Dick Smith, the Australian entrepreneur, adventure traveler and political activist, has an inspiring story of starting with little and turning it into a fortune. His adventure travel flying single aircraft around the world solo, landing on the back of a ship in a foggy ocean or risk being shot down by Russia, gets our adrenaline pumping. So what does he attribute his success to and how does he safely manage his penchant for adventure travel?
The Global Townhall is thrilled to welcome Dick Smith.
Gabrielle Reilly: So, what do you attribute your overall success to?
Dick Smith: I think any success I’ve had stems from me surrounding myself with capable people, asking advice, and then encouraging the people who are around me to perform well.
Gabrielle Reilly: How do you go about selecting your people then?
Dick Smith: Ah, it’s very difficult. I always give people a six-month trial to access how they perform. I’ve had to be quite ruthless after six months. If the person is not performing well, then I have to say to them, “Look, it’s not really working the way we’d like to.” Then they move on, and we try and get someone else. I normally find the third person I select is the suitable one. I did that with all of the major positions I’ve filled in my organizations including Dicks Electronics and Australian Geographic.
Gabrielle Reilly: How did you actually go about starting your first business?
Dick Smith: My first business? I was working for a company that was fixing the manly cab to our radios, and it decided not to service the radios anymore. I had $600 saved up and my 18-year-old fiancé at the time had $10. So we put our money together and we started Dicks Smith Electronics from there. That’s how the company started, although I no longer own it. It turns over $1.6 billion/year, and it’s been going for 37 years.
Gabrielle Reilly: Wow. I noticed that the food side of your business is struggling. Tell me about that.
Dick Smith: You are referring to Dick Smith Foods, which runs entirely to make money for charity and support Australian farmers. It’s based on the idea that Paul Newman had with his range of food products. Well, the turnover is down. It’s been going for about 13 years. We’ve given away about $7 million to assist Australian farmers and Australian food processors. But, we hardly have any Australian food processors left anymore. Anyone’s who’s successful immediately gets taken over by a big foreign company, and so, that’s our difficulty. Also, our sales drop unless we spent quite a lot on advertising. Australians just buy the cheapest product, which just about always comes from China, of course.
Gabrielle Reilly: That’s really surprising given even with all the problems with Chinese food.
Dick Smith: Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s madness just trying to buy the cheapest, even though they have had lots of health problems. It’s quite extraordinary.
Gabrielle Reilly: And so, how do you organize your time? Do you have a strategy, like a to-do list? How do you determine what you spend your time on?
Dick Smith: Well, I do lots of things in parallel. We had a notice at the Australian Geographic that said, “Do things in parallels, not in series.” When a lot of people have three things to do, they do one, then they finish, they do the next one, but if they get sidetracked, then the third one doesn’t get one. But, I did three all in parallel at the same time. My mind allows me to do that. In fact, I need to have lots of things going on to get the satisfaction.
Gabrielle Reilly: And, do you find that the things that you were doing in parallel, do they often overlap with each other or were they totally different?
Dick Smith: Yes, they overlap. I don’t seem to have a problem in doing that. I can be watching a television set, writing some documentation at the same time, and answering a phone call at the same time. I don’t mind doing that. I like to be working on two or three different things right at the one time.
Gabrielle Reilly: It’s a gift of being a male, I think.
Dick Smith: Maybe.
Gabrielle Reilly: It’s got something to do with babies crying for women.
Dick Smith: Right. You could be right. Yes, I’m sure you’re right.
Gabrielle Reilly: So do you have any favorite books that you think that everyone should read?
Dick Smith: The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my favorite books, because I suppose you could say it’s about revenge. I always liked the idea that if someone does something bad to somebody, that justice will prevail but in the Count of Monte Cristo, normal justice fails so the Count arranges his own revenge! I like Charles Dickens’ books, because they really talk about the human condition. But otherwise, I mainly read non-fiction.
Gabrielle Reilly: And what would they be?
Dick Smith: I can’t remember the names of most of them, but of course, I’ve read the book the Steve Jobs’ life. I just finished the book on the Apprentice in England, Lord Alan Sugar. He was a businessman in the UK, who started off in electronics, small amount of money on the side and has now become very successful. He became Sir Alan Sugar and then Lord Sugar. He is the equivalent to Trump on the English Apprentice show. So, I’ve just finished his book.
I’ve read books on Richard Branson, and yeah, Steve Fossett, the adventure friend of mine who was in the scouts like I was. Steve Fosset unfortunately died a few years ago, but he wrote a wonderful book about his extraordinary adventures around the world.
Gabrielle Reilly: I’ll have to look that one up also. What sources do you use to keep up with current events?
Dick Smith: I watch TV all the time, and I’m always on the Internet and reading newspapers. The best newspapers in Australia are The Murdoch newspapers. So, I read three or four newspapers each day, and then I watch the news on at least 3 different stations each day, the television news broadcast. So, that gives me a good idea, a good balance. We have the Australian Broadcasting Commission here, which is the government-owned broadcasting organization. I really like it. Some people say it’s left-wing, but it sort of does give a different perspective that you get from the normal TV stations, which are run by the capitalists.
Gabrielle Reilly: Yes, I love the ABC! We have the Public Broadcasting Station here in America which is the equivalent. So, do you ever get nervous?
Dick Smith: Oh, yes. I’ve been very frightened on my adventures flying around the world. I’ve done five flights around the world, and a number of them on the first solo helicopter flight around the world.
I had to find a ship in the Northern Pacific to refuel. The ship ran into fog, which meant I would have had to divert into the Soviet Union, where I could have potentially been shot down or at least lose my aircraft. But luckily, I managed to find the ship in the end.
Gabrielle Reilly: And, how do you process that nervousness? Do you just move through it, or can you explain it?
Dick Smith: Yes, first I tend to cope with it at the time, and then like most humans, the next day I tend to think it wasn’t as bad as it was.
Gabrielle Reilly: Right. So you don’t curl up into a ball afterwards.
Dick Smith: No, I definitely don’t do that. I’m an adrenaline junkie. I don’t happen to drink alcohol or take drugs. But my adrenaline is what I call risk-taking, like flying across big oceans on single-engine aircraft, that gives me excitement. That’s where I love the adrenaline-pumping excitement that responsible risk-taking does.
Gabrielle Reilly: And there’s the key there, “responsible” risk-taking. What exactly do you mean by that?
Dick Smith: Yes, responsible risk-taking! The reason I’m alive today after five flights around the world and two quite risky balloon flights—one across Australian continent, and the other one across the Tasman Sea, across New Zealand to Australia—is I managed the risk. I write down all of the things that could go wrong, and then I work on reducing the chance of that happening.
Gabrielle Reilly: So, do you do any other sort of adventure travel besides aviation travel?
Dick Smith: Oh, yes. I’m constantly doing adventurous things. I’ve just driven across Australia from Steep Point, which is the westernmost point across to Cape Byron, which is the easternmost point. That was across two big deserts—the Gibson Desert and the Simpson Desert—in a four-wheel drive.
Four or five years ago, myself and my wife drove around the world. 50,000 kilometers from Anchorage, Alaska to New York, and then from London basically to Vladivostok Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Then, ride across Australia and then back to Denver, where we started. And so, I’m always doing different adventures.
I’ve taken my boat, what we call a “passage maker” type boat, which is a 66-foot boat. I’m taking that around to southwest Tasmania in February. I’m making documentary films. I’m halfway to making a documentary film on Lasseter’s Lost Reef. It’s a gold reef that was allegedly found by Harold Bell Lasseter, who found it in the outback in western Australia actually, which means that I go out into the desert from time to time.
Gabrielle Reilly: So, you mentioned that you went through Mongolia. Did you have a chance to ride any of the camels there?
Dick Smith: No, I didn’t. But I saw the most incredible nomadic Mongolians moving with their young daughter on the back of a camel AND a satellite dish on the camel . That was incredible.
Gabrielle Reilly: Wow. Now, that’s a vision right there!
Dick Smith: Yes, amazing.
Gabrielle Reilly: Well thanks so much for your time, this has been invaluable. I look forward to featuring you in our next interview on your political views, aboriginal affairs and the question everyone wants to know… whether you would consider running for Prime Minster of Australia.