Normally I sleep soundly for 7-8 hours every night. For the past week I averaged 3-4 hours a night. Here’s why.

On Thursday the 9th of July I was up early to prepare for the day ahead. At roughly 5am I received a very cryptic email from my long time mentor, Paul Dunn. It went like this… “can’t make it to Brisbane today, Volcano has erupted and I am stuck in Bali”.

What the…?

Paul was supposed to be in Brisbane that day so we could put the finishing touches on my annual conference program. I knew he was in Bali and he was supposed to be landing at 0635 ready for our 10am start. It was 3am in Bali when he wrote the email and he was stuck at the airport. Paul was then going to be flying back to Bali the next day so we could get everything underway. Paul was going to be the emcee and also a key speaker.

And then it hit me. What about the 450 people who would be flying in from all over the world to attend the conference. We had 350 delegates booked in, 25 sponsors (each with around 3 people attending), 9 speakers and 20 of my crew to make it all work.

There was a lot riding on the conference being a massive success. It wasn’t just making sure the delegates had an amazing experience at the best conference in the world for Accountants.

We also had riding on the conference the launch of an $8M capital raising for my software company. The intention was to sell 20% of the company to the clients (who better to have on your share register than loyal clients) so that we could have working capital to grow globally – quickly.

With the conference revenue, sponsors, capital raising and any damages bill it was potentially a $10M disaster.

All because of an angry volcano shutting down an airport!

This story is about what happened over the next 7 days.

As soon as I got the initial email from Paul (4 days before we were due to start) I communicated it with my team. They went into research mode. What’s going on, which websites to look at and who do we need to speak with to get answers?

As it turns out there are 7 volcanic ash monitoring centres around the world. The one that looks after Asia is based in Darwin. My General Manager put a call into the chief to see what was going on. He said to me “one thing I learned about being on the Sydney Olympics Organising Committee is you go straight to the top fast to get answers”.

Here’s what he found out. A volcano 140km from the Denpasar airport has erupted and it was spewing toxic ash into the sky.  Aeroplanes and volcanic ash are not great together. Do you remember April 2010 when the Icelandic volcano caused chaos for a couple of weeks all over Europe? I do because I was running the London Marathon that week and I just got in to run it. Here we go again I thought.

Due to the Volcano every flight in and out of Bali was cancelled until further notice. If the wind changed then they may re-open the airport.

Oh dear. An ‘act of God’ is going to spoil 12 months of work and potentially cancel the conference.

When we got the news all of our emotions and decision making processes were running high. What do we do? How do we make this happen? What if? How much will we have to pay if we postpone or cancel? Should we move the event to Singapore, the Gold Coast?

I have been running successful events all over the world for 21 years and nothing like this has ever happened before. I called on some of my friends who run events and nothing like has happened like this to them either. Who do I (as the CEO and ultimate decision maker) turn to?

Basically no one could help. Because no one had the experience to help! There were plenty of suggestions but they were not that helpful. Many questions had no answers.

The wind did change during the day and a few flights got in. There was a glimmer of hope.

They were all short haul flights from other parts of Asia. The 2-3 hour flights got in because they could make a last minute decision. It was the 6-9 hour flights from Australia and New Zealand what were being grounded or delayed.

Then the messages from delegates started coming in thick and fast. Is it on? My flights are cancelled, what should I do? We held strong and told them to re-book on the next flight. The volcanic ash monitoring people told us that the wind looked like it was going to change in the next day and we should be okay.

I was always due to fly out the Friday night via Singapore and then onto Bali the next morning – arriving around 1100 Saturday morning. The conference was due to start Sunday night with a lovely cocktail party. So I knew I’d be right but that wasn’t enough. I needed crew, delegates, speakers and sponsors to make the event happen.

I went to Sydney on the Friday for some meetings so I was unaware of what the team were up to. I was told it was bedlam with a blur of meetings and constant contact with delegates. No-one could give them any certainty.

I found out that my chief audio visual guy, Phil, was already in Bali (he arrived the day before the volcano erupted) and he was setting up the room for 450 with all the lighting, sound, screens, projectors and audio equipment that would make a touring rock band envious. He said to me he didn’t know what all the fuss was about. The skies were blue and everyone was going about their business as normal. At least Phil was there and Paul (my emcee and speaker) was there. It was a start.

I got back from Sydney and went straight to an event for daughter’s graduation. Then onto the airport for an 11:30pm flight. My wife was driving the car, I was in the back seat, and just as we pulled into the airport my 17 year old son (who is 6 feet tall) heard some ‘head banging’ music and proceeded to do some ‘head banging’ himself.

His very hard head collided with the bridge of my nose and with almighty crack.

