BQ Newsletter
Ray Mears

A walk on the wild side

Wednesday 23 May 2012 7:00

Metaphors abound, survivalist Ray Mears on what business leaders can learn from his time in the wilderness.

Pack flares, firelighters and a machete. We’re going on a journey deep into the bush. Survival is the only goal, with the threat of death lingering large over our expedition.

Fortunately, leading the charge through the labyrinth of trees and danger is Ray Mears, the TV survivalist who knows Mother Nature’s cruel ways more than most that walk the earth.

There’s much more to Mears than meets the eye, though, and less known than his TV credits is his prowess as an entrepreneur.

An entrepreneur, in fact, that has survived three recessions and has the scars to prove it.

BQ crossed paths with Mears this week as he sought to inspire a roomful of some of the UK’s brightest business leaders.

His approach works, with his tales of dramas on the high seas and in the wilderness, providing vivid yet simplistic lessons to bosses in need of a kick-start.

“My business is a boat,” he says as he takes to the stage. And the metaphors don’t stop there.

But unlike hackneyed comparisons between business and the real world – like cake slices and market share or engine pistons and the workforce – Mears’ stories are delivered genuinely and instantly appeal to the wide-eyed adventurer within us.

Take, for example, his denunciation of the blame culture and the tendency in business of pointing the finger instead of looking for solutions.

“I emerged from the wreckage of a helicopter crash,” he says, with entrepreneurs of all ages in the room hanging on his words in silence.

“Would pointing the finger of blame have done any good? No. You have to pull other people out of the wreckage and give them medical attention.”

“And this is what we must do in business – accept things. Accept that there will be crises. The swifter you accept them, the faster you can move on. This is the same for the UK economy.”

Mears founded his own business – what is now known as the Woodlore school of bushcraft – in 1983, many years before his celebrity star rose.

Setbacks in recent years have included the impact of the collapse of Woolworths on one of his major suppliers. The riots too, have played their part in making things difficult for the supply chain at the firm, which runs an online survival gear shop as well as courses in the English countryside.

Getting back to the nautical theme, though, his business started out as a “tiny boat”, with just him in it. It now has a full crew, with him at the helm.

“The business environment is the ocean across which I sail and I really enjoy that journey. I don’t believe there is winning in business – yes you might win sales – but there’s no finishing line to cross. The goal has to be something different and you have to enjoy the journey. I want my employees to enjoy their work and I want them to feel challenged by the opportunities. That team is really important,” he says.

“When it comes to sales, the most important person in that team, without a doubt, is the person on the lowest rung of that ladder. For us that’s the people packing, because ultimately they are the last person in contact with our customers. It’s very important that you communicate that to them so that they are a vital part of your dream.”

Successful businesses, he says, are navigated by a symbiotic relationship between “the dreamer” and the realist.

He cites the true tale of a couple that was forced to survive on a dinghy for 119 days after their yacht was wrecked by the sea miles from shore.

The husband knew that the dinghy was floating ever further away from the shipping lanes and their ultimate rescue, but kept this from his wife to give her hope. She, in the meantime, showed the practical skills to fashion safety pins into fish hooks which kept them alive until they were finally saved.

“What you see with Maurice and Maralyn [Bailey] is the perfect model for a business. Maurice is the accountant with the figures in his head. He knows where that ship is going. Maralyn is the dreamer, innovator and problem solver,” he says.

“We can train 1,000 accountants easily but we can’t create 1,000 dreamers. We’re facing a very difficult time as a nation and I believe it’s very important that we find a way to produce more dreamers by looking to people with ideas and creating circumstances where we can use their skills.”

So you’ve got your crew in place, the vessel is watertight and you – the dreamer – are on the bridge looking with purpose to the horizon. What else would Ray have us do?

“When you are going into a storm with your boat, you don’t know where the problems will come from. I have a very simple attitude; don’t put up too many sails, don’t expose yourself too much, no loose ropes floating around, no hatches open, don’t spend what you haven’t got and if you do spend think wisely about it.”

And what of unexpected “waves” intent on unsettling us?

“The hardest thing in business is knowing when to be stuck and when to change tact. Sometimes you face a problem and you can wear it down, keep pushing and by the law of averages you’ll get through it.

“Sometimes it’ll be the wrong thing to do. Sometimes you have to know when it’s an immovable force and you have to let go of that and change direction and find another way. That is one of the most important skills as a leader and a business.

“If you have a big problem, break it into smaller problems. That’s a principal you can take into business. Don’t be overwhelmed by a problem.”

Then there’s pressure and how best to handle it.

Mears says: “When I’m in the wilderness, if I’m not able to start a fire in a storm when other people are relying on my ability, I might not get it going and then we’ll die because nature is a very hard teacher.”

Now that’s real pressure.

Ray Mears was speaking at the Entrepreneurs' Forum's 'Who Dares Wins' conference (