The Interview: Jonathan Huston

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 12 Jul 2016   Posted by admin


BY Reuben Adams

What is your professional history?

After school I spent 17 to 18 years in the military as an intelligence officer before I started in the business world; which has been a very interesting mix of franchising, distribution, retail, food and beverage, and steel fabrication.

I initially started out by purchasing Tint-a-Car. Following that I owned Croissant Express from 2004 to 2013, which we grew from 11 shops to about 30. I exited that in about September 2013. In between, I had a short stint owning Parkside Towbars in Welshpool, a small business which turned over about $7 million dollars a year manufacturing towbars predominantly for the second hand car market.

Having sold all those other businesses I was then approached to buy Training Course Experts, which I acquired in November 2015.

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Training Course Experts managing director & creator of the Hard Hat Foundation Jonathan Huston.

How does your military experience shape how you approach business?

It does in many ways, but three key ones come to mind. Firstly, the critical importance of strategy. This is about having a very singular vision or aim and building a plan around that aim, which can be based on things like revenue or geographic expansion and development. In my case what I’m doing with Training Course Experts is aimed at market expansion, similar to what I achieved at Croissant Express.

The second way the military shaped my approach is the value of very good communication skills, both oral and written, and the need to be concise.

Thirdly is the ongoing importance of leadership skills. I don’t run my business from my office – I try and lead it. This means that I spend my time out visiting customers, looking at what my staff are doing, and focusing on the overall strategy. If I am too heavily involved in the day-to-day running of my business then I am not actually leading it at all.

What is the Hard Hat Foundation?

When I bought Training Course Experts – and even for sometime before that – I wanted to get involved in, and shape, a foundation or charity of some kind. I had been involved in several but I found them to be personally unsatisfying experiences due to bureaucracy, or because what you were doing was controlled by East Coast or international groups. This is fine in itself, but I really wanted to do something which I shaped myself.

I had a ‘light bulb’ discussion earlier this year with someone who bought up the idea of helping workers overseas, particularly Bali. We all go there and see these guys working in slave-like conditions that would never be acceptable in Australia. So I thought – what a great alignment of my business and the ability to deliver a product or a service into a very close neighbour.

I decided to come up with the Hard Hat Foundation – the name has a clear imagery of safety in construction and mining, which is exactly where I was from.I could see a really strong pairing of my own company’s aims and objectives and the social aims and objectives of Hard Hat.  One of the stated aims of Training Course Experts is to internationally expand. If I had the option of expanding to Sydney and Melbourne, or Indonesia and India, I would definitely take the latter two every time, because I think that the market opportunity there is absolutely enormous.

We have not expanded Australia’s vocational training sector in the same way we expanded our university sector over the last 15 or 20 years – yet we have just as much to offer, if not more. Australia has invested so deeply in all the IP for training which is all deployable and exportable, ready to go. So Hard Hat Foundation offered me the ability to offer philanthropic help to workers in South East Asia with training to back it up.

So how much have you achieved at Hard Hat in the 6 months so far?

We have sourced the equipment and developed our brand, which is a great brand. I made our first purchase and in May did our first presentation of 200 helmets in Bali. Since then, people from the public have even gone over off their own bat and delivered hard hats and hi-vis vests – I don’t even know who they are! I know who they are to the extent they have told me on Facebook, but I have never met them. It’s been fantastic. We have also just finished shooting a video for social media.

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What is your next step?

The next step is to go back to Bali and do another 200 or 300 distributions in July and August. That’s nowhere near enough – we are talking about 1000’s of workers – so I am now talking to major building, engineering and electrical companies in Perth about coming on board as corporate sponsors.

I’m not asking for money; it’s an opportunity to give their brand value to the project and use their distribution networks, as well as developing closer ties with the business community in Perth. The big issue isn’t finding places to deliver the hard hats; the big issue is getting businesses in Perth to come on board with the idea.

How can individuals and companies help?

There are three ways.

Firstly by supporting the brand and hopefully supporting Training Course Experts, because that is how we fund the Hard Hat Foundation equipment. We are trying to get as many companies in Perth to support Training Course Experts, which is commercial, but that support enables me to fund more of the equipment offshore.

More importantly, I want to speak with any company that has offshore interests, and is not currently using or feels there is a gap in its own safety offshore.For example, I was speaking with a major US-based engineering company which has contracts in the Philippines. They have sub-sub contractors who do not use proper PPE but their contract stipulations can only extend forward into their sub contractor.

If companies like that can make us aware of where there is a need in Asia, and maybe where there is there is the ability for us to distribute products and conduct training, we can then go to those areas and distribute. I’m certainly not looking for money – that’s the key thing.

It would also be great to get another major corporate sponsor onboard, because we have helmets and vests, but what about boots, safety gloves or glasses? People have been a bit critical of me, saying “what is the use of a hat and a vest, when the biggest threat to someone is a severed finger or toe something like that?” They’re right, but I just don’t have the ability to fund a pair of gloves or boots for every worker. I wish I could. So if companies want to get on board and sponsor that I’m happy to go and source those things for them.

I think safety glasses or gloves would be a good next step, because they are pretty universal and relatively inexpensive, and gloves because they are also pretty universal.

 

How are you going to tie in the establishment of training facilities in South East Asia?

I need to talk to the large South East Asian construction companies to introduce the idea of Training Course Experts following behind the Hard Hat initiative. In Bali, for example, there are three tiers. You have some little bloke building a shop down the road with three guys.

The second tier is all the small to medium-sized building companies. Then you have the really big construction companies building shopping centres and hotels. My hypothesis is that by salting the market with hard hats, eventually I will get to meet some of these larger construction companies, a lot of which are based in Jakarta. I would like to have one major construction company in both Cambodia and Indonesia signed up and working with me within 12 months.

I’ve been led to believe – which I have to confirm – that they are desperate to develop more formal safety training for their own workers, but they don’t actually have anyone in their country that can provide it to that level.

I would like to establish a facility, initially with an Australian trainer but eventually with locally based trainers who have come to Australia to become qualified to do work at heights and confined spaces. I’m hoping that in three to four years from now we have one or two training facilities under the Training Course Experts brand in India, Indonesia or Cambodia.