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Podcast: Interview with Andrew Walker, Aspen Medical

Podcast: Interview with Andrew Walker, Aspen Medical

Cynthia Dearin joins Dr Andrew Walker, Co-founder of Aspen Medical to talk about how Aspen Medical went about entering the Middle East and North Africa, and how he had found the experience.

Listen to the podcast:

What motivated Aspen Medical to start exporting to the Middle East, and how did you get started?

Well, we’ve probably been working in the Middle East for four to five years, but we’ve been out there for two to three years.

In many ways we were an export company from day one. Our first contacts were in the UK, so we were delivering services in the UK before we had any business here. Then our next piece of work was in the Solomon Islands, working for the Australian Department of Defence. So we’ve been an export-oriented company for a long time, and a lot of people don’t get it that you can be a non-manufacturing exporter.

And when you talk about health services, they really don’t get that you can actually export health services.

Currently we have the National Exporter of the Year award for bio-health services, and we’re in the Canberra Exporters Hall of Fame. So exporting to the Middle East was not a big mental leap for us.

We had initially tried to work with the Saudi government, who had put out a large tender to provide environmental health services to Saudi Arabia, like pre-inspections, water inspections and other environmental factors that impact on health. We tried to get that bit of business when we were still quite young. We were shortlisted, and told that we were the third bidder and that the contract was on the Prince’s desk. It then remained on the Prince’s desk for about two years.

However, being told that you’re the preferred bidder and that your contract is on the Prince’s desk means nothing in Arab culture. It simply means that “Well, we’ll think about it and we’ll get around to it. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Well from my experience – that’s very much the Arab culture, in that your wants and needs are very much subordinate to their wants and needs.

So we started making contacts in the UAE in legal and accounting, to help us in the region. Then after we made contact with some of the professional services – especially legal, which is very different in the Middle East. At that time it gave us a presence, as we were working towards the Saudi Arabian gig, and then when Glenn and I were flying into the UAE one day, there was a 200 car pile-up on that road. Quite famous, if you Google it.

So what effectively happened is that they were driving at 160 kilometres an hour with about 30 feet visibility, and they just consecutively bumped into each other. There were no ambulances running around there, nothing was happening!

You know, there were people literally lying on the road you know, in all sorts of states of death and dying.

They hadn’t closed off the other road, it was just a shamble! So when we drove down there we made an appointment to see the Abu Dhabi Health Authority, and said “Hey guys, have you thought about putting some sort of disaster management?” – which we were doing for the Australian government at the time. From that – we actually didn’t get to work with them, but we’ve met people and moved on, and then the notion of doing a proper ambulance service for Abu Dhabi initially, privately for ADNOC, and then moving into the entire UAE. So it just sort of evolved.

So exporting to the UAE came: one, we were looking to do work in Saudi Arabia. Two, we needed a friendly base from which to work and get professional services. Three, we flew in in the middle of a car traffic accident.

Out of that we approached their authorities with quite a different idea: it was all about you know, turning off the other lane of traffic and using it as a counter-current for getting the ambulances up and moving people through, and then out of that morphed into “Why don’t we bid for a private ambulance system?”, and then morphed into a public one.

Why were you looking at the Middle East at all in the first place? Because it’s quite unusual for an Australian company to actually go after the Middle East in that way.

I think it’s because Glenn and I are quite unusual people.

You know, we were starting to grow a business and we said: our first job was in export, our second job was export. So we thought of ourselves as a global business, before we even had three staff. We weren’t perturbed by that, and we had heard about the environmental health tender, and so we figured we’d throw our hat in the ring. It was no more simple than that, being aware of the opportunity and not being frightened to have a go at it.

How have you found that exporting to the MENA markets like the UAE has been different to other regions of the world?

It’s very difficult. For example, we provided some military equipment to the UAE Defence Forces, and we had an intermediary working with us, because you find that in the Middle East quite often you need a lot of intermediaries to interface between you and the end customer.

