435: Adapt to Digital, In Memory of Paul Plant

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We are taking a break this week from our regular schedule to pay tribute to one of our own. We said goodbye to our good friend and fellow Vendastian last week, Paul Plant. We want to share his episode from season 3 and revisit his passion for people, and the ever-changing digital environment.

Paul was described as an absolute pleasure to have around. He immensely cared about the people and projects he was involved with, which is showcased in the words of many Vendastians as they described Paul as “a great laugh”, “incredibly unique”, “an absolute pleasure”, and “Vendasta’s most interesting man in the world”. We thank Paul for not only his significant contributions at an organizational level but his “make others better” mentality. It didn’t matter if you were a complete stranger or if he had known you for years, he would do whatever he could to see you succeed. Paul Plant, thank you for everything you’ve done for Vendasta, and for everything you’ve done for our people.

Paul was an experienced Strategic Marketer, Digital Thought Leader, Entrepreneur, and Change Agent. He had worked with some of the world’s largest media and telecom companies. His approach was to apply strategic market and customer insights, aligned to a strong commercial focus, to bring about sustainable and profitable change to companies of all sizes, regardless of industry or sector. He Co-Founded BigFive Digital to champion technology adoption within the local small business sector throughout Africa & The Middle East. They continue to aim to provide meaningful news, networking, and business development partnership opportunities for the diverse range of media and technology companies delivering Search, Social, Mobile, Location, and Payment solutions to SMEs.

Above all of these accomplishments, he was our friend and a genuinely wonderful human being. Paul, you are deeply missed.


George: Welcome to the latest edition of the Conquer Local Podcast. My name is George Leith, your host. This week, we are going to bring you a gentleman that I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the last number of years; we’ve traveled to a number of different countries. I describe him as the most interesting man on the planet. And his experience is quite deep. Over 40 years in business, worked with some of the biggest telecom companies in the world as a consultant over the last 15 years. Probably some of my favorite white papers because he brings a wealth of knowledge and experience and is a great communicator in delivering a message. And most recently he has been asked to be a contributing author to a book that was put together in record time called Aftershocks and Opportunities and it’s come right out of this global pandemic that we’ve been dealing with. And we’re gonna learn more about this book and the learnings and some of the insights that Mr. Paul Plant the founder of BigFive out of Africa and former executive with a number of companies, British Telecom, Sensis in Australia and others. We’re going to find out from Paul what he sees in the crystal ball of what might be some of the opportunities that are coming out of COVID-19. And I’m sure there’ll be some learnings for you on how to be more agile and how to adapt. So I won’t steal all the thunder, Mr. Paul Plant coming up next on the Conquer Local Podcast.

George: Not saying that I’ve been losing sleep over my level of anticipation for this episode, but I have lost a little bit of sleep cause I’m so excited to bring to you who I describe as one of the most interesting men on earth. Mr. Paul Plant, joining us on the Conquer Local Podcast. Hello, Paul.

Paul: It’s a delight to be here, George.

George: Paul, you’re, are you in the London office today of Mr. Paul Plant Enterprises?

Paul: Yeah. I’m in the, well St. Albans just North of London. And, you know I do all sorts of things, including my bit for Vendasta, my bit for Conquer Local, my bit for BigFive, my bit for the planet, you name it.

Aftershocks And Opportunities: Scenarios for a Post-Pandemic Future

George: Paul and I met five, six years ago and became quite close. We’ve traveled together to many exotic locales in search of helping channel partners and helping end-users in the ongoing quest to conquer local. And we’re bringing Paul onto the podcast this week in celebration of his book that he is a contributing author to, Aftershocks and Opportunity. Paul let’s first talk about the book and what led up to you contributing to this book. And then I wanna investigate a little bit of your background, but I was thinking we would just kind of do that as the interview goes on. So let’s talk about the book, Aftershocks and Opportunities.

