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In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, I speak to Geoff Bell, the CEO of MicroBioGen, on how a stockbroker became a biotech success story, using patience as a competitive advantage, and why exercise is his best thinking time.
Geoff is a former stockbroker turned CEO of leading Australian biotechnology company, MicroBioGen, which has delivered yeast innovation technology solutions to industry leaders globally for more than 20 years.
Upon finishing high school and while studying, Geoff founded a family-run business hosting ski trips around Europe for 10 years, before selling it.
His career in investment banking spanned 15 years, holding senior roles at leading European bank BNP Paribas and winning numerous industry awards.
After reaching a career crossroads and trying to balance family life and his professional exploits, Geoff came to the helm of MicroBioGen in 2006, and has overseen $8 million in government funding, and profitability since 2018, with revenue growing at 65% per year.
In this episode we talk about:
- Building his career track record by assessing his skills gaps to get ahead of the competition
- The ups and downs of running a biotech firm and how they almost became part of the 99% that fail
- Why their key competitive advantage is patience, and
- What’s next for the industry as the world transitions to more sustainable biotechnology and fuels.
Thanks to FTI Consulting for introducing us to Geoff.
Connecting with Geoff Bell
You can connect with Geoff via LinkedIn.
Books and resources
“All you have to do is make it better, do different things and the world's at your feet. The funny thing is, we're the only ones who thought of doing this and that surprised the heck out of me.”
On early career lessons
- I got two degrees got experience in geology, everyone's going to want to employ me. And everyone said, no, you got no financial experience. And I went, man. So I then went back to uni again, and did a master's in applied finance.
- And even then I still had to go and work for a small consultancy group for a couple of years to get the experience to get in my first job in stockbroking. So even once I made that decision, it was still about a five year program to get there. But once you started, I had a huge advantage that people didn't realise at all. I'd spent 10 years having fun, wasn't at all burnt out when it comes to actually running, you know, running, working 14 hour days. I had a really good mining and finance background and I was fresh. So I just went in there and said, right, this is what I'm doing and I would do 14 hour days and it wasn't worrying me. These other guys have been doing for 10 years.
- So it was both innovative and having the drive to do it. And that really got you recognized very fast because you were different from everyone else and you had a different view and a different attitude. And the ski tours actually sort of taught me the difference between advertising and marketing. And all the time you're doing ski tours, you're marketing yourself. And as some of the best advice I've had was friend was in the financial market and he said, you know, when you work for a big bank or something, don't think you're working for a big bank, you're working for yourself. The difference is, you've got this huge infrastructure around you, you know, you've got secretaries, marketing teams, money to fly stuff, fly around, etc. But in stockbroking, your own your own little business, you're marketing to a bunch of people with support from all these people.
- I went in and said, okay, so this is a marketing role. Basically what I'm doing is a market because I'm gonna market my recommendations better than anyone else. How do you do that? Well, in fact, one of the real ways you wanna do that is through differentiation. So I said, how can I differentiate myself from everybody else? And that's where I said, okay, I understand the mining. I'm really good at finance numbers. So I just built this whole new way of doing models.
On patience as a competitive advantage
- One is patience. So imagine you went back 15 years in time and, you know, I went to a big company and said, Hey, I've got this great idea. I can, give me 15 scientists and 15 years and I can develop these things are going to make you a lot of money. Well, you'd be thrown out because no one does any project more than about three years. So one of our major competitive advantages is we have developed this new technology, 21st technology breeding technology. And we spent 15 years to develop.
- Our competitors could go out and do the same thing, but unless they're gonna steal our yeast, they have to spend 15 years too, even if they have the technology to do it. So we've got one of our really big competitive advantages is time.
- Very different unique group of people. You know, because remember, you come out of stockbroking, it's all kind of alpha males, females, and people are telling them what they really think. So it's a very different crowd, very diligent, but there you do have to learn, learn to work with them. But but that's your true that's your thing. Our average employee has been with the company 13 years. Apart, you know, we've employed some more people recently, but if you look at our employees, you know, hardly anyone leaves. I guess they're all reasonably happy with what we do. We'll have incentive programs in place, but having that continuity and being able, because these projects just take a long time.
