Disruptor | Heyrick Bond Gunning, managing director of Salamanca Group

Heyrick Bond Gunning didn't just launch a successful startup; he did it in Baghdad.
Written by Claire Lambrecht, Contributor
Shortly after landing at Saddam International Airport on May 2, 2003, Heyrick Bond Gunning surveyed his supplies. They included two camp beds, a satellite phone, a laptop, a tent, a Tupperware box of non-perishable food and 24 bottles of water packed in the back of a Land Rover by his employer. Then Gunning, there to establish DHL express mail operations in Iraq, found an envelope containing $25,000.

It wasn't what one might call a typical day at the office.

To Gunning, the current managing director of Salamanca Group, a merchant banking and operational risk business, avoiding the staid monotony of office life was exactly the point.

"It’s not often," Gunning recounts in his book Baghdad Business School, "that one is handed an opportunity to do something that is so potentially life changing."

Getting started

Gunning's evasion of a monotonous career began early. After graduating from the University of Manchester in 1993, Gunning joined the British Army.

"It was a bit of a delaying tactic, really -- a fun delaying tactic. I thought I'd learn a lot while I was there and I did. I experienced amazing things," Gunning told SmartPlanet in September. In the six years that followed, Gunning served in Macedonia, Kenya and Northern Ireland, rising to the rank of captain in the Grenadier Guards, the U.K.'s senior infantry regiment.

Upon leaving the military, Gunning joined Mergermarket, a business intelligence company based in London. Mergermarket, then an 8-month-old startup, afforded Gunning uncommon exposure to all aspects of the business.

"In a very new, small startup, it's all hands on deck," Gunning said. "I learned a hell of a lot from the guys who set it up and also ended up doing a bit of sales, a bit of marketing, a lot of client relations and a bit of product development. All of these things that, if you join a big business, you're going to do one or the other. You're definitely not going to do all of them."

Iraq calling

In early 2003, with a new fiancé and the opportunity to open a New York office for Mergermarket not far away, Gunning received a phone call.

"Are you interested in setting up DHL in Iraq?" asked the caller, an ex-colleague.

Iraq, at the time, was still reeling from the opening shots of the second Iraq War. Saddam Hussein was in hiding. His infamous sons, Uday and Qusay, were still on the run. Statues were just starting to be pulled down.

DHL, which operates a global express mail network, was eager to extend services to the country. They were looking for someone with both startup experience, which Gunning learned at Mergarmarket, and military training.

"You've got to take a risk if you want to get on," Gunning said, explaining his decision to go. "I've got ambitions to go and do something adventurous. I didn't have a family at that stage, so it was a much easier decision to make. And off I went and had a reasonably interesting year."

A perfect scenario

The mission of DHL's new operation in Iraq was clear: produce a $2 million profit. Building a reliable freight business to meet that target isn't an easy task, particularly in the midst of a conflict zone. Gunning, however, met that challenge with enthusiasm.

"If we exclude the fact that it was Iraq and it was a reasonably difficult operating environment, it was a perfect scenario for me because actually I didn't have someone micromanaging me," Gunning said. "It was a very privileged startup position to be in."

With the muscle of a global brand behind him, including the envelope of $25,000, Gunning got started. Determined to hire a diverse staff, the DHL office quickly became a hodgepodge of male and female Sunni, Shia and Christians working together. Local workers, often very well educated, proved to be excellent employees, Gunning said.

"People forgot that in the '70s, Baghdad was like the Dubai of the Middle East," he said. "They have a really good entrepreneurial spirit. They work incredibly hard."

The project wasn't without its challenges. Employees of companies working for the coalition forces often were threatened. "They couldn't go to work in their uniform," he said. "We had to go and pick them up from their homes in a white panel van so no one could see."

Working in Iraq was equally perilous for the DHL pilots who completed runs between Iraqi cities and Bahrain several times each day. On Nov. 22, 2003, insurgents fired a surface-to-air missile at a DHL A300 cargo plane taking off from Baghdad International Airport. The missile, an SA-14, hit the left wing tip at 8,000 feet, making all flight controls inoperable. The aircraft's experienced pilots managed to land the plane, which skidded off the runway before stopping on the sandy ground.

In these extreme circumstances, Gunning's military leadership training proved to be a tremendous advantage.

"If you want to get someone to go -- take it down to the nuts and bolts -- charge a trench or go out on patrol when there's a chance they may get killed, you can tell them until you're blue in the face, but unless they believe the reasoning behind it, and they believe you and the way you lead, they're not going to go and do it," Gunning said.

The leadership training Gunning received in the military also proved to be a huge advantage. "It helped tremendously that I was able to speak the language of the U.S. military who became one of the biggest clients out there."

For members of the U.S. military, DHL's ability to deliver packages between the United States and Iraq in three or four days provided an alluring alternative to four-month wait times. By August, the U.S. mail contract in hand, DHL was processing between 30 and 50 tons of mail each day for the 130,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

This contract, coupled with DHL's traditional freight services, allowed Gunning's team in Iraq to report $75 million in revenue in its inaugural year.

Ten years later

Photo courtesy of Heyrick Bond Gunning.

After a year in Iraq, Gunning took a job as a managing director at Kroll, a risk management consultancy, wrote his book and earned an executive MBA from INSEAD.

In 2007, Gunning received another call. "I'm going to set up Salamanca," his friend David Livingston said. "Do you want to come and join me?"

When Gunning joined, the company had just six employees. Today, the Salamanca Group, which blends merchant banking with operational risk management, has 130 employees in 15 global offices.

Even 10 years later, the lessons of Iraq, whether they include a degree of fluency in Middle Eastern culture or the urgency of a high-risk environment, remain relevant, Gunning said.

"Some might argue is that my days are too full. My view is that you've got to seize the moment because you might not see it again."

Photo of Baghdad airport by Ryan Lackey/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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