Gordon Timm started his career surrounded by zebras, leopards and wildebeest at the world’s largest diamond mine in Botswana – not a bad preparation to eventually become chief financial officer of travel booking company Wotif.
South African-born Mr Timm’s unconventional career trajectory started when he was conscripted into the military straight out of high school.
This training, which he continued through university, led to a meeting with a personnel manager for Orapa diamond mine owners Debswana, a partnership between De Beers and the government of Botswana.
“We got chatting in the bush one day and he said to give him a call when I finished university – which I did, and I was admitted into their Management Development Program and eventually ended up in Botswana,” he said.
Now with Wotif, the early management training was invaluable in building Mr Timm’s career. After his time at the mine, he moved back to Cape Town to work in the food manufacturing industry before moving to New Zealand and getting into the online travel industry.
“Doing management training straight out of university really fast-tracked my career progression.
“It was focused on developing skills very quickly so that I was able to take on a senior role on a mine site if needed.”
Botswana’s Orapa diamond mine, the world’s largest, is located in the middle of a game area surrounded by grassy plains with millions of zebra and wildebeest.
Mr Timm left Cape Town to begin work at the mine straight out of university, managing the stores and sourcing the hardware for the mines.
Coming straight out of a theory-based university degree into practical work in Botswana was “a big shock”, but the unconventional working environment meant he was able to quickly learn people management and gain practical skills.
“I was working with people from different cultures that were at the same level as me but were twice my age, so I had to integrate very quickly and be careful not to offend,” Mr Timm said.
“It worked out well in the end, because I was able to teach them about theory and they taught me the practical elements.
“We eventually had the best run store in Southern Africa, but we almost re-built it from scratch.”
At the time, dealing with people was one of the biggest learning challenges – particularly due to the political situation at the time.
“There was a lot of antagonism towards ex-pats in Botswana at the time because of the security situation in neighbouring Rhodesia, so Botswana was keen to localise the workforce.
“I was given 10 local staff to work on basic accounting tasks, which was great, but when they weren’t sure what to do with something they just put it in their bottom draw and forgot about it.
“I walked through the office late one night and went through all of the draws and found literally hundreds of unpaid invoices they weren’t sure what to do with.”
He was paid 325 rand per month (AU$35) which, in 1980s Botswana, allowed him to live like a king.
“I bought a Land Rover with one of my early pay cheques and went on a cruise to the Seychelles.”
Mr Timm worked at the mine for six years, leading to some interesting commuting experiences.
“There was a watering hole near the town that was built for the game in the area, I used to go there after work sometimes and watch the game come to drink.
“I also encountered a leopard on the road early one morning when I was coming home from taking some visiting family to catch an early flight.
“It was eating a calf it had just killed, not the sort of thing you expect to see before breakfast.”
Here are Mr Timm’s three tips for people starting out:
- Enjoy the excitement of trying something new.
- Be prepared to learn practical experience quickly, particularly if you’re straight out of university where a lot of learning is theory based.
- Be sensitive to cultural differences and learn how to deal with the people around you as effectively as possible.