- It does frustrate me a bit when I hear people talking about fail, quick fail, faster, all the rest of it. I mean, in industrial, that might work for apps, but industrial biotech, I think you really do need to get your strategy right. And there are companies out there that have spent vast amounts of money and just, you know, wasted it because they tried to do too much, too hard, too fast. Didn't understand what they're actually trying to do. They certainly impressed investors. But impressing investors is not the same thing as actually building a company. Because, you know, for us to talk to investors about what we do, most of them really don't understand it. So we have to be very patient to explain what we're doing and why we're doing it and how it works and even our partner customers, it takes a long time to explain them about what we're doing and why it's different. Cause a lot of our partner companies still until they've actually tested our stuff, don't think it's possible what we've done. They go, no, you can't do that. It's too hard. So, you know, we're starting from a point of disbelief
On his exercise regime
- It's a use it or lose it. So I think you just have to keep active. Um, and, you know, I went through this period where, you know, my earlier life was all about, if you can imagine, I'm playing competition squash, tennis, competing in the skiing, and then I've got this high pressure job, you know, at, at by the time I got to my late threes, I went, you know, I could do with a little bit less stress and pressure in my life. So that's where I transitioned from so much competition in tennis and skiing. I thought mountain biking, road biking would be good. And that's what I've been doing. So I just think it's a good way to, you know, some of my best thinking is I ride to work. My best thinking is done on the bike.
- I do think I certainly feel better if I ride to work. I have a much better day at work than if I catch a train or drive.
On working on the business
- If you want to get out of that trap, number one, be organised. I never have more than, I get up in the morning, but I never have more than about 10 emails in my inbox. I get rid of the things. And I never aim for 100%. I aim for 80%. So if I've got a presentation to do, I go, this has to be done. I could do a lot better, but it has to be done. I think, and I'm finding, I'm trying to train the team around me because we are bringing internally business people, et cetera. I said, you know, it's no good getting a perfect thing that takes you three weeks. We just don't have the time to do that. You got to get stuff done. I got to make decisions and I make quick decisions all the time. In the morning I go through, get rid of all the rubbish. These are the things that need to be done. And I just get them done.
- And I will try and then delegate, obviously, the things that I don't wanna do. Some things I can't, but I would, I think you need to say you need to both delegate and just get stuff done and get it done quickly. I mean, that was one of the things, I learned when I was at school, because I never did homework, so I had to learn to do my homework on the train. So it was a lot of pressure to get things done. Not great, but done enough to get a detention or something. So yeah, very much my attitude is don't go for 100%. Obviously, and use the people around you. I mean, that's why you got them there. You've got to let go and let people do stuff, even though you know that they might mess it up. But hey, you mess it up once, you learn. You get better at it next time.
On finding great executives
- Whatever you do, just make sure you're the best at it. And then things should fall into place.
- It's probably more enjoyable if you're at the top rather than in the middle of the pack, I think middle of the pack's really hard work.
- What I'm really looking at is how is this person going to hang around?
- Everyone knows when you go for a job? You're doing everything you can to get the job, but we need people that not only want the job, but actually really want to stay longer term.
- Try and balance your life. There's so many out there so many hours they're doing 13, 14 hours a day they lose their outside interest money becomes their dominating you know, desire and they end up becoming just money focused and I think you want to avoid that because the world's more than money. I think that's terribly destructive.
- If you incentivize senior management to do something short-term, they'll do short-term stuff. Like let's maximize profit. And this is at the expense of company, um, long-term company and company reputation.
Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders
- If you're a decision maker, can just help with little things that might help with transition of where we're heading. Because frankly, if we keep going the way we're going, I mean, the world will continue. But life's going to get a bit miserable here for our children, which we've got through them and their children as well. If you're running a company, it'd be great. You don't have to go out and sell up and do everything different. But if you can make your company and make decisions that just help, then that to me is really critically important going forward.
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