Paul: Okay. So it’s been pulled together in record time. So back at the beginning of March, an old friend of mine from well, from my BT days, a guy called Rohit Talwar who is the CEO of an organization called Fast Future, and Fast Future is pretty much what it says on the tin, it’s an organization that looks into future scenarios and predictions based on economy, health, economics, all sorts of stuff. And they advise governments and large corporations, all over the world. And I’ve been a subscriber to Rohit’s podcast and organization for a number of years. And he reached out to all his contributors saying, look, we’ve got this global pandemic on the go right now. As a bunch of futurists, why don’t we pull our thoughts, in terms of what the impact of this lockdown and this pandemic might have, on the planet from all sorts of perspectives from climate, from economics to government to business, everything? And he invited, people in his network to contribute chapters and over a three, four week period, I think he got 115 contributions and then he and his team spent the next two, three weeks, boiling them down into a series of themes built around business, government, health, as I say, economics, these various topics. And they selected 28 chapters, 25 different authors, put them into a book, and that book was published on the 1st of June. So it’s pretty much a record time frame from conception to publication. And the book’s been out there now and we’ve been doing a number of these sorts of talks around the book and its findings and some bits of some predictions. And it’s very interesting because of course this pandemic is still ongoing and we get very, very different audience reaction as we’ve been going on, we’re kinda two and a half months into this process now. And it’s unsurprising perhaps how pessimistic people’s views have become over the last few months. Cause I think back in March, many people around the world would have thought that we would have come up with some kind of solution to this issue by now, but here we are five months further on and the number of cases is actually spreading. And the most worrying thing is that it’s spreading in some of the world’s largest countries.

George: Well, it definitely is. There’s a challenge there around the pandemic itself. Interesting to me how fast you folks were able to put this book together and put the contributions together as you said in record time. When we, the title is Aftershocks and Opportunities. You know your, your most famous Prime Minister, I think it’s fair to say, Mr. Winston Churchill has a famous line, “Let’s never let a good crisis go to waste.” Isn’t that the quote?

Paul: Yeah. In fact, that’s in fact one of the chapters in the book very much picks up on, you know, some of the previous responses to global crises. And I think many of the authors in the book actually said what we’re doing now is just a dress rehearsal for the next one. Because one of the real telling factors about this current crisis we’re in is just how unprepared many countries and many governments were around the world.

George: So we’re really at a 30,000, 50,000-foot level where we’re at the government level, in this discussion. And you know, our history, your and my career’s history has been around helping local business and I wanted to put that lens on it because the title of the podcast is Conquer Local. In your,

Paul: Absolutely.

George: In your opinion and your experience which spans, you know, almost four decades in the industry of working with local businesses, just how big of an aftershock are we gonna feel through local, in your opinion?

Paul: Well, you know, that’s probably the number one question we all get asked. And I think, you know, a lot of people, and I’ve gone on the record very early on in this crisis when people were talking about, well you know, all the health implications and stuff of this. And, right at the very beginning, I was a little bit outspoken and said that the biggest casualty of all of this crisis will be small local businesses. And I made that statement back at the end of March when I knew I was contributing to this book. And I stick by that view today and here we are just coming up, you know, to the end of July. So, I think small business is really gonna suffer. And I think it’s going to take a lot of different actions from many different sources, and many different people to just to re-stimulate economies all around the world.

George: Did we, this might be controversial but I’m gonna say it anyway, do you think in some jurisdictions with too many local businesses, is there an opportunity for the strong to survive by the fact that we reduce some of the, some of the excess that might’ve been in this space? You know I think to the restaurant business, you know everybody’s like, “Oh, there are so many bloody restaurants. If only there were 25% less.” Well, guess what, we might have a hell of a lot more than 25% less, which is horrible by the way, because as you said the biggest casualty is local business and local business feeds families and empowers the culture.

Paul: I think it’s fascinating, yeah. I think it’s fascinating that you say that because in one of the speeches and presentations that I give around this book, I actually referenced Darwin and I describe what’s going on right now as Darwinism for the modern world. And, you know without giving a history lesson or anything, you know obviously, you know Darwin’s theory of evolution talked about the survival of species and so forth. And what we’re seeing right now, at every level is it’s not, you know it’s not the biggest companies, it’s not the most wealthy companies or the strongest that are coming out of this successfully, it’s the ones that are able to adapt to you know and of course that, you know, that quote was made about the natural world, but I’ve used that quote pretty much all my life in regard to business, cause I firmly believe it’s relevant to business. There was a famous quote in the Financial Times many years ago now that ‘95% of all business failures can be directly attributed to the leadership of the company’. I still think that is very relevant today. And, you know it’s interesting, you look, you know we’ve only got to look at the way Vendasta has grown, for example, during this COVID crisis. Many, many companies around the world have been prepared and have adapted to this crisis. You know businesses who previously thought that they didn’t need any online presence or businesses who previously thought that they didn’t need to trade online have suddenly come rushing to the internet. Many of them are now buying e-commerce solutions. In fact, we’ve seen global e-commerce numbers almost double in the last three months. So I think it is a case that natural selection to some degree will work out and there’s always gonna be casualties, you know and we naturally feel sad for those businesses that don’t make it. But the reality is many will survive and will come out of this perhaps even stronger. And it will be those who were probably the most prepared, you know, and those that have managed the conditions better than anybody else.

