. Paul has invested with his brother, Phillip, who has an impressive business track record, too.

“We’ve turned lots of companies around together,” Paul says. “At various stages, my brother has owned Sunbeam and Victor and we bought and sold Golden Circle in a year to Heinz – tripled our money in a year.”

While he has gone along for the ride in some turnaround ventures, Cave sees himself as a business stayer.

“I’m in for the long haul so if I get into a business like Amber, I’m there for 20 years and BridgeClimb will be the same,” he declares.

BridgeClimb, which has become a huge hit with domestic and international tourists since opening in 1998, is undoubtedly the business achievement that will ensure the name Paul Cave goes down in Australian business history. His fascination with Sydney Harbour Bridge stems from his father-in-law, who bought the first ticket at Wynyard Station for the first train ride across the bridge. He gave that ticket to Paul just before he died.

In 1989, Cave was organising an event for overseas guests at a Young Presidents’ Organisation conference in Sydney and spent nine months gaining access to the bridge for the group. The experience convinced Cave that a business baby was waiting to be born and, 10 years later after protracted negotiations with government, the first paying climbers clambered over the bridge. By March 2010, 2.5 million people had ascended the famous ‘Coathanger’ courtesy of BridgeClimb.

For those late starters to business, it should be pointed out that Cave was 50 when the venture officially started.

“But there were a lot of miles on the clock at that point,” he notes.

Cave was closer to 40 when he started planning the business, but government departments and unions stood in the way of this very unique dream for years.

“It took nine years and 10 months, but I had no idea it would take that long,” he admits. “I guess for a private individual, leasing a billion-dollar asset from the government was a bit of a gutsy call. It was hard for a government to lease and license the bridge to a private person, so it took a while.” 

Upon reflection, it is clear that Cave’s greatest business enemy was the clash between risk management and nervous public servants, but all the hoops he had to jump through steeled him for business success by making him work harder on the plan.

“A lot of people if they get a knockback in making something happen aren’t ready for how to deal with it, but I think in the case of BridgeClimb we got lots of knockbacks, potential diversions,” he explains. “However, then I would go back and do a bit more homework – the concept was always a big one.”

To make it happen, Cave had to work with the 13 unions on the bridge and combat an array of issues such as potential traffic distractions and even suicides. The final business plan filled two four-drawer filing cabinets.

After starting with a budget of $2 million, Cave and his partners ended up investing $4.8 million over a decade.

“I borrowed a couple of million and then brought in some other shareholders, but I didn’t get the project up in the time I said I would, so there were penalty rates of interest and, in the end, the combined cost was horrendous,” he says. “But you know the nice thing is that the five shareholders have been with me for 15 years, [and] are still there today.”

Two of his partners are famous entrepreneurs in their own right – Jack Cowan of Hungry Jack’s and Brett Blundy of Bras N Things. But what was it like having to share a cherished business dream with others?

Cave explains: “When other people become involved you’ve got to do some sharing and some of the things they want to give as inputs are positive, but they don’t share the dream or the passion to the extent you do so there’s that challenge and there’s some tension. I guess it’s [about] surviving that tension.”

He remembers a critically important case in point.

“When I started with BridgeClimb, one of our shareholders said, ‘look, we’d be happy with a three-year lease’ and I thought ‘what bloody good is three years going to be if we’ve worked on this for 10 already and then my idea’s out there?’ No, I wanted a 20-year lease. I held my guns and I think you have to be ready to do some balancing and juggling things like that when you have shareholders.”

The simplicity of the concept also presented special problems in so much as other people may have tried to steal it.

“So we went to a lot of trouble with confidentiality – there was a six-page confidentiality agreement. I can still remember a patent attorney I went to see and a lawyer and they were absolutely offended when I said will you sign a confidentiality agreement.”

Thinking back on how he created the business, Cave believes blessed ignorance is a big help.

“Sometimes it’s best not to know,” he suggests. “I mean, if I’d have known it was going to take 10 years, I never would have started!”

So what has he learnt on the job over many years in business?

“You know, I’ve always thought I was a team player, but I also thought at a younger stage in life I could play every position,” Cave confesses. “Well, I was kidding myself, so it’s understanding your weaknesses as much as anything and understanding those complementary skills you need – I think that’s a huge lesson. But I think the other thing I’ve learnt is if you really believe you can do something then absolutely everything’s possible – you can validate that for yourself.”

While Cave acknowledges the importance of self-belief, he also is an apostle of having others who tell you the brutal truth and come with objective eyes.

“I’m a better chairman than a chief executive and the bloke who runs BridgeClimb is much better as a manager than I am,” he points out. “I think it’s crucial having people who can give you good honest and direct feedback and feeling you can be receptive and not threatened by it.”

How has the entrepreneurial journey changed Cave since his days as a Bachelor of Commerce student at the University of New South Wales?

“I was always too scared to spend money on ‘insurance’ things, such as getting the best advice from the best lawyer, getting the best advice from the best accountant,” he says. “I’m more likely to do that now than I would have done at the beginning of this.”

Cave is also less inclined these days to be distracted from the main game of the business. During his Amber Tiles days, he once took legal action against a council over a stalled site development – a move he lived to regret.

“That was a really good lesson because I didn’t kiss the butt of the town planning guy,” he admits. “And he was upset and didn’t let our development application through. We did get it through eventually, but it took a lot – I won the battle and lost the war. However, that lesson was fantastic for BridgeClimb because I realised then that the tow truck driver on the bridge could be just as important to us as the director-general could be in ensuring the project got across the line.”

Asked to explain the success story that is BridgeClimb, Cave opts for luck.

“I think we’re lucky because we’ve got a world icon and, you know, I’ve got its brand,” he says. “We experientially do something on that bridge that makes it truly one of the best tourism experiences – if not the best – in the world and we continue to strive for the quality of the experience.”

To up-and-coming entrepreneurs, Cave has some clear advice.

“Live your dreams – do it. Probably the part that’s most missing for young people about going into business is knowing they really can – that anything’s possible. But they must understand there’s a price. You’ve got to ask yourself are you prepared to pay the price to succeed if you want that gold medal. I think to be a successful entrepreneur you’ve got to be really passionate, so if you’re not passionate, forget it, go and do something else.”

This article was originally published in Savvy: Understanding the Entrepreneur.

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