The Mistake That Made Me: Ash Songo-Williams, Pendrax Security, talks about learning from his mistak
In life mistakes are sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable and sometimes the best thing that can happen. Alexander Fleming, for example, discovered Penicillin in a contaminated petri dish he had already discarded – a simple mistake which has saved an estimated 80,000,000 to 200,000,000 lives.
For successful entrepreneurs, professionals and business people, mistakes are potential goldmines. They offer opportunities to learn, to develop tenacity and a thicker skin, and to test drive products, services, processes or ideas.
An important aspect of professional success is how quickly we convert our mistakes into an opportunity to learn. We have asked some of Sierra Leone’s most tenacious business people and entrepreneurs to talk about a significant professional mistake they made and what they learned from it.
Our series on the mistakes that have made me, starts with Arthur Ash Songo-Williams, Operations Director of Pendrax Security
In 2004, Arthur Ash Songo-Williams set up Pendrax Security with his cousin Pierre Songo-Browne. The cousins had already gained considerable experience in the sector from the UK, where they had run a firm supplying door security and personal bodyguards.
From security services, Pendrax has expanded into facilities and power solutions, vehicle tracking and fuel management. Fourteen years later and Pendrax has 1500 employees, and a presence in every district in Sierra Leone. Notable clients include Sierra Rutile, Ecobank, the National Electoral Commission and National Petroleum among others.
The company is a significant Sierra Leonean success story. That doesn’t mean it has been entirely smooth sailing.
The consequences of no marketing plan
“A significant mistake we made when we started the company was not investing in marketing soon enough,” Songo-Williams remembers. “We spent the first seven to eight years without a proper marketing strategy. I think we were basically afraid of growing too rapidly. In our heads we were a small company.”
The firm had plateaued at around 500-700 employees, until seven or so years ago when the decision was made to invest in a Business Development Department. With it has come rapid growth. The department is responsible for cold calling, client relations, and selling additional services to existing clients.
“After we set up the Business Development Team, we saw a marked difference. The size of the company, turnover and business opportunities increased. In addition, we are maximising opportunities to cross-sell other services to existing clients,” Songo-Williams explains.
The pitfalls of mixing business and friendship
Mixing friendship and work has many potential pitfalls and for Songo-Williams, the decision some years ago to hire a friend, whom he then found hard to fire, became a lesson in not allowing sentiment to get in the way of following the HR process.
“He interviewed well, but it quickly became apparent that he couldn’t hack the job and covered up his mistakes by lying or bluffing his way through,” Songo-Williams remembers. “I tried to address it informally without going through the HR disciplinary process, but eventually his lack of competence and expertise became evident to everyone. We activated the formal HR process and he was let go."
Songo-Williams says the experience has improved the way he handles HR issues. “I learned from that experience to separate business and friendship. I am very conscious now of not letting emotions or sentiments get in the way. Nor would I let the situation go so far. Instead I would address it formally much sooner.”
Regardless of the experience, he would still employ a friend or personal acquaintance if they had the right skills and qualifications, but he emphasises that there would be strict boundaries between the personal and professional relationship.