Blood was pouring out of my nose all over the white leather seats of my new car. It was all over my clothes. I looked like I had been in a fight. I got out of the car and a large volume of blood was pouring all over the cement at the departure area.

What a mess. I hope they let me on the plane I thought.

As part of the research we discovered that we had three of our intended speakers were already in the area. Two were in Singapore and one in the Philippines. I at least thought they could get in.

Other than a 6 hour delay at Singapore airport I had a pretty normal travel pass to Bali. As I waited in the line to board one of my speakers found me. We sat together. Then another turned up and sat in front of us. I had located the other speaker and he was on the next flight after us.

The Bali airport was open by this stage and flights from Australia (90% of the delegation were coming from Australia) were going to be in the air soon – albeit delayed. We were sipping champagne on the flight and going ahead as normal.

Eureka – we’re going to have a conference. Or so we thought. Once we landed in Bali we were told our flight was the 2nd flight to arrive after opening and many of the flights coming on Saturday were going to be late but they will get in.

My team in Australia (who were meant to be landing on Saturday) were getting flights for themselves and helping hundreds of delegates re-schedule their flights. We had a direct line to some powerful people at the airlines to make it happen. They worked all day Saturday and finished at 2am on Sunday morning.

Then the world turned against us again. On the Sunday morning I was woken up (at 0630) to 2 text messages that said I needed to call Colin (my business partner) immediately and a phone call from my event manager to call the office. I also woke to an email from one of my speakers coming from New York to give a 40 minute keynote. She was not going to make it but she was going to ‘sub in’ one of her executives in the area.

The volcano had erupted again and the airport was again closed. Flights were cancelled or turned back or instructed to land in other countries if they were already in the air.

Suddenly my planned golf day with 30 delegates was not going to be. The crisis meetings started at 0830 and didn’t finish until 4pm.

The hardest part was knowing who was already in Bali (delegates, sponsors and speakers) and how many were attending. I was told by my event manager we had 62 known people in Bali at around 10am. I had 2 of my crew in Bali (and I was one of them), our AV guru, our emcee, a few sponsors and 4 speakers.

On a conference call to my team in Australia they briefed me on what they knew. The team could not get out until Monday and likely that many of our planned delegates would not get until late Monday or Tuesday – provided the wind changed and the airport re-opened.

The team were worried, I was worried. I always remember hearing General Norman Schwarzkopf (Stormin’ Norman of the 1st gulf war fame) speak at a conference once.

He said: “When in command take charge”

I decided to step up.

I got firm with my team and said to them with as much authority as I could muster.

“We’re going to run this conference as we promoted it. We have some speakers here, some sponsors, some delegates and more on the way. We’re going to work with what we’ve got. Get your butts here as quickly as you can and help make it happen.”  

I know it was a turning point because everyone took it up a notch. The limited crew in Bali excelled and the crew in Brisbane excelled.

First things first. The room was set for 450. It would look ridiculous with 100 or so. Phil the AV guy got to work with the local team to trim it. Then onto the agenda & running sheet. Normally we have a blow by blow running sheet in 3-5 minute intervals. This years running sheet was 332 lines long in Excel®. We needed to simplify it.

For the next 2 hours Paul (mentor, emcee & speaker) and I moved the entire thing around like a game of chess. We brought some speakers forward, pushed some back (in the hope that they may turn up) and chopped the times up.

We pride ourselves on running to time for everything and I could see this event would need to be very fluid and flexible.

My phone was going mental all day with text messages from clients ‘we’ve landed’, ‘still stuck in Sydney’, ‘been at the airport for 48 hours but we’re now’ etc.  I had no idea who they were from because the person’s names were not appearing in my phone – just there numbers.

Then I got an interesting text ‘can’t get in normally so I’ve got an Air Pakistan flight tomorrow going through Islamabad’. Wow – that’s commitment. I had no idea who it was and I had no idea where Islamabad was. I soon found out. It turned out to be a very good gag to wind me up.

We get to opening cocktail party at 5:30pm and the stories started. Some of the more adventurous ones where:

“we’ve been stuck in Perth airport for 48 hours”

“we were about to land in Denpasar, wheels down, it took off again and we ended up in Jakarta for 11 hours”

“we ended up going to Lombok and then getting rickety cars and boats here. At one stage the porter was carrying our luggage on his head through the water to get to the boat”

The commitment and the excitement was amazing. There was enough food at the cocktail party for 450 – around 65 turned up.

The crowd was building every hour as a few more flights came in.

Monday morning and we’re due to start the conference proper. Around 100 people turned up for the first few hours then more and more arrived. By the end of the day we had about 150. Our first 2 speakers where simply outstanding as they set the scene for the rest of the week.

There was still none of my crew until around 3pm that day. As I was one of 2 of my crew I roped in some clients and sponsors to help with registrations and microphone running.