George: It’s one of the questions I wanted to make sure that I asked. Are you seeing what I’ve been seeing over the last month to six weeks where people that we’ve had conversations with over the years, you or myself, or anyone around digital transformation and acceptance of the new digital normal now have arrived at that place where they’re saying, “Okay, now we’re ready.” It’s like exponentially growing in the last six weeks, is that the same thing that you’re seeing from your London office?

Paul: Absolutely. It’s almost like there’s been a global, you know come-to-Jesus session, you know, where people have just really said, hold on a minute we’ve dibbled and dabbled and tiptoed around this digital topic for a long while. In fact, I think you’ve seen it in one of my speeches and presentations where I start by saying “The answer is digital, now what was the question?” You know. And I think that that kind of process has gone on in many companies, not just small companies, but also very large organizations, you know. And what we’re now starting to see is how some of them, you know have responded, you know. Just look at the airline industry, which we know is gonna suffer pretty badly because of this just simply through changes in consumer behavior and changes in business behavior and business travel, you know. But some airlines have handled this, you know pretty well in terms of, you know realigning their fleet, realigning their operations and becoming very, very customer service focused. Whereas I look at, you know our national flag carrier here British Airways which has been pilloried left, right and center, not just for the way it’s treating its own people and its pilots and its staff, but, you know and that has carried on into the bad treatment of its customers, you know having to take class actions to get refunds and that kind of stuff. So again, you know it’s about all sorts of companies and how they respond to this. But those that end up, you know with the focus on their customer and rebuilding their business, they’re the ones who ultimately will survive.

Why Now? How COVID-19 Has Pushed the Adoption of Digital Solutions

George: One of the pieces of your background that I wanted to share and get some insights from you on is, you know you’ve worked in, you know your headquarters has been in London, you worked in the, in the telecom industry there for a number of years, then you advised organizations. You spent a lot of time in the United States when you were doing the acquisition mode when you were buying companies and bringing them into that into the larger organization. But then we’ve got this period of your time where you were advising CEOs and Heads of Marketing and Sales in Australia and in Africa. And, you know I’m sure I know for a fact that you were having conversations around transformation for the last 10 years. It’s interesting that those leaders and we’re talking smart people, we’re talking, I’ve met a number of these people that you were advising, some of the smartest business people that I’ve met. But what I wanna extract here Paul and get your insights on is why now? These are really smart people and they’re sitting there going, “Okay, now we need to move.” Can we unpack that so that the listeners can understand that sometimes you can have the perfect solution, you can have the right answer, you can have the right person on the other side of the desk that has the need, but something has to occur for them to make the change?

Paul: Yeah. Well, I think, well there’s a number of factors in there, and you’re right, I’ve sat in many boardrooms, you know all around the world. I’ve worked in, on every continent of the planet pretty much with the exception of Latin America. And you’re right, I’ve also worked with some incredibly smart people, you know and there’s, I think there’s, there’s two things I would say, particularly at the corporate level. You know one, you know, in terms of triggering action. Number one thing I’ve learned over the last 10 years as a consultant, the first thing you look at is how are those people remunerated? You know what constitutes their payback and particularly their you know, their bonus package, you know. Because if there are not key customer and growth measures in there, then I worry, you know. If it’s just about delivering revenue or just about delivering profit, I get very worried. You know I’m a firm believer that revenue and profit come to you as a by-product of doing something good for customers. And, you know one of the things that I look back particularly in the telco industry, and in the traditional news, traditional media industry, that I was part of for many, many years. In both of those industries, part of the reason why they were so slow to move, you know not that they had bad people at their helm but the way those people were paid, it was all about delivering a dividend check to the shareholder. You know that was their number one priority. And unfortunately, you know growing the customer base, or growing the penetration of new digital products or making sure that the business was prepared for the new and disruptive future that was coming around the corner, they were not things that they were remunerated against. And then, in terms of, you know to your latter point, what really triggered the action, ultimately, the action was only triggered when the edge of the cliff was suddenly becoming very, very close, and they knew that without action, they were slowly gonna slip over the side of that cliff. And for many, unfortunately, it happened too late.

