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Imagine a business built around leasing an Aussie icon that takes 10 years of planning to get off the ground, and a entrepreneur so obsessed he won’t let anything stand in his way.

Active ImageCamille Howard talks to Paul Cave, chairman and founder of BridgeClimb, about the dizzying heights his seemingly impossible dream has scaled.

The view from the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge is spectacular. Looking out for miles across the harbour, even on a wet morning it’s hard not to be impressed. Climbing even half of the 1,439 stairs adds to the sense of achievement. It’s no wonder Paul Cave, BridgeClimb founder, knew his idea would be a hugely successful business.

Like the view from the Bridge, Cave’s business history is impressive. From marketing and general management roles in B and D Roll-a-Door, founding and building the Amber Group over 22 years, and acting as non-executive director of Dominos Pizza, Cave is no stranger to hard work and carving a niche for himself.

After conducting a YPO (Young Presidents Organisation) World Congress in 1989, including a climb of that famous landmark, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the seed for Cave’s next big adventure was sown. It would take almost a decade to get off the ground, but this self-proclaimed obsessive was up to the challenge.

It seemed simple: create a business around opening the bridge climbing experience to the paying public. It would involve leasing the bridge from the relevant state authorities, largely the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA), and Cave reckoned on two years of careful planning and negotiations before getting underway. Estimations fell short and it took close to nine years before the first commercial step was taken on the Bridge.

“It could be a story about obstructive bureaucrats,” Cave says, as a way of explaining BridgeClimb’s chequered past, “but it could also be a story about enlightened bureaucrats, because some were enormously helpful and without them it would never have happened. There were people in the RTA, like boss at the time Max Moore-Wilton, who thought it was an interesting idea and that helped facilitate it.”

Not that he blames the less enthusiastic for the delay. “It was a pretty gusty call to ask the government to lease out the Bridge, which would probably cost about a billion dollars to replace today, so to lease it to a private individual was a big call,” he says. “It’s understandable that they wanted to know it was thoroughly researched, and we put a lot of work into the business plan.”

The First Step

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Cave laughs when asked if he realised it was going to take so long to get approval from all the stakeholders. “If someone had said this was going to take 10 years, I never would have started it, so sometimes it’s good not to know.”

The driving force behind his persistence in his clever business idea was a personal interest in the Bridge. His father-in-law purchased the very first train ticket across it in 1932, and Cave still has the ticket, along with many other pieces of Bridge memorabilia. “That was really important to me.”

Without that passion for the Bridge and being obsessive, he jokes, the project would not have happened. Luckily for him, and the 1.5 million climbers who have already traversed the famous arches, he persevered. And despite the obvious frustrations of dealing with bureaucracy, Cave looks back positively on the experience. “Needing to do a lot more homework, after already having to do a hell of a lot,” he muses, “made us more committed to the whole thing.”

It’s easy now, given the huge success of the business, to say Cave was onto a winner, but luring investors was a struggle despite interest in the idea. It took like-minded entrepreneurs, such as Sanity Music’s Brett Blundy, to take up the challenge. “Within 60 seconds of mentioning it to him, he was in.” Others were more difficult to  convince. “Until we had the Heads of Agreement in place, I think a lot of people thought it was a bit pie-in-the-sky,” Cave admits of this first-of-its-kind project, with this precursor to a final contract enticing Jack Cowin (Hungry Jack’s founder) on board.

Cave’s next challenge was to keep their support. Refusing to compromise on the deal with government for anything other than a 20-year lease, tension ran high with investors while Cave struggled to get the deal over the line. Despite planning on two years to get up and running, the years ticked by and investors grew restless—Cave started work on the project in 1990, investors came on board in 1994, and BridgeClimb launched in 1998.

There were times when even he thought about throwing in the towel. Putting the plan to the stakeholders, Cave’s self-appointed job description became to pre-empt objections and have an answer for anything they might come up with. He was prepared to tackle the problem of reduced visibility from traffic by creating suits that blended with the Bridge; covering the maintenance costs of the Bridge as part of the proposed lease agreement; and answering problems with proximity to the train tracks during the climb (State Rail rules didn’t allow people to be within five metres of the Bridge without orange safety jackets, and this took two years to resolve despite climbers being harnessed to the Bridge with cages built around the ladders). “That’s an example of bureaucracy being obstructive, not constructive”. Other measures included adding breath testing to the pre-climb procedure, and taking out $50 million public risk insurance. Not that it’s been needed to date. Thanks to this thoroughness, and rigorous fencing with government bodies, he boasts, there haven’t been any accidents or significant injuries on the climb since opening.

There are significant financial obligations for BridgeClimb to lease the Bridge from the NSW government. As well as a base figure agreed at the start of the venture, there’s an escalating percentage of revenue, which will send the projected costs upward of $100 million by the end of the 20-year lease. “The business is totally run at our cost. My original approach was to offer $60 million for a 20-year lease, which was what the RTA said, then, was the cost of the maintenance of the Bridge,” Cave adds. “But they came back and took a base figure and an escalating percentage.”

