"I get to interview some incredible people."
Remarkably, Toby’s father ran away from a violent father and left the UK to come to Australia, at just 16 after earning some money. He didn’t speak about it much. Preferring to take the path less worn, he worked initially as a jackeroo across Northern NSW and throughout Queensland.
Toby recalls his father told great stories about life in the outback, surrounded by sheep, cattle, dogs and horses. It would have been a hard life, Toby felt, and his father obviously had a great degree of determination, which Toby has inherited. There’s very significant drive in those genes.
“Dad used to tell us about driving on the railway tracks, because if you drove fast enough, it was smoother than the roads! He loved an adventure, also making some spontaneous but bad decisions. He was reasonably educated, and later in the city, he would take on casual writing roles for the press working for newspapers, and launched the predecessor of Woman’s Day magazine.”
Toby’s father married into a well-to-do stockbroking family in Sydney, and they had five daughters. Toby therefore has some older half-sisters, but they’re a generation apart. When World War II started, his father enlisted as a private, but was to end the war as regimental sergeant major, the most senior non-commission officer in PNG. With his aviator sunglasses, American soldiers often mistook him for General Douglas MacArthur!
Despite the hardship which included bouts of malaria, he revelled in the military life, and following the war he left his family at home once more, and worked in Japan, as part of Mil-Gov, the militarily-to-civilian liaison team, which began a period of 23 years spent in that country..
While in Mil-Gov, he met Toby’s mother, in around 1947. She spoke no English, and had lost her own father at an early age. They led a charmed life in the fifties, attending many black tie cocktail events and dinner parties, and enjoyed the life of an ex-pat. A highlight was a meeting with the then internationally famous Mills Brothers while on tour.
Toby was born in 1963, in Japan, and when Toby was five they came back to Australia, and settled in Perth. Toby spoke Japanese at home. Starting school at Applecross, he was the only Asian kid in the school, but recalls he didn’t get bullied too much. Wesley College in Perth was his high school and it was a relatively easy period with few incidents.
In 1970, Toby’s dad succumbed to the call of the military once again, and left for Vietnam. He didn’t have enough money to retire, so necessity forced him back to rejoin Overseas Service Corporation, suppliers of non-essential items to the military forces, and he was away for two years. This was tough on Toby’s mother, who still didn’t speak English at all well. Toby often interpreted and helped explain the nuances of her second language, especially the more unusual Australian colloquialisms and cultural challenges.
His parents would communicate by sending each other cassette tapes and Toby still has some of them. One has the sound of an explosion on it, when a missile landed two doors away from his father while recording. Life was an adventure all right.
During his tie in Vietnam, Toby saw his father every three months for a week or two when he was home. He was 55 when Toby was born, so he was more like a grandfather to him. He retired when Toby was only young and so he was at home all the time, often mistaken as Toby’s grandfather which amused them both.
The blending of cultures is important to Toby’s story. Even the humour was different – a mix between east and west, Toby grew up with a large dose of racial tolerance and a greater understanding of peoples’ different points of view. “You had to show empathy to mis-matched points of view and that was OK.” The household enjoyed two types of cuisine; young Toby favouring the fresh Japanese dishes his mother cooked, over the stodgy English requests of his father.
Academically Toby was strong. Japanese parents are strict on education and his mother pushed him to achieve, but he doesn’t want to do that to his children. His dad also gave him a great education. He was never harshly disciplined by his father, because his own father back in the UK had been violent, so Toby’s mother was the disciplinarian of the household.
School for Toby was “very academic and reasonably sporty. To me that was important as well, but in year 11, I didn’t study as much as I should have.” He had wanted to become a doctor, having watched a doctor save his father’s life, but he missed out on getting enough points possibly due to some adolescent rebellion which saw him goofing off a bit at school. He decided to do year of science which would allow him to get into medicine later. He enjoyed it and finished his science degree.
In his late teens and early twenties, Toby worked part-time in nightclubs to earn money and also in a cinema as an usher, DJ and doorman. He even worked as a catwalk model, being a standard size, and with a somewhat ‘exotic’ look for the era.