George: Well, there is that risk that you, you don’t move fast enough, or you don’t have your, you know you’ve got blinders on you’re laser-focused on you know, “I’m really good, I’m laser-focused on the goal.” But at the same time, you miss an enormous opportunity over the fence and the competitor gets it or worse yet you, you miss a paradigm shift and there’s nothing

Paul: Absolutely

George: You can do to right that, that course at that point.

Paul: Well, to that very point, you know I mean, you take the telco, you take the telco industry. You know, for a large chunk of time, that utility business, pretty much half of its income, you know and a large, large chunk of its profit just came from its minutes, you know. And then all of a sudden the internet came along and Skype and all these, you know wonderful, you know free access to calls and communications, and pretty much overnight, the telco industry was disrupted and had half its income stream taken away from it. You know and, you know sadly, you know that dividend check, you know all of a sudden started to dry up you know and consumers were saying, Hold on, hold on. Where are you, you know where are you going with the new world? Where are you in digital? Where are you in terms of replacing that revenue stream that’s no longer there anymore? And unfortunately, not too many of those, those leaders are around anymore, because, you know to go back to my Darwin point, they were just not able to adapt.

George: So that adaptability is really key learning over the last years as you’ve worked with those organizations. It seems that the bigger the organization, the harder time they have with being that agile and being able to pivot and change. What are you seeing now as you move forward? I know you’re still consulting a number of organizations. You sit on, you know the BigFive organization that you created that is in the emerging market of Africa, which I’m just fascinated by the African marketplace because it’s almost like they get to learn from all of the other things that have happened and maybe have the opportunity to build it right. And I know you’re spending a lot of time there. But what are you seeing now? Do you see larger organizations more able to be agile?

Paul: Well, I’ll touch on the Africa thing in a minute, but you’re right, you know. Some of the best learning you get is to look at small businesses. You know small businesses, if they’re run properly are agile, they can spin on a sixpence, you know they could make a change, they can you know, focus their efforts on customers very quickly. And I think a lot of larger companies are now starting to wake up to that mentality and organizing their, structuring their organizations around the customers as opposed to, you know levels of spend or product or process, you know. And again, that’s another paradigm shift that you’re, that you’ve seen as a consequence of digital. You know the silo-based businesses are slowly and slowly, you know moving into the sunset. And you’re seeing businesses with much flatter structures, you know built around customer cohorts, you know with, cross channel, cross-functional teams that can react and respond quickly to customer needs, and shift forward. So you are seeing, a lot of, a lot of transformation driven by small business, thinking in small business processes. And onto the continent of Africa, you’re right. You know I mean, there’s so much innovation happening, right now in Africa, it’s scary. And, you know they were the last continent to come into the digital game. And there’s a, there’s a ton of investment, pretty much going on across the continent into fiber infrastructure and so forth. And you’re right, they are learning from other countries. They’ve also had their own inherent problems with corruption and other things and so, the most innovation you’re seeing right now, for example in the fintech space, is in Africa, you know where physical money is very slowly being phased out. And, you know I will lay a fair bet that probably the first country in the world to go cashless at some point in the next 10 to 12 years will be an African country. You know whereby that, you know all that corruption of holding physical you know associated with holding physical cash and whatever is completely, you know, eradicated through smart money and smart payments. You know you’ve only got to look in countries particularly like Kenya, Rwanda, and South Africa right now, where you’re seeing incredible shifts in, you know payment gateways, and new ways of transferring money, you know that don’t involve cash. So I think, I think, you know necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, you know. And I think the world would do well, you know to look at what is going on in Africa right now. And as you know, part of what we try and do at BigFive is to showcase a lot of that emerging talent and entrepreneurship that’s coming out of these accelerators located all over Africa. I think at the last count there were 29 separate digital accelerator businesses just in the city of Cape Town, which just shows you how much is going on. And by the way, the one that we host our annual event in Cape Town is one of those accelerators. And they’ve got nearly 400 small businesses under their umbrella. So just shows you how much innovation is going on right now.

