After we got a license in New Zealand, I felt we could do almost anything and go almost anywhere, and I got a little cocky. Papua New Guinea, here we come! The Australian and New Zealand partners I had worked with to get a license to set up the business in New Zealand, now called 2 Degrees, had heard there was a privatization of the telephone company of Papua New Guinea, and they felt we should bid for it.
“Why not?” I said confidently. And off we went to this beautiful island country just off the coast of Australia.
Initially it seemed a simple enough professional process: an international tender was published by one of the big accounting firms. We responded with a beautiful document setting out our proposals. It turned out there were no other serious bids at all. It seemed like a walk in the park. But in reality there is nothing like that in life!
The consultants recommended to the government that they award the tender to us. Agreements were circulated and I travelled to the country to sign. So smooth and professional! Just one more step… government had to approve. I was invited to meet the PM who was so gracious and invited me to present to his Cabinet. What a privilege!
I made a fantastic presentation to them. They seemed to like it very much. It was a coalition government with many parties.
After the meeting, the PM and minister told me it would have to go to Parliament! They were worried, because the trade unions did not want the company privatized.
Within days, it became an ugly public fight amongst politicians on very ideological grounds. We were in the middle of a storm!
“It’s not you guys, but this has become a powerful issue for the opposition because privatizations are associated with job losses,” they said.
We had a signed agreement with the government, and I could easily have taken the advice of the lawyers to go to court and enforce our rights. We chose to exit graciously and we left.
I wasn’t upset, but slightly bemused by my own naivety. We had not done enough homework on the country and its politics at the time. That is why we had been the only serious bidder.
# Lesson learnt. Let’s go home to Africa!
Looking back after all these years, I laugh at how they ate my lunch. An Irish businessman turned up after me, did the deal in broad daylight, and made a ton of money. He was more experienced in that type of market and had done better homework. He made it look so simple.
I couldn’t “course-correct” because I did not know enough about the environment. I had not done my homework correctly. I didn’t have enough experience and I was terribly over reaching my resources and capacity.
After that, I absolutely refused to even entertain such partnerships. Let’s say it was my own personal experience, and it does not have to be yours. This was a failure from which I learnt huge lessons that were to guide me for years to come. These include:
# Be careful with things like privatizations, and partnerships with governments in business.
# Homework, homework, homework.
# What worked somewhere else does not mean it will work everywhere!
# Careful not to over reach.
One day I hope I will return to that beautiful country of Papua New Guinea and its friendly people, and serve them as an entrepreneur.
Author: Strive Masiyiwa