Think HBR

Let's talk with Ben Wyndham

Ben Wyndham 2
1. In a few words tell us about your current role.
I am founder and Chief Pilot of Airspeed Aviation. We operate Charter flights from the Hunter Valley and Sydney Basin throughout the Eastern states, and all over Australia. We also run flying schools in three locations.
I am responsible for the usual business owner things plus statutory compliance with an enormous and growing-mountain of Civil Aviation regulations. More importantly, we hold some really high-end safety accreditations that take some serious maintenance. I am also President of the Scone Chamber of Commerce, which means I speak to business owners large and small across Scone and ensure our collective needs are represented to the various Government bodies that affect our livelihoods.
Small business is such an integral part of a town that changes that negatively impact small business can derail the social wellbeing of the whole community. Politicians and public servants in Macquarie Street seem to forget that.
2. How have you reached this point in your professional life?
I grew up in Sydney until I was 18, but I have spent all but two years of my adult life in the Hunter Valley. I went to Newcastle Uni and did the Science/Aviation degree there while learning to fly in Cessnock.
After two years in the Kimberley I came to Scone as a flying instructor. I never planned to own a business - like most young pilots I thought or hoped I would end up in the airlines. The collapse of Ansett and the September 2001 terrorist attacks were very de-stabilising for the airline industry in Australia and I took an underground job with a drilling company I had been flying for, and studied Law and Workplace Safety while the dust settled. It took five years. That led to a Safety Management role at Aeropelican and then an opportunity to start my own business providing Charter flights to mining companies during the mining boom. The combination of airline safety management experience and eight years of mining safety culture turned out to be a great combination and it has resulted in a successful and growing business that I had never imagined.
3. When you’re not at work, where can we find you?
Like most small business owners I spend too many hours at work and not enough with my family. You will usually find me at a Chamber of Commerce meeting or function, or if I'm lucky I will be spending time showing visitors around an Upper Hunter pub or restaurant or (ideally) kicking back next to a creek or river somewhere with my wife and daughters.
4. Where do you find inspiration?
While I was at Newcastle Uni in the 90's I worked for Randolph Molvick at Paymaster's Cafe and Neil Slater at Scratchley's on the Wharf. I learnt so much from Randolph and Neil about excellence in customer service and bringing your "A-game" to work every day.
Even now, 25 years later they are model employers for me. Every employer I had ever since has been measured against their example and whenever I have a staff management issue as an employer I draw on the example that they set when I worked for them. As a business owner I will ask myself "What would McDonald's do?" Love or hate their food, they have built an incredible business model based on a very consistent product and a consistent way of operating their businesses day to day. Consistency works. As the owners of small businesses I think we need to copy that consistency, and apply it to whatever it is that we do.
5. What advice would you give to someone just starting out in your field?
That old saw about "our people are our most important asset" is not just a cliché - it is completely true. You need a team of supporters.
Recruit well, train well, establish a culture of high standards at the start - because your staff need to know exactly what you expect of them. You must be the best example you can be to them, every single day, otherwise you can't ever correct them and maintain your credibility and authority. I am also often reminded that the lowest standard displayed by the boss is the best you can reasonably expect of an ordinary employee. So, make sure you hire extraordinary employees who will have your back and catch your mistakes - because every boss has bad days and makes mistakes.
6. What’s something most people don’t know about you?
Most people don't know that I am an open book - I really don't have secrets and I am really not able to hide anything. I don't have the discipline or the memory to carry lies or secrets. Life is too short.
7. How would you like to see the Hunter evolve over the next decade?
Newcastle as a city could be built into a civic utopia. It has the bones but lacks the political will. As for the rest of the Valley; mining has fed me for most of my life, one way or another, and I loved my time in the mining industry. That said, the Hunter Valley and the Upper Hunter in particular MUST look to a future that is less about open-cut mining and more about tourism, manufacturing, farming. Small business and Community will be critical. We have to look at the alternatives to mining NOW, so that we are preparing for the economic transitions of the future.
The end of coal is inevitable. Liddell and Bayswater power stations are slated to close in the next 15-20 years. What then? Coal mining is moving further west towards Mudgee and Narrabri as the Hunter's resources are exhausted - what now? What then?
What if that never happens? Well....we've just created a more prosperous and diverse regional economy. That's not a bad outcome. What do we do here, or make here, that is world-class? Is there a new industry or an existing workforce that we can capitalise upon? Is there a refugee workforce that could inject new skills or expertise to the region? These are the things we need to expand on.
8. What’s your favourite Hunter restaurant/café/bar?
There are too many to choose from - in Scone we have an outstanding selection of cafes and restaurants. "The Cottage" on Kelly Street in Scone is outstanding and for Cafe's I am torn between 5 excellent choices (but I spend more time in Kerv Espresso Bar than the others). When the
Thoroughbred opens later this year we will have an even bigger dilemma.
9. Are you reading anything at the moment?
New and re-written aviation legislation. It never stops coming. It's awful.
10. Do you have a favourite sport or team?
Matt Hall Racing at Lake Macquarie Airport - I'm a big fan. 
11. What’s the best line from a film you’ve ever heard?
Basically the whole script of Top Gun. It's tragic and clichéd - but I could probably recite most of it.