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View from the Top: How BridgeClimb's Paul Cave Scaled New Entrepreneurial Heights

May 01, 2012

​His father-in-law's boyhood adventure – as one of the first to cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge when it opened in 1932 – inspired businessman Paul Cave to establish one of the world's most exhilarating tourism experiences. Since 1998, BridgeClimb has harnessed millions of locals and international visitors and – spectacularly – taken them to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It took Cave, whose early business success was with a tiling company, nine years to negotiate with government agencies and others to get BridgeClimb off the ground. These days he's widely recognised as a model of entrepreneurial smarts – not least for his persistence and tenacity. 

In an interview with Julian Lorkin of Knowledge@Australian School of Business, Cave outlines how one man's great idea became a breathtaking experience for many.

An edited transcript of the interview follows.
Knowledge@Australian School of Business: Firstly, Paul, how did you come up with the idea of theBridgeClimb?

Paul Cave: It's quite a long story about my father-in-law who's long since died. On the day the bridge was opened on March 19, 1932, he managed to convince his mum that he and his brother should come into the city to watch the opening. What he hadn't told his mother was that they planned to take a blanket, see the bridge open on March 19, then sleep at Wynyard Railway Station overnight. At 5am the next morning, when the ticket office opened, George and his brother bought the first two tickets for crossing the bridge – that was [my] inspiration. I inherited his ticket and I'm sure he'd be pretty delighted if he knew what journey that ticket had taken me on.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: How did you turn that inspiration into a business venture that allows people to pay for the privilege of climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge?

Paul Cave: I guess the fascination became a passion and then an obsession. I was playing a game of squash with (former New South Wales' premier) Nick Greiner. We were both members of the Young Presidents' Organisation, and we were debating some of the things we could do with this group of young business leaders who were coming to Australia in 1989. One of the ideas was climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I said to Nick: "Let me look after that." So he gave me the name of the chief executive of the RTA (Roads and Traffic Authority) and the idea started to permeate. Then we talked to the RTA about the possibility and it took another nine months to piece together. Having had the chance to take a big group of people up there and seeing how special it was, I thought 'this is just incredible' and I wanted to share it with the world.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: To launch the venture you obviously needed quite a lot of cash. How did you get the finance for the BridgeClimb company?

Paul Cave: The cash was secondary, because the first thing was finding a practical and prudent way to do it. I needed to work on the idea and keep it under wraps. The research actually took two or three years to look at the possibility of attracting people. Could we do it with the heritage and ecological (environmental) issues all embraced within that? So a lot of work was done and had to be done very quietly.

It took a lot of time to get to that point and then I borrowed A$1 million from four peers, telling them I could make this happen in two years, not knowing it would take nine years.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: Some of your investors became a little worried after a couple of years, didn't they?

Paul Cave: Yes, these guys were mates. But entrepreneurs are frequently super optimists, and the actualisation of BridgeClimb took an enormous amount of detail and dealing with bureaucracy, which was a significant part of the challenge.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: Many entrepreneurs want to launch their own company and keep it confidential, but how do you keep something as big as BridgeClimb quiet?

Paul Cave: Look, that was probably one of the biggest challenges. We put together a comprehensive confidentiality agreement that was umpteen pages in length. We actually had 260-odd people sign that and it was staggering that we managed to work on this idea for six years without it getting out. It was a simple idea but it was important to protect it. We even had a patent attorney and a lawyer sign confidentiality agreements – they were affronted originally when they were asked.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: How did you reassure people that BridgeClimb was going to be safe and it wouldn't interfere with basic maintenance on the bridge?

Paul Cave: We took the concept to them and it included putting people in suits and harnesses and breath testing [them]. The bureaucracy thought this was a wonderful thing because the workers on the bridge in years gone by have worked up there without harnesses. They thought: "Well, getting you up there might in fact be a real positive." So they were very supportive. That was a part of bureaucracy that was very helpful.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: BridgeClimb has been very successful in terms of promoting Australia and encouraging people to come to Sydney. How did you launch the marketing? Was it a strange concept for people to climb a bridge on a day out; why should people do that?

Paul Cave: We were incredibly fortunate to be able to share and show off the bridge. It's a huge icon for Sydney and Australia and the country's public relations. It's quite remarkable – when Oprah came to Australia (in 2010) she wanted to climb the bridge and a billion people saw the story. Two-thirds of our climbers are international and we frequently get press interest with international people and celebrities climbing. That's a huge part of the marketing presentation of the product.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: You're now very well known for BridgeClimb, but many people may not know about your earlier business experience with Amber Tiles. You started the company when you were 29. Is there a disconnect between a company that makes tiles and running a tourist attraction?

Paul Cave: If you have an idea – and ideally it's a unique idea – then you have a theme or an approach. With Amber, for example, we were doing some things a little differently; we were combining tiles with paving and we were running a do-it-yourself business, teaching people how to lay tiles. That was a first in this country and that separated us from the tile industry. The company became the largest tile company in Australia and that was great. I stayed there for 23 years, which frankly was about five years beyond my use-by date.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: You learned a lot from running [the Amber] company in terms of your management style that you could use when dealing with all the issues you faced developing the BridgeClimb business?

Paul Cave: Yes.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: How do you define your management style?

Paul Cave: As an entrