Olympic pentathlete turned businessman Ed Fernon shares his story of determination to succeed despite the odds, the art of multitasking and what skills business leaders can learn from professional athletes.
It is often said there are a lot of similarities between elite sportspeople and business owners. And there are few who understand these similarities more than pentathlete Ed Fernon.
Multitasking, you got it. Conflicting demands, too many to count. Unglamorous, totally. Hard work, you bet.
Just like running a business, being a pentathlete is no stroll in the park – it takes dedication, persistence and a lot of blood, sweat and tears to ensure you are performing at your best across a range of different, yet equally important, tasks.
My Business sits down with Ed to find out how he managed a gruelling training schedule across not one or two but five different sports, how he mastered each task in its own right to perform as a competent whole, and how he is adapting these elite skills to use in his own business.
“I think a lot of people get into it just having a bit of a go, but there was too much time, money and effort involved to just give it a go.”
Can you give us a brief background of yourself?
I guess it started when I was at university – I was 19 years old at university, studying a commerce degree at Sydney Uni.
I was pretty unfit at that stage, going out most of the time, and so for me I was looking for something to get fit again, some kind of big challenge and just something that I could really engage with.
Then I met Daniel Esposito, who is Chloe Esposito’s father – and you might remember Chloe, she won gold in Rio in modern pentathlon; I competed with her in London.
When I met him I’d never picked up a pistol before, I’d never picked up a fencing sword or epée, I was a terrible swimmer but had done some horse riding, and I was a strong runner. So effectively three out of the five sports of modern pentathlon I had no experience in, and at that stage he just said to me, ‘Look, there’s no point just giving it a go – either you’re all in or you’re all out’.
I think a lot of people get into it just having a bit of a go, but there was too much time, money and effort involved to just give it a go – I had to make that commitment, which is what I did.
I started to train three to four sessions a day, everyday, and three-and-a-half years later I qualified as Australia’s only male representative to compete in London.
As a pentathlete, you were effectively competing in five different sports – it’s the ultimate in multitasking! How did you actually split the training to ensure each of those sports was getting adequate attention?
Yeah it is, they call it the ultimate Olympic sport, and it was invented by Pierre de Coubertin – the sort of father of the modern Olympics – to bring forward the ultimate athlete because it is so diverse. You don’t often get strong runners who are strong swimmers; you don’t get people who are good at fencing, who are good at shooting, for example, because they require different mindsets, different mentalities and also different physical attributes.
Instead of looking at it as a pentathlon, I sort of broke it into the five individual sports, and people who could help me individually in those sports, and then I was the one to bring it together essentially.
For me, I had my major weaknesses of fencing, shooting and swimming at that stage, so I had to focus my attention on that.
There [are] no coaches in Australia, there [are] no programs, there's no funding, so for me it became a bit of a trial and error guesswork. And to do that, having never done it before, I just decided the best way to do that was to go out and find an Olympian per sport to be a mentor or coach – so in each one of my sports, I went out and sourced someone who could really help me, who had been there in the individual sports.
What was your result in the London Games?
I got a personal best and I was the only athlete in that field who wasn’t a professional athlete, so most everyone there had support – some were from the military, the British were lottery funded – so I was the only one who went over there who wasn’t financially supported.
I ended up in 27th position, and obviously I’d like to always do better, but I thought after 3.5 years of training, I was also proud to be there and to be competing and taking on the world’s best.
“Everyone looks to the target, but that is exactly the opposite to what a good shot needs to be.”
You’ve now transitioned into business. What was the motivation behind that?
A couple of things. I had to pay for my own coach to come and support me, so I was in one way disappointed with the lack of funding I had; a lot of my friends were out in great jobs earning really good money, quite successful, and there I was, having just competed at the Olympic Games and all the media hype but I had no funding. And although that was probably the best year of my life and was an amazing year of my life, there was no support there.
There was also a part of me that was looking for that next challenge – I’d set that goal of making the Olympic Games, and I worked incredibly hard to achieve that, something that I’m very proud of, but I was looking also for that next challenge.
And I also knew the impact that being your own boss … so I just sort of set myself the goal of becoming independently wealthy and trying to create a big property portfolio.
How did you manage that transition from sport to business?
I started basically with the same mentality that I approached my training. I just said, ‘How was I able to get to London, and let’s just break down those steps’, and methodically go about applying the same thing to business, and to my property portfolio.
