Leaving his business in South Africa, Bradley Cull moved to Australia without any business network or prior plans in this new place. But with courage and determination, he waded through unknown territories, acquired a company, and grew it successfully. His perseverance bore fruit when he took on the helm of Dynamic Developments Carpentry & Construction as its Managing Director.
“I found that leading and managing people anywhere in the world is the same. Human nature is essentially the same, anyway. Dealing with people is the same. The peculiarities are the cultural differences between Africa and Australia. That is the sort of stuff I need to get my head around a little bit better. That is a bit of a learning curve. But in general, running a company is quite similar. At the end of the day, business is an international language,” a contemplating Bradley Cull remarked.
Brad grew up in the South African city of Durban where he started his career life and later worked there and in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city. Without any entrepreneurial background in his family, he credits sports for providing him with a venue where he honed his business acumen. “What guided me into more leadership roles in companies as a starting point was playing a lot of sports and having a lot of leadership roles within sports. By the time I went into my first jobs, it translated well. I ended up either running departments or running businesses. So, I found myself naturally going towards that,” he surmised. He also viewed his marketing and sales degree as helpful in laying the foundation for his entrepreneurial journey. Although it wasn't specifically about business management, he still found it beneficial.
The first business he put up was a sawmilling venture, his introduction to the business world. They traded timber out of Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe and milled them. Thinking of diversifying and adding value to the business, Brad wanted to go into full-timber construction. He proposed the idea to his business partner but his partner preferred to stay with their milling business, so Brad decided to go on his own. “Roundabout 2007, I left. I sold my shares in that sawmill and started a construction business,” he narrated.
After about six years, he sold his construction company and moved to Australia for a better and secured life for his two children. It was tough for Brad to leave the venture that he built in South Africa, in spite of the ups and downs he had to hurdle in running the business. “It's something I built from scratch, from absolutely nothing. Then I moved to Australia for personal reasons. Selling the business, I found it difficult because I hadn't quite finished with what I wanted to do. But for personal reasons, I realised I had to move on.”
Starting life all over again in a foreign land was a huge risk and drawback for Brad. “When we came over, I hadn't planned anything. I had nothing lined up. I took a chance, in that sense. Then I started working for this company when I got here. It was in existence. I worked as the construction manager for the company for about close to a year,” he shared. A year after, Brad and the project manager proposed a buyout of the company to the existing owner. While it was not a complete buyout, he and his business partner bought the majority of shares in the company. The original owner then became a silent shareholder.
With Brad’s solid experience of leading three businesses in different geographic locations under varying circumstances, he can now draw the disparities and parallelisms of the distinctive stages in his entrepreneurial journey.
Nothing scared him when he started his first business because he was still young and green and had no idea of what could be ahead of him, such as the risks and stumbling blocks. Managing a business in Australia was a different matter altogether because of the unfamiliar business environment. For Brad, “I've always operated in Africa. We tend to operate at the time within a set of rules or lack of, depends on how you look at it. But Australia is very regulated as it is a very legislatively regulated country. It’s that part that was most important to me, which I had to get my head around quite quickly because the actual business itself, what we do, wasn't necessarily the scary part. It's the unknown – compliances and regulations that all businesses have to follow here.”
Establishing a business from the ground up and acquiring an existing business both have their pros and cons, he stressed. The former requires a lot of preparation while the latter already has systems and structures in place. However, the challenge comes when there is a need for a major overhaul, which can affect the stakeholders of an existing business. On the other hand, the former offers more freedom while the latter has limitations that can pose certain complications.
“Building a business from scratch, you obviously get to mould it quite quickly the way you would like it; whereas stepping into an existing business, you always carry some of the legacy problems of that business. And you don't always know about those upfront, whether it's an existing culture in the business, a market reputation of the business or a potential financial dealing in the past. The business tends to carry that, which can be difficult and takes a bit to overcome. I will say that was the biggest difference in acquiring a business as opposed to starting. You do have to deal with all the issues that the business may have come across,” Brad explained.
On the other hand, his initial entrepreneurial journey in Africa was more of a trial-and-error. Though he had people around him whom he can talk to, there wasn’t one who could mentor and guide him along his business path. Mentorship is something that he found interesting in Australia, which he hoped he had sought earlier in his journey. Good thing that he learned of EO Melbourne through the original owner of Dynamic Developments. “It's the first business group that I’ve joined in my career. To be honest, it's all quite new to me; the whole idea of business groups, mentorships, and that type of thing.”
Brad recognised straightaway that one of his shortcomings was not understanding the Australian business setting. It didn't help that construction is a “rough and tumble kind of industry”, as he described it. He realised, “I needed to work with an experienced business group to look for that sort of guidance where I can fill the gaps and get more knowledge.” EO provided him with significant educational inputs that equipped him during his entrepreneurial passage in Australia. Other than the learnings, EO Melbourne also became his support system where he found high levels of trust and respect among its members.
Notwithstanding what he learned from EO, Brad also points to his ability to manage and deal with people well as a tool that helped him throughout his journey. “My business has always been labour-intensive and people-intensive. I would consider my biggest strength as being able to motivate and lead teams of people. I’m good at dealing with both clients and staff. So, I would have to say, that is probably the strongest character that carried me through.”
Perseverance is another quality he finds useful in running a business. He has not allowed any situation or circumstance to get him down, no matter how big the obstacle seems to be. One of the biggest lessons he picked, “Anybody stepping into the business world needs to be prepared to take the knocks and the highs, at the same time. It's understanding the ups and downs that go with it, and not giving up.”
Acknowledging his strengths and weaknesses, Brad worked on a strategy of partnering with people who have the skills that he doesn’t have. In his first business, he partnered with someone who was already familiar with sawmilling. When he moved to timber construction, he did joint ventures with companies who were already doing it. “I've always tried to keep the skills and knowledge around me even if it's a new industry or a new venture for me. That's what I learned along the way, which is not to believe you can do it all and then try to draw the skills of other people.”
One thing he is sure about himself is that he always had the mindset of a business owner. “It was quite difficult not to operate that way. I sort of trained myself to think, behave and interact with people in that way,” Brad admitted.
There are heartaches and frustrations in running his own business, but the reward is the flexibility of time that allows him to create moments with his children. As he watches his children grow, he wants them to also learn from his entrepreneurial voyage, which is to stick to what they are aiming at and then keep going. He and his son play rugby, given that it is his favourite sport. Interestingly, his daughter seems to show some signs of following in his entrepreneurial footsteps.
That’s a green light for Brad because he believes that successful people in the future are going to be entrepreneurial-minded individuals. These are the people who have the flexibility to change careers, jobs, situations and directions. “That's going to be key to success in the future. Having a mindset of an entrepreneur is invaluable. It doesn't even matter whether you're going to run your own business or not. Even if you are going to work for an organisation, the flexibility and freedom of thought are going to be crucial,” he stated.
Training his sights on the future, business-wise, Brad is looking at diversifying his enterprise to other areas outside of construction. He also wants to have some structures in place within the company so that he wouldn’t have to be present in the day-to-day operations. On a personal level, apart from sports, Brad enjoys travel. “That's probably the one thing that I don't do enough, but I enjoy the most. Just travelling around, seeing places and going to new places.”
Brad is out to discover new places, figuratively, that is. Visualising this point in his journey to what’s in store down the road, Brad regards Australia as his home. But he likes to go back to Africa someday to give back and help. He has no concrete plans yet, but he hopes to foster a stronger relationship between Africa and Australia, may it be through trade, skills transfer or charity work. Rightfully so because charity and business are languages that connect humanity around the world.