Customer Service

Active ImageDespite the lengthy delays, Cave held to his belief that this business could succeed. “I really thought it would be special because there are only four icons in this country—the Bridge, the Opera House, the Rock, and the Reef.” He recognised the potential for real, experiential tourism in Sydney, “provided we could get it to work really well”.

This is why he ensures, through managing director Todd Coates, that every climber is treated individually and customer service is the top priority. “We’re really about the quality of that experience for every individual climber.” And it shows.

After checking in for my own climb, my group was greeted by one enthusiastic worker after another. And despite the early hour and not ideal weather conditions, it was hard not to get a bit bubbly too. After
passing the requisite breath test, climbers suited up, ready to be shown the ropes, literally, by climb leader, Sharon, who made a point of knowing every member of the group by name.

Our climb leader didn’t let the weather dampen our spirits, and her energy was infectious. The weather held off from doing its worst and settled for a light drizzle. Not that it mattered, as Cave assures me the business receives the best customer ratings during high wind and high rain sessions, when comfort levels are dramatically different—it’s also helped by the extra effort the climb leaders go to during these periods.

As well as the harness, wet-weather gear and accessories, each climber receives a headset designed with military-style bone-conduction technology, to hear all the interesting historical information, while getting the ambient sound from the road below and the ferries passing across the harbour.

It’s this kind of customer service Cave is confident will—on top of a spectacular experience—keep the business flourishing, despite external inhibitors such as terrorism threats and the threat of emerging competition from the recently opened Sky Walk around Sydney’s Centrepoint Tower. With the two-page customer feedback form, the team at BridgeClimb can measure customer satisfaction. Cave’s only job description in his role as chairman of BridgeClimb (he relinquished his controlling stake in the business in 2002) is to personally handle the feedback, to ensure the continual evolution of the business.

It must work, because even on that cool, wet day, climb groups of 12 took off from the service centre every 10 minutes, with six groups on the archway at any one time, and the same going through the induction and conclusion processes of the climb.

Climbers include blind and deaf people, even pregnant women, as Cave and the team continually lift the bar to ensure the experience is open to as many people as possible. There are even aims to get wheelchair-bound customers to the summit—“We’re still working on it.”

Boosting Tourism

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BridgeClimb is heavily marketed towards international tourism; it’s vital for the business, and international press including visiting celebrity climbs go a long way to boost the profile of the Bridge to tourists. With two thirds of its customers being international tourists, it’s no wonder. As well as an international journalists program, BridgeClimb works hard with state and national tourism departments, inbound tourism operators and concierges to boost its profile. “Fifty-five percent of our climbers, now, are recommended through word-of-mouth,” Cave says. “So doing our job is the most important thing.” And with a measure of seasonality about it, with boom months during daylight savings, there are times during December and January when to meet demand, BridgeClimb operates 24 hours a day.

There’s no resting on their laurels, though. With a business relying so heavily on tourist dollars, Cave feels a responsibility for the growth of the industry as it contributes to Australia’s exports. “I have not seen a better tourism operation in the world than this business and I aim for it to be the best. Export is a really important part of what we do.” And it’s a part well-rewarded. As well as BridgeClimb being named Australian Exporter of the Year in 2002, Cave was named as an Australian Export Hero in 2002/03 for his contribution to export in Australia.

Bold Future

Terrorism is a real threat: the iconic status of the national landmark has been its biggest friend but it also makes it a likely target for potential threats. When I ask Cave what he does to prepare for such an event, he is unwilling to think too much of the what-ifs. A business built solely around the experience of climbing the Bridge, the main thing Cave says he and his team can do is to have a heightened sense of safety on and around the bridge. “Terrorism has been a big change.” It’s also impacted his other business, BridgeClimb International, which was all set to move ahead with a plan for a bridge climb on Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Although there had been a public announcement from the mayor in support of the project, the events of September 11 put it on hold.

Life for the business changes from week to week. For Cave, now 60, retirement isn’t on the agenda. Looking to the future, he’s keen to push BridgeClimb International, to set the concept up in other markets, on other bridges.

On a personal level, a recent cancer scare—skin cancer and a malignant lymph node resulting in three operations on his face—has changed his business focus, and he is keen to give back, through charities and fostering entrepreneurship. “I feel very fortunate to be the one lucky enough to do this for a job, and I feel the need to give back.” Now, he says, the challenge is to bring his business life into harmony with his private life.

He believes, given the political environment relating to terrorism, this business would not get up and running today, so he ensures the business is also in tune with the current climate, knowing he can’t change the nature of the world we find ourselves living in. “That’s the risk entrepreneurial people take,” Cave states. “Hopefully things that might seem inevitable will be a long time coming to this country.” 

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