George: Well thank you for the invite to speak at that tech incubator about a year ago, it was pretty cool to see that innovation. And of course, I remember the comment that you had when we were driving into Cape Town, a year or so back you’re like, this is one of what was it, one of the four or five most amazing vistas on the planet, as you drive into Table Mountain.

Paul: Yeah, well, you know as I said, I’ve been lucky, I’ve traveled all over the world. And I think, you know for me the, probably the three prettiest cities from a, from a scenic perspective would probably be Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, and Cape Town. You know they are three cities that are completely dominated by their, their typography and their geography, you know. Sydney with its amazing Harbor, obviously, Rio with its beaches and the mountains so close to the beach and then obviously Cape Town and you saw it firsthand and I think you went wild when we turned that bend. And literally right in front of you is that massive Table Mountain, which completely, for those listening who’ve never been to Cape Town, I urge you to go to, cause if there is one city where literally a piece of granite dominates a city, Cape Town is it.


George: Just a small glimpse of some of the things you’ll learn when you get into the book, Aftershocks and Opportunities with one of the contributing authors, Paul Plant, a good friend of mine, Paul thanks for coming on board to the Conquer Local Podcast. We could go on for hours. We appreciate your contributions today. Stay safe, my friend, and we’ll see you soon.

George: So there was a lot of talk about the telecom industry and Paul was using it as an analog. And I think that it is a great analog. There’s a very famous quote and I’m not gonna tell you who the person was that said it cause I can’t remember that part of the quote, but I can remember the quote. And it was the CEO of General Motors at the time. And they said, “Trying to move General Motors in a new direction was like trying to move a cruise ship with a tugboat.” And that is the example that Paul was trying to give you when it comes to the telecom industry. And we’ve talked at length over bottles of South African wine about this subject. So for those listening to the podcast, I’ll tell you what I’ve taken out of Paul’s discussion around telecom. They were so big and the people were being paid in a manner that they were accomplishing the goal, but they weren’t looking around the corner and they were at the risk of being disrupted. And the takeaway that we can have as individuals is that we always need to be looking around that corner. And the state of change that our society and our culture and our business climates are going through is accelerating. So if you don’t look around the corner, you might wake up one day and 50% of your revenue is gone and that’s super uncomfortable. Now we may have gone through that, we being those of you on the call with the most recent issue that we’re dealing with. And I’m sorry if you’ve lost half of your business during this last occurrence, probably couldn’t see that coming. But by looking around the corner at all times, you now have hopefully adapted and you’re doing things a little bit differently. Like if you were calling on restaurants or hotels, by looking around the corner, you might’ve had something in your back pocket where “Oh, If I had time, I might be going to chase this thing.” Well, guess what, now you have that time. So by learning from those large industries that were too big to move quickly and continuing to have that lens of, always kind of look around the corner and always have one toe in some new thing in case this thing over here gets disrupted, I think is a really good takeaway from Mr. Paul Plant’s learnings. We also could have gone into, you know what’s the best South African wine and, why peri-peri chicken livers so good. But maybe we can do that in another episode. I do say that Mr. Paul Plant, one of the smartest guys I’ve met, the most interesting man on the planet and it helps with that amazing British accent. And we’re happy to bring that to you today on the Conquer Local Podcast. The book is called Aftershocks and Opportunities, and you can just Google it and find that title. And I’m sure you’ll find lots of great takeaways. It is the Conquer Local Podcast. We’re here every week and we hope that you’ll reach out to us in the Conquer Local Community. Producer Colleen spends a lot of time in there and makes sure that I’m of the know if we have to answer some questions. And we’d love that to be the conduit for you to reach out. I know a lot of you are still talking to us on LinkedIn, which is great, but the community is there specifically as that conduit for you to communicate. And we’d love to get your ideas. We’re starting to plan season four of where we might go and what sort of guests we might bring and what sort of content we might start looking at. And we’d love to get your feedback. A lot of the paths that we’ve been taking on content have come from our listeners and we’d love to get that input. What are we doing wrong? What are we doing right? What would you like to see more of? What would you like us to investigate? That’s what keeps producer Colleen running, that and coffee. And we’re looking forward to hearing from you. So thanks for joining us this week. My name is George Leith. I will see you when I see you.