So we put the specs together, we priced it, we won the job. The goods were delivered, the specs were correct, but when they arrived the colonel in charge with the sites changed the specs! So we then had to make the modifications at our expense.

We wouldn’t be paid until the modifications were done. The modifications were done, and then that colonel was promoted out, a new colonel comes in and he says “I think it should look like this!” So there’s a second round of modifications done, and they then accept delivery and pay half of the payment. There’s now a 30 day wait for the other half of the payment. In the meantime, the first payment is taken by the intermediary, and he decides that it’s not your money and he will take that. The second money then arrives and we get paid, but the first half we don’t receive. 18 months later we’re still chasing that first half.

It’s very common, so again: paying is really difficult. Unfortunately, what’s become very apparent is that over the last 15 to 20 years a lot of European and other companies have gone into the Arab states and ripped them off.

And now the pendulum has swung the other way, so that governance now is swinging very much to the right of the arc, and it’s very difficult to get paid.

But that hasn’t put you off working there?

A little bit, but if it was easy then everyone would be doing it.

Luckily Aspen has enough free cash flows from other sources that we’re not completely dependent upon this.

In many ways it is a bit of a commercial experiment… and has it put us off? A little bit. But would we sell military equipment through an Arab third party intermediary to the UAE government again? Not the same way we did it before.

So you’ve learned a few things from your initial experience, especially about getting paid.

Exactly, so what we may do is say “Well, these are the only terms upon which we could enter into this transaction, and if these terms aren’t acceptable then we will say no.”

Were those governance issues and payment issues the biggest challenge that you faced when you set up in the region?

Not the payment side. I mean, that’s crucial. But eventually, at the end of the day, as long as you can sustain your cash flows, that will happen.

So given all these issues, the fact that the situation of working in the UAE seems to be quite fraught; what has kept you there, and why do you like working there? There are many challenges, what’s good about it?

There are a couple of things that are good about it. First of all, it is dynamic, from a pure business sense. And its definitely not boring.

I think in many ways, things that are easy are very difficult to do, but the hard things are actually quite easy.

So you can do big things, like if you ever said to someone “Well, what you’re going to do Andrew: in a two-year process you’re going to start from scratch a national ambulance company for an entire country.” We would have said “Nah, we can’t do that!” But we did it!

So the impossible’s possible, but it’s the little things that are impossible. So you can actually get a lot done in a short amount of time, as long as the stars are aligned.

Setting up the air ambulance business, for example. You can accelarate stuff so it’s quite exciting from that respect.

Certainly we will get paid. When they’re good and they’re ready, they will pay us. So it is lucrative you know, I can’t say that it’s not lucrative. It’s an exciting area, and the possibilities are not endless but they are substantial.

Since you’ve gone to the UAE, how has that changed Aspen? You know, changed what you’ve done, has it grown the business? Has it changed the shape of it? Or is it just the same?

No, being successful has given us great credibility. We’ve been able to say, for example especially in other Arab states like Qatar. We could point to that level of success, show that we could be a good partner, show that we can deliver and execute, and show that we’re not ripping them off.

So we’ve been able to point to ourselves as having some credentials. We would not have won Qatar without the UAE. But secondly, it helps very strongly to put Aspen on the global map, because we want to be a global company. You just can’t stay away from hard places, you’ve got to go to hard places. I think that in the general international business community, you get a bigger tick in the box if you can do business in difficult places than if you can just do it in the UK and the US.

Is there anything that would’ve been really useful for you to know before you got started? Or one thing you wish you had known that you didn’t know, before you began?

I wish someone has sat me down and had this talk, so at least I’d be better prepared.

So I’d known not to take things personally. If I would’ve known that it’s going to be longer and harder, but the rewards would be there and the satisfaction would be there. That would’ve been useful.

But if there was one thing, I think the one thing would’ve been… if someone had taken me aside and simply said “Don’t take it personally.”