Toby finished his medical research degree and realised for him to remain in academia, he needed to do a doctorate, but found it all very political. He knew a friend’s dad in data processing at a major bank who suggested he should look at IBM, and he successfully applied as a health industry specialist, which he found out later really meant he was a salesperson. “It was interesting because I wanted to be a techo, and I needed to understand this area in order to sell it properly. I learnt very quickly because of the nature of the role.”
Toby pushed for a promotion and moved into agricultural, distribution and large scale mining environments, which had great appeal for him. “IBM is very good at training people; our induction process lasted nine months, with several intensive courses and exams, but it was high pressure. They made you absolutely ‘bombproof’ at handling pressure in a presentation. Nobody trains people for that length of time anymore. It was a tremendous environment to in which to work. They brought in mentors and industry specialty groups. I looked after large companies like Wesfarmers and Coke.”
Toby then moved into the executive consulting division with IBM, which had more of a strategic focus. He loved keeping up with the ever-changing pace of technology at IBM. “If you get your strategy slightly wrong these days it’s far more serious, and in extreme cases you might be out of business, whereas previously it didn’t have such a major impact, and that’s all because of the ever-changing pace of technology we see today.”
IBM had their 100% Club for people who hit their targets, and it was there he met a girl from Melbourne and the relationship blossomed. “It made sense for me to move from Perth to IBM Melbourne where I did a few years within IBM Education in an Asia-Pacific role.”
Whilst in Singapore, Toby exchanged business cards with an IBM colleague who pointed out the Chinese version of his name on the reverse side of his business card was an odd translation. The characters didn’t look so good in feng shui terms. His Japanese name sounded much better, and “tora” plus “bana” – his surname in a fashion – translated as “The brave tiger smells flowers”. That sat well with Toby, as it symbolises strength, power, and was a very good interpretation of their business philosophy.
He ran the IBM sales school internally and then a new division was created around Toby’s expertise for external clients, “selling professional skills education to our third party external clients, writing a million dollars in sales revenue in the first year.”
This became the turning point for Toby’s career. “In 1992 IBM dangled a voluntary separation package, but all the wrong people left. The prime human resources of the company left because they could readily get another job, and the new ones didn’t want to leave. IBM lost a lot of its medium-term employees and their considerable knowledge and experience.”
Toby looked for a senior role in a smaller organisation, but decided to go back to university to study formal Japanese in order to improve his skills for business purposes. IBM asked him to come back as a contractor, and Toby then felt the attraction of running his own business and, after much deliberation, he left IBM and built a small education consulting business.
“Yin and yang. It’s all about balance, and push versus pull. So BTSF, the initials from Brave Tiger Smells Flowers, became Business Technology & Service Fundamentals” and Toby ran that from 1992-2000.
Toby had a large client who needed a training division – they bought his business and it was then listed. The IPO went well, but Toby worked two and a half years there to fulfil his contract, and got out, believing he could offer more value working externally.
Toby’s current business, The Learning Company came about in 2002. “TLC has broad business goals. To be blunt about my business, it’s a life support system for an individual, i.e. me, and that’s not really a business at all. I have a successful personal practice because it’s all about my delivery. I’m always trying to expand into other areas, but I’m the brand.”
“The Learning Company is a custom design firm, and our job is to make other people and their products look good. We write training programs, which could include coaching, online work and experiential events, but it’s specifically written to allow people to learn more easily. We write something more relevant, but it always complies with the three S’s: Short term, sustainable and significant. Helping people to close just one extra deal means it pays for the training.”
Toby’s long-term goal is to re-engineer his business to bring about some change and the ability to expand. Toby now gets booked out weeks in advance, but the challenge of expansion is that in its current form his business is personality-bound, and so it has low repeatability or scale potential. “I can’t make money while I’m sleeping!
“We want to change the way people work. Companies want high levels of productivity and don’t like letting people out to a conference for two or three days anymore. The focus is more content-driven training, like videos and books. I’m too busy working in the business to work on the business, and ironically, I’m happy to tell the clients how to do it but I’m not doing it for myself.”
Finding the right people is the challenge for Toby. “The model we’re creating is to develop a bite-size chunk of knowledge and then to put in a coach and have someone else delivering it, and they’ll be a lot cheaper than me!”
Toby adds, “The goal is to build a coaching firm using intellectual capital that’s mine, but with other skilled people delivering it. There’s an ageing workforce of highly-skilled people looking for work out there, which is perfect. Younger people now want to learn in different ways. They want to learn by talking, they want one-on-one interaction. There are plenty of other people doing it, plenty of coaches are jumping at it. “If I can document the process and get guys who have done it well in the past, there’s my differentiator. Right now though, I’m essentially a sole trader,with a support team.”
Toby’s other skill is being an MC at conferences, a challenging role with many levels to it. “You have to talk business yet not be an economist; you have to be funny, but not a comedian; you have to be a stickler for protocol, but don’t go overboard about it. You also have to be charming, but not effusive; you have to stick to the point, but not be rigid and you have to time-keep yet not be rude about it. My job is to make everyone else look good.”
Toby laughingly quips, “It’s not work at all. I’m the No-Name brand Ray Martin. We’re known as non-celeb business MCs, and there are only about five or six of us in Australia who are doing it at our level.”
Toby has met the who’s who of the speaking world. “Sir Richard Branson is not the person everyone thinks he is. He is an introverted and deep thinking man, and the extroversion is all to do with the brand. I was nervous in the lead up backstage and saw Richard Branson pacing back and forth. So I spent my own preparation time making Sir Richard feel more relaxed and comfortable!
Toby’s interviews have enabled him to gain rare insights into well-know people. “I’ve interviewed three prime ministers; John Howard is sharp as a tack, even now in his seventies; he’s very knowledgeable, and has become a proper statesman. The current Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove is always a gracious and impressive man. The lead-up to speaking with Condoleezza Rice was stressful, even on a live link from the US, and getting calls from the Secret Service was scary! She was charming, knowledgeable and authentic. You just go wow! She was really open about some of the hard core topics we got into like 9/11.”
Toby has also interviewed NYC mayor, Rudy Giuliani, who was very polished, diplomatic and politically adept. “It’s a lot of fun, and is probably 40-50% of my practice now. Often I’m used as a link presenter to create segues between speakers. It’s not work, and I get to interview some incredible people. It’s about extracting their perspective.”
Does Toby have any advice for entrepreneurs? Toby’s response was to “Be really clear about what you’re doing. Make sure you know as much about it as you can, it needs to be different to the offering from everyone else. Then you have to ask: does that make me money? Can it be sustained?”
When quizzed about who he admires in business, Toby says he respects a number of individuals. “The usual world leaders of course, but the guy who made the greatest amount of change for me is my primary school headmaster. He got me started in debating and public speaking, and had a major influence on me.”
Toby also cites “the impact of Tom Moore, a name people in IT consulting circles may know well. He has retired now, but people will know him from DMR. He was the ‘M’. His strict policy was to go home every night at 6pm, even if he took calls after eight at night. Thankfully he instilled in me that even someone who ran a billion dollar business could get the work-life balance right too.”
- “I’m the No-Name brand Ray Martin.”
- “Our job is to make other people and their products look good.”
- “It’s not work, and I get to interview some incredible people. It’s about extracting their perspective.”
- “If you get your strategy slightly wrong these days it’s far more serious, and in extreme cases you might be out of business.”
Toby Travanner’s back-story is an amalgamation of two once-opposed nations, and two very different cultures. With an English father and a Japanese mother, Toby has inherited their senses of equity, fairness and adventure. His rare skills have enabled him to become one of Australia’s most recognised MCs and conference facilitators, having interviewed international stars such as Richard Branson, Condoleezza Rice, Rudy Giuliani and three Australian prime ministers.