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AstroTech’s 10th Birthday Client Breakfast

Liza van Wyk, AstroTech Conference Centre, Parktown, Johannesburg, 7 November 2008

Goodmorning everybody and welcome.

This is our final breakfast for the year, one in which we pay tribute to our clients. It is also our 10th birthday year and our celebrations are filled with reflection.

I’d like us to consider the power of imagination and the benefit of failure, and how those factors are the rocket fuel of positive change.
First a little story, that illustrates them. A man and his pregnant wife were at home late at night, when she suddenly had a craving.

“I want snails,” she said.

“No, you don’t,” he foolishly responded, “why don’t you have some ice-cream?”

Her voice took on a certain edge that men seem to understand better than words: “I want snails.”

So off he went on a late night search for snails. He found them and bought a packet. On the way home he bumped into an old friend. His friend said, “Come and have a quick beer.”

The man, who had a keen sense of risk and life expectancy at first said no, but ultimately he went for that quick beer.
One quick beer turned into a second quick beer, and a third and so on.

After a while the man looked at his watch and realising how late it was, hurried home.
He ran up the path to the house, holding the snails in the packet, but as he got close to the front door he tripped and fell. The snails scattered on the path around him.

His wife, by now furious, pulled open the door.

The man looked at her angry face, looked at the snails and confidently said: “c’mon guys it’s not much further.”

From this quick-thinking man’s experience we learn the value of the power of imagination.

JK Rowling submitted the first Harry Potter book to 12 publishers. None would accept it until a small publishing house took the risk of publishing it. Rowling recently spoke to Harvard University about the importance of failure.

She wrote Harry Potter when as a single mother she was battling to make ends meet. She told Harvard graduates; “Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the arena of creative writing I believed I truly belonged.”

A refusal to consider failure and the imagination to write the most successful work of fiction in modern times saw JK Rowling become the world’s richest author and one of the wealthiest people on the planet.

She learnt what we all should know – one has to intelligently question conventional wisdoms to enable us to seek the advantage or niche that allows success.

In starting a business and in running it you learn the value of looking at every issue from as many sides as possible, and find that quick answers and easy solutions are often the wrong answers and solutions. It’s important to take risks but to do so cautiously and it’s always valuable to consult those more experienced than yourself.

I graduated from the University of Natal with a degree in electronic engineering in 1990 and went to work for Eskom. While working there over a period of 7 years, I became aware of South Africa’s serious skills shortage and a desperate need for training.

Not yet 30, I resigned and began AstroTech as a consultancy and training organisation from a spare bedroom of our townhouse. Our first training course was an in-house training programme for Eskom in Cape Town for 8 people. It was on DNP 3.0, a data communications topic. That was where we began our journey of learning from mistakes and continuous improvement. This was a two-day programme. Unfortunately to my absolute horror we had finished all the material by the end of the first day. Needless to say, it was a very long night for me preparing additional material to ensure the 2nd day was time well spent.

All our courses at that time were technically focused and aimed at serving the Electricity Supply Industry. This will give you insight as to how we got our somewhat technical sounding company name.

I was joined in the business in 2002 by Hannes van Wyk, our technical director. With his strong IT experience he assisted in moving the training focus away from purely the electricity industry. We started offering courses of an IT and more generic technical nature such as Disaster Management and Business & Systems Analysis.

At this stage we started involving external facilitators with different subject matter expertise that allowed us to broaden our course offering. In 2003 we started offering general business and management training as well. We now have approximately 60 course types on offer including topics on:
• Management for new managers
• Finance for non-financial managers
• Project management for non-project managers

As the organisation began growing, our small team moved to our Edenvale offices in 2003. We have continued to grow. In 2007 we started BizTech, with the aim of servicing a new target market, that of Business support staff, PAs and administrators. Courses we offer in BizTech include topics such as:
• Becoming the Best Team secretary
• Mastering minutes and meeting protocol
• Trouble-free travel planning

In May of this year we took over the Conference Centre to help ensure a complete quality experience for our training delegates. The Conference centre has an interesting history.

It was designed in 1924 as a home for a Mr Simpson and his family.

It is two doors away from the Oppenheimer family home, Little Brenthurst.

In 1930, multi-millionaire insurance company owner Isidor Schlesinger became its new owner. He founded the well-known companies of Ster-kinekor and the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

In the late 1940s, the Yugoslav government bought this homestead for their consul and then sold it in the early 1960s to the father of US billionaire, Donald Trump.

After that the property had a brief life as a gentleman’s club and the less said about that is probably the better!

In 1989, the property was bought by Liberty Life which turned it into a state of the art, upmarket business conference centre. It became known as the Liberty Life Conference Centre. We aim to build on what Liberty has done and establish it as one of the premier convention and training centres in Johannesburg.

Every day of these 10 years has been a learning experience. I have frequently felt both intimidated & excited by the challenges we have faced. I have found that nothing works better than analysing the current situation, hiring good people and delivering the best customer service possible.

One of our senior facilitators, Beatrice Attrill wrote that when she thinks of AstroTech she is reminded of Joe Hadzima, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management who wrote the “Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective Entrepreneurs.”

He calls it “The Right Stuff” and speaks of the following characteristics:

1.     Ability to deal with risk
2.     Results orientation
3.     Energy
4.     Growth potential
5.     Team player culture
6.     Multitasking abilities
7.     Continuous improvement orientation

Astro Tech she says, “has all of these.” I would add another characteristic, “strong values focus”. Values underpin everything we do, they are the barometer upon which businesses can rise or fail. It is a measure clients can depend upon and it is a guide for all who work for and with us.

Mike Freedman of South African branding organisation, Freedthinkers says, “Your values are how your organisation makes and implements decisions.”

He says that “When an organisation’s purpose is clear you will attract talent and business to fit. You will be able to grow, to embrace complexity, to experiment and to fund the many ways that do not work and become enriched by them from learning through your mistakes. The power of a great organisation is that it encourages you to become truly yourself.”

I believe that in honouring individual employees, our clients, every delegate to our courses and our commitment to South Africa, we have been rewarded by ongoing success.

AstroTech’s birthday is not just ours; it is a celebration we share with you for accompanying us on this magnificent journey. We will continue to help you to nurture & skill your staff to begin planning and creating new success. I’d like to thank you all for your support, both over the last year, and over the last 10 years.

And by the way, we plan on having a huge celebration for our 21st, so please place an asterisk in your diary for 2019.

Thank you!