What motivated Aspen Medical to start exporting to the Middle East, and how did you get started?

Well, we’ve probably been working in the Middle East for four to five years, but we’ve been out there for two to three years.

In many ways we were an export company from day one. Our first contacts were in the UK, so we were delivering services in the UK before we had any business here. Then our next piece of work was in the Solomon Islands, working for the Australian Department of Defence. So we’ve been an export-oriented company for a long time, and a lot of people don’t get it that you can be a non-manufacturing exporter.

And when you talk about health services, they really don’t get that you can actually export health services.

Currently we have the National Exporter of the Year award for bio-health services, and we’re in the Canberra Exporters Hall of Fame. So exporting to the Middle East was not a big mental leap for us.

We had initially tried to work with the Saudi government, who had put out a large tender to provide environmental health services to Saudi Arabia, like pre-inspections, water inspections and other environmental factors that impact on health. We tried to get that bit of business when we were still quite young. We were shortlisted, and told that we were the third bidder and that the contract was on the Prince’s desk. It then remained on the Prince’s desk for about two years.

However, being told that you’re the preferred bidder and that your contract is on the Prince’s desk means nothing in Arab culture. It simply means that “Well, we’ll think about it and we’ll get around to it. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Well from my experience – that’s very much the Arab culture, in that your wants and needs are very much subordinate to their wants and needs.

So we started making contacts in the UAE in legal and accounting, to help us in the region. Then after we made contact with some of the professional services – especially legal, which is very different in the Middle East. At that time it gave us a presence, as we were working towards the Saudi Arabian gig, and then when Glenn and I were flying into the UAE one day, there was a 200 car pile-up on that road. Quite famous, if you Google it.

So what effectively happened is that they were driving at 160 kilometres an hour with about 30 feet visibility, and they just consecutively bumped into each other. There were no ambulances running around there, nothing was happening!

You know, there were people literally lying on the road you know, in all sorts of states of death and dying.

They hadn’t closed off the other road, it was just a shamble! So when we drove down there we made an appointment to see the Abu Dhabi Health Authority, and said “Hey guys, have you thought about putting some sort of disaster management?” – which we were doing for the Australian government at the time. From that – we actually didn’t get to work with them, but we’ve met people and moved on, and then the notion of doing a proper ambulance service for Abu Dhabi initially, privately for ADNOC, and then moving into the entire UAE. So it just sort of evolved.

So exporting to the UAE came: one, we were looking to do work in Saudi Arabia. Two, we needed a friendly base from which to work and get professional services. Three, we flew in in the middle of a car traffic accident.

Out of that we approached their authorities with quite a different idea: it was all about you know, turning off the other lane of traffic and using it as a counter-current for getting the ambulances up and moving people through, and then out of that morphed into “Why don’t we bid for a private ambulance system?”, and then morphed into a public one.

Why were you looking at the Middle East at all in the first place? Because it’s quite unusual for an Australian company to actually go after the Middle East in that way.

I think it’s because Glenn and I are quite unusual people.

You know, we were starting to grow a business and we said: our first job was in export, our second job was export. So we thought of ourselves as a global business, before we even had three staff. We weren’t perturbed by that, and we had heard about the environmental health tender, and so we figured we’d throw our hat in the ring. It was no more simple than that, being aware of the opportunity and not being frightened to have a go at it.

How have you found that exporting to the MENA markets like the UAE has been different to other regions of the world?

It’s very difficult. For example, we provided some military equipment to the UAE Defence Forces, and we had an intermediary working with us, because you find that in the Middle East quite often you need a lot of intermediaries to interface between you and the end customer.

So we put the specs together, we priced it, we won the job. The goods were delivered, the specs were correct, but when they arrived the colonel in charge with the sites changed the specs! So we then had to make the modifications at our expense.

