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Sir Bill Gammell gives business a sporting chance

Times Online
The Sunday Times
November 9, 2008

The Cairn Energy chief executive is extending his drive for Scottish winners to firms

Bill Gammell, Chief Executive of Cairn Energy plc.

Sir Bill Gammell knows a thing or two about the benefits of positive thinking. In late 2002, the former Scottish rugby international dismissed talk of a potential sale of his Cairn Energy oil and gas business after a 37% fall in profits. “We talk to other companies all the time about all sorts of things. But until you get the ball over the try-line, and touch it down, you haven’t scored,” he said.

A few months later Cairn’s shares were stuck at 291p after a well in Rajasthan came up dry but Gammell’s confidence remained. “There is no doubt in my own mind that this will go on to prove itself commercially viable,” he said. He was right and then some.

Fuelled by further lucrative discoveries in Rajasthan blocks that Shell had sold to Cairn for just £5m a year earlier, the Edinburgh-based firm was propelled into the FTSE 100 in 2004.

Its shares ended last week at 1,678p, valuing the firm at £2.2 billion — substantially down on its year high of 3,681p, as is the case for most of the sector, but pretty good nonetheless. If Gammell ever doubted Cairn could achieve that level of success, it never showed.

Through his sponsorship of the Scottish Institute of Sport and, more recently, the Winning Scotland Foundation (WSF), Gammell has tried to use his experience to help Scottish sports stars develop a stronger winning mentality.

The WSF recently launched a sports mentoring programme, which sees the likes of former All Black skipper Sean Fitzpatrick mentoring Scots hooker Ross Ford. Now Gammell wants to develop the link between sports and business further. He is looking to extend the mentoring programme into business.

“I am putting a lot of thought into how exactly to do it, but I think it could be fantastic,” he said.

“It could be putting business mentors alongside the sports mentors or the sports guys attaching themselves to Cairn or someone else for three or four months. On both sides, individuals develop in a much more holistic way.”

Gammell talks of business and sport as wholly interchangeable, with similar disciplines needed to be successful.

“In terms of being a winner, if you have people with a comparable level of talent, then what makes the difference in sport or business is how strong a warrior the individual is going to be,” he said.

He has long been an advocate of positive thinking, which he learned on the sports field. “Any business success I achieved was directly related to my sporting success,” he said. “Rugby taught me so much.”

He scored two tries against Ireland on the first of his five Scottish caps, but to explain the difference a positive approach can make, he refers to a game he didn’t play in.

“I was on the bench against France when my mate Andy Irvine had a terrible first half, dropping two high balls among other things,” he recalls.

“But in the second half he was transformed, scoring two tries. I would have put my life on him scoring the conversion, because when Andy was on a buzz, things went for him. He was strong enough to flush that first half down the toilet and not let it affect just how good a player he really was. The difference between success and failure is self-belief and the strength of mind to deliver under pressure.”

Gammell’s optimism even shines through his take on the “extraordinary times” we are going through. “The great difficulty is that markets are not recognising true value, or so it would appear,” he said.

“To get through, you have to focus on the things you can control, be realistic about what is under your control to ensure you survive and are still in the game to take advantage of opportunities when they come. And believe me, they will come.”

Positive thinking indeed.


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