Sir Ranulph Fiennes tells Belfast business: Why conquering your corporate Everest doesn't have to be difficult
The 'world's greatest living explorer' Sir Ranulph Fiennes visited Belfast last week to tell firms about how his 40 years' experience of overcoming obstacles and breaking records can help them, writes Clare Weir
Legendary British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes has briefed Belfast business people on how to climb their own corporate mountains.
Described by The Guinness Book of Records as "the world's greatest living explorer", he's spent 40 years climbing mountains, crossing the poles and in his spare time, writing books about his adventures.
And, he jokes, trying to pay for his wife's addiction to horses.
Sir Ranulph was in Belfast last week to address an annual reception held by top law firm A&L Goodbody at the Merchant Hotel.
In recent years he has used his experience to help deliver speeches on motivation, teamwork and achievement in the face of adversity to global firms like banknote printers De La Rue, electronics company Philips and aerospace and defence manufacturer BAE Systems.
And speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, he said that the business world is not too far removed from his adventuring.
He recalled planning his first expedition in an upstairs flat above Territorial Army headquarters in London with his wife.
"Whether it is a business idea or a proposal for an expedition – you need the same qualities. I've climbed into ice holes and sailed through rapids but all of those things need planning, both practical and financial," he said.
"There is lots of rivalry, every country wants to get to set a record first.
"Some of the expeditions required up to seven years of planning. None of the teams on the exhibition were paid, there was a lot of working in pubs to make ends meet between times. At times there would have been 52 people on an expedition and none of them would have been paid a penny.
"Sponsorship was the key. We soon learned that companies would provide equipment and services if their shareholders could see some sort of profit in it.
"Good PR is what they were after, especially if a global documentary maker was interested in making a programme out of the exhibition. We usually worked with ITN as the BBC is not allowed to advertise and could not show logos.
"Some of the companies used the expeditions as research; they needed their equipment tested in very low temperatures which in any ordinary type of research would have cost them a huge amount of money.
"The team members then had to be trained how to use the equipment and record data, then on their return would be invited to talk to the company shareholders and indeed any audience that the company wanted them to talk to.
"Newspapers and magazines would also expect exclusives and publishers were interested in generating books out of the expedition.
"So it was very much run like a business. At one time or another we would have been looking at 1,900 sponsors.
"Even map companies and drawing pin companies were getting involved, right up to getting sponsorship for an ice-breaker, which wasn't easy, we had to approach banks for that."
He said that the only people who made money out of the expeditions were the charities.
"In the early 70s one of our main patrons was Prince Charles and in 1984 he asked us which charities would be benefiting from the expeditions. We said that was not part of the expedition, and he was very surprised and said that if no charities benefited, then he could not be a patron any more.
"So we began with donations to a multiple sclerosis charity and we have been raising tens of millions of pounds for charities every year since."
In between expeditions – there is usually a two year gap between each – Sir Ranulph likes to keep busy and has now written around 20 books, and is quite militant against what he calls the "swearwords" of Amazon and Kindle.
He is currently penning a very personal documentary about the Battle of Agincourt – where separate branches of his family tree fought on opposing sides. And of course he has an eye on the next challenge.
"The books do help make money of course," he said.
"When you start these expeditions, you basically start with no money, but you do have to run it like a business, you need a good accountant and a good treasurer and good trustees.
"And, of course, we have to make money in order to be able to survive. When I met my wife she had four horses and now she has 25, so I need to keep going."
Sir Ranulph said that despite being a small nation, the UK is still punching above its weight in terms of both record breaking and indeed making money in the global economy.
"There are very few real records left to break. Once the big ones have been broken, you get into things like the oldest, the youngest person, the first female, the first to do it by bicycle."
And he said there are a number of reasons why the UK, despite being a tiny nation compared to some others, are so willing and able to break records many thousands of miles from home.
"We're an island race and were a mix of races," he said.
"We have the strong maritime history, but we still seem to be further ahead in these expeditions than other countries with strong marine heritage like Spain and Portugal. We have that history of Empire.
"We did have a big commercial and business empire which has all but disappeared in the way we used to know it, but we still seem to carry the benefits. We still seem to have that strong, industrious, expeditionary spirit and London and the UK still attracts big business names and institutions because of that."
Mark Thompson, head of office at A&L Goodbody in Belfast, said that the annual drinks reception at the Merchant Hotel is an opportunity for A&L Goodbody to say thanks to clients for their support in the year past, and to look forward to the challenges and opportunities that lie in the year ahead.
"At this year's reception, attended by 200 business leaders from across Northern Ireland, we were honoured to have Sir Ranulph Fiennes as our keynote speaker, providing an inspirational look back at some of the highlights of his career to date," he told the Business Telegraph.
"Through unbelievable tales of bravery and recollections of record-breaking accomplishments, he proved that he is indeed very worthy of the title bestowed on him by the Guinness Book of Records as 'the world's greatest living explorer'," he concluded.
Sir Ranulph on...
"Whether it is a business idea or a proposal for an expedition – you need the same qualities. I've climbed into ice holes and sailed through rapids but all of those things need planning, both practical and financial."
"Sponsorship was the key. We soon learned that companies would provide equipment and services if their shareholders could see some sort of profit in it. Good PR is what they were after, especially if a global documentary maker was interested in making a programme out of the exhibition."
"At one time or another we would have been looking at 1,900 sponsors. Even map companies and drawing pin companies were getting involved, right up to getting sponsorship for an icebreaker, which wasn't easy, we had to approach banks for that."
"We have to make money in order to be able to survive. When I met my wife she had four horses and now she has 25, so I need to keep going."