We wouldn’t be paid until the modifications were done. The modifications were done, and then that colonel was promoted out, a new colonel comes in and he says “I think it should look like this!” So there’s a second round of modifications done, and they then accept delivery and pay half of the payment. There’s now a 30 day wait for the other half of the payment. In the meantime, the first payment is taken by the intermediary, and he decides that it’s not your money and he will take that. The second money then arrives and we get paid, but the first half we don’t receive. 18 months later we’re still chasing that first half.

It’s very common, so again: paying is really difficult. Unfortunately, what’s become very apparent is that over the last 15 to 20 years a lot of European and other companies have gone into the Arab states and ripped them off.

And now the pendulum has swung the other way, so that governance now is swinging very much to the right of the arc, and it’s very difficult to get paid.

But that hasn’t put you off working there?

A little bit, but if it was easy then everyone would be doing it.

Luckily Aspen has enough free cash flows from other sources that we’re not completely dependent upon this.

In many ways it is a bit of a commercial experiment… and has it put us off? A little bit. But would we sell military equipment through an Arab third party intermediary to the UAE government again? Not the same way we did it before.

So you’ve learned a few things from your initial experience, especially about getting paid.

Exactly, so what we may do is say “Well, these are the only terms upon which we could enter into this transaction, and if these terms aren’t acceptable then we will say no.”

Were those governance issues and payment issues the biggest challenge that you faced when you set up in the region?

Not the payment side. I mean, that’s crucial. But eventually, at the end of the day, as long as you can sustain your cash flows, that will happen.

So given all these issues, the fact that the situation of working in the UAE seems to be quite fraught; what has kept you there, and why do you like working there? There are many challenges, what’s good about it?

There are a couple of things that are good about it. First of all, it is dynamic, from a pure business sense. And its definitely not boring.

I think in many ways, things that are easy are very difficult to do, but the hard things are actually quite easy.

So you can do big things, like if you ever said to someone “Well, what you’re going to do Andrew: in a two-year process you’re going to start from scratch a national ambulance company for an entire country.” We would have said “Nah, we can’t do that!” But we did it!

So the impossible’s possible, but it’s the little things that are impossible. So you can actually get a lot done in a short amount of time, as long as the stars are aligned.

Setting up the air ambulance business, for example. You can accelarate stuff so it’s quite exciting from that respect.

Certainly we will get paid. When they’re good and they’re ready, they will pay us. So it is lucrative you know, I can’t say that it’s not lucrative. It’s an exciting area, and the possibilities are not endless but they are substantial.

Since you’ve gone to the UAE, how has that changed Aspen? You know, changed what you’ve done, has it grown the business? Has it changed the shape of it? Or is it just the same?

No, being successful has given us great credibility. We’ve been able to say, for example especially in other Arab states like Qatar. We could point to that level of success, show that we could be a good partner, show that we can deliver and execute, and show that we’re not ripping them off.

So we’ve been able to point to ourselves as having some credentials. We would not have won Qatar without the UAE. But secondly, it helps very strongly to put Aspen on the global map, because we want to be a global company. You just can’t stay away from hard places, you’ve got to go to hard places. I think that in the general international business community, you get a bigger tick in the box if you can do business in difficult places than if you can just do it in the UK and the US.

Is there anything that would’ve been really useful for you to know before you got started? Or one thing you wish you had known that you didn’t know, before you began?

I wish someone has sat me down and had this talk, so at least I’d be better prepared.

So I’d known not to take things personally. If I would’ve known that it’s going to be longer and harder, but the rewards would be there and the satisfaction would be there. That would’ve been useful.

But if there was one thing, I think the one thing would’ve been… if someone had taken me aside and simply said “Don’t take it personally.”

About Cynthia Dearin

Cynthia Dearin is an international business expert, business author and keynote speaker on the topic of leadership. She owns Dearin & Associates, an international business consulting firm specialising in fast-growing emerging markets, which provides companies with the commercial intelligence and strategies, cultural skills and trusted contacts that they need to succeed in new countries.

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