I was even running mic’s for the first few hours. I hadn’t done it for 15 years but I’ve still got it. I even had our emcee (legendary Paul Dunn) running mic’s!

We got through day 1 with a re-jigged agenda, 2 speakers, 50% of our sponsors and around 150 delegates. It basically worked under the circumstances.

I still did not have a bunch of speakers, my board members (remember I’m doing a capital raising as well) and many delegates still on the way. I hadn’t slept for more than 4 hours a night at this stage and that was not going to change any time soon.

On day 2 we had more people arriving, we kept bringing out more tables and the event is in full swing. We had re-arranged the agenda to allow for all speakers to arrive later in the week so we were tracking quite nicely.

I was urging my wife to attend so she was able to get a flight out and arrive Wednesday. I was looking forward to seeing her. We had pushed the planned capital raising announcement back until Wednesday afternoon so we could have maximum people attend and my full board of directors. She is a major shareholder in the company and I wanted her to see it unfold.

The 3rd day (Wednesday) started off magnificently. I did a head count and we had 236 people in the room. More were still arriving. The speakers were great and the audience got right into it.

I was very nervous how the capital raising process would work. It was due for 2pm on Wednesday. As the CEO it was my job to present the opportunity. The minimum parcel of shares was $50,000 and we needed maximum 160 people to participate. We were raising $8M for 20% of the company. We needed more people (or so I thought) as not all would be interested.

I had no idea how it might work (never done a capital raising from stage before) so my expectations were all over the place. My presentation was one of the best I had ever delivered. I finished, gave instructions to the audience what happens next and we put on some music.

What happened next was the most overwhelming moments of my business life.

The process was that if you were interested in the opportunity, you needed to sign a confidentiality agreement & expressions of interest, indicate how much you might want to invest and then take that form to the back of the room and trade it for a YES hat and a 80 page detailed information memorandum.

I briefly turned around and one of my board members said ‘turn around, they’re all signing up’.

I could not believe what I was witnessing. They were 3-5 deep at the table, jostling for position (see photo below) and wanting to be the first ones in so they wouldn’t miss out. Someone even told me (who was not investing) they he was knocked out of the way by a very keen supporter. It was amazing. The support was the most humbling, overwhelming experience of my business life.

Once we culled out those that were not exactly sure there were 102 people pledging between $50,000 – $500,000 each and on top of that they wanted to take it to a total of 294 of their clients. We could be massively oversubscribed. What a wild feeling.

Note to self. We must have valued the company way too low because they signed up too fast.

That night my board and my major shareholders celebrated with a 2010 Penfolds Grange and a very special bottle of Henschke Hill of Grace. The reason for the 2010 Grange is that is the year my business partner, Colin Dunn bought 20% of the company from me. We’ve been great partners ever since and this bottle marked the next phase of our partnership. It was a special night with much laughter and stories.

The 4th and final day went exactly as planned. All of our speakers were in by now (remarkably every speaking spot allocated was filled for the week) and it was an amazing learning program. Based on delegate feedback they told us that the speaker line up this year was outstanding. They offered great content, thought provoking ideas and inspiring stories.

Conference is nearly over – it’s party time!

At the end of the last day we always have a gala dinner, awards ceremony and after party. This one would be special. We bused everyone to a secret location to watch the sunset; then we had a most magnificent setting (overlooking the ocean) for dinner and awards ceremony. We were toasting the best accounting firms in the world and most were there to receive their accolades.

The next day I found out we even had 3 people who arrived for the conference at 8pm on the Thursday Gala event. The conference was all but over but they wanted to be there after days of flight disruption.

No doubt everyone got to bed at different times. I heard that some saw the sun come up. The conference didn’t go exactly to plan but it worked. Everyone had a great time and it will be one to remember.

And we weren’t home yet. Someone said to me ‘I’ve heard some people can’t get out until the end of the month’. Arrgghhh.

I hadn’t even thought about getting home. I had a flight, my crew had flights but could we get on them? The volcano started playing up again and of course many more flights were disrupted.

After a couple of days of R&R, my wife and I got to the airport and I was told that my ticket was cancelled and she was good to go. Here we go again. I just wanted to go home. After 1 hour at the check-in desk I ended up buying a brand new ticket and grabbed the very last seat on the 2 flights I had to catch to get home. It was full fare and they were price gouging!

It’s been an epic week of tears, laughter, trepidation, nervousness and many more emotions going wild.

The week could not have happened without the love & support of my awesome wife and life partner, Nat, my amazing team, our loyal event partners, our flexible speakers and our very tolerant & supportive clients and delegates.

I don’t normally write 3,300 words for a blog post. I wanted to get it all down so I remembered this week forever. My story is one of such pride, appreciation, humbling support, love and amazing effort by everyone involved.