I had absolutely zero money at that stage, but I just had that mindset of trying to make it work no matter what happened.
Many people struggle to multitask in business: they go into it because they are good at one thing, but find themselves bogged down with a lot of other responsibilities. What has your training taught you about managing competing demands on your time?
I think what sport taught me is it’s more [about] the process. Just to use a shooting analogy, a lot of young shooters come in and when they’re shooting, you’ve got a target in front of you and everyone focuses on the target, so you bring your sights up to line up your shot and then you shoot your shot, and then everyone looks to the target. But that is exactly the opposite to what a good shot needs to be.
You need to be focusing on your sights at all times, you need to be focusing on your process and doing the right thing at the bay rather than focusing on the target. The target is actually the least thing you want to be focusing on.
So for me, I was just putting together a daily process of what’s important now to create that process and break it down into smaller steps, to say ‘On a day-by-day, what are my priorities and how do I go about that?’
My whole business, most of the stuff I’ve never done before, and most even now, a lot of the businesses that I’m setting up right at the moment I’ve got no prior experience in, but it’s about following that mentality and that ‘What’s important now [is the] process’ to reach that end goal.
“I think to be successful, you need to find that comfort in discomfort.”
Your business is in property development, which is an industry notorious for cash flow constraints. What are some of your cash flow strategies?
Cash flow is a huge issue for me; I’m only getting paid once or twice a year, so I’ve got to correctly budget and forecast to make ends meet, to pay staff and other expenses as they fall due. That is an issue for a lot of businesses.
I just look in every way [for] cost savings, so I look to minimise my costs where I can, but also bring in investors or partners so that I can do more deals.
A lot of people focus all their attention on one thing and they want 100 per cent of $10, but I’m much more interested in putting together deals and creating opportunities and bringing other people on board to expand the pie, so that they are putting in a lot of the funding. I’m putting in all the expertise and doing a lot of the work, and being able to utilise their cash flow and bring investors on board to fund a lot of those things.
I think one of the big things is what’s the mentality with risk? A big thing I learnt in my sport is finding comfort in discomfort.
A lot of people look at their cash flow and they are really concerned, which often is concerning, but I think to be successful, you need to find that comfort in discomfort and be creative and find out new ways that you can raise funds or reduce costs or renegotiate with suppliers or contractors or whoever that is. But it’s certainly a challenge!
What would you say has been the biggest lesson you have learnt coming into business?
Just the importance of the determination and the persistence required. It’s not something you learn necessarily in business, but I did a Bachelor of Commerce degree in economics and finance, and then I did a Masters of Commerce at Sydney University; I got some amazing skills through those programs and some amazing tools and knowledge out of that.
But it’s the ability to apply that, and these other things like [the] ability to take risk and the ability to be determined and manage people and interpersonal skills and all of those other things.
And really finding good-quality people, which sounds so simple, but there [are] so many people [who] maybe don’t click with you or don’t quite work, and the ability to find really good people who believe in you and your goals, and who you can motivate and are self-motivated as well.
So I guess the biggest lesson is a hard one, but just generally, I believe [it is] being able to be determined and to have the clear vision of what you want to do, to find good-quality mentors or people around you to support you, and then having the self-belief to actually follow that through.
What are you currently working on?
Escarpments Estate is our new venture, which is ... I purchased the former Katoomba Golf Club [in the NSW Blue Mountains] that went into liquidation in 2013 and I’m … developing 24 townhouses as well as reconverting the clubhouse – we’re putting in a driving range, a restaurant, a functions centre as well as a gym and health facility.
I’ve been maintaining the old golf course as a park, so reconverting it from a derelict golf course into a much nicer facility, not only for the residents but also for the community.
Where to from here for you and for Freedom Development?
We’ll be looking for our next opportunity – we’re always looking for new opportunities and different properties that people don’t see the value in. So for us, we’ve got a couple of other deals that we’re working on right at the moment.
I think it’s very much a numbers game; we look at a huge number of different development sites and potential development sites and different properties, but going through the process and talking with the owners.
We very rarely buy properties and sites on market. We prefer to deal directly with the vendors on most of the properties we purchase. Doing that, we are just constantly speaking to people, getting on the phone, meeting people and just going through the process.
Fast facts: Freedom Development Group
Industry: Property development
No. of employees: Five in the core business; several dozens across various individual businesses operating as part of the Katoomba development.
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.