Steep learning curve valued at commodities firm

Steep learning curve valued at commodities firm

As A fresh-faced young man all of 26 years old, Mr Sunny Verghese was sent to a village in north-east Nigeria to negotiate the long-term lease of a 10,000ha plantation with the government there.

"It was my first experience working overseas ... and I had never dealt with government officials in my life. And this was a military government," recalls Mr Verghese, chief executive of commodities trader Olam International.

After several months of negotiations, he secured approval for the lease and went to the village to take possession of the plantation.

But that was not the end of his trials.

"The traditional ruler of the area said, 'I don't recognise any government piece of paper. You have to get a licence from me'. He wanted to make sure that his people were not exploited by a foreign company."

During those years from around 1986 to 1989, Mr Verghese lived in a mobile camp with his wife and eldest child.

He also had to deal with hiring and paying workers to manually harvest the cotton grown on the plantation, fending off potential robbers and leading a multinational team.

"If I was in a very large multinational company I would have depended on a centralised HR (human resources) or risk function to help me. But when I'm in a small bootstrapped start-up ... I am the HR manager, production manager, finance manager all rolled into one."

The various problems he faced were eventually resolved, but more than two decades later Mr Verghese still aims to recreate the steep learning curve for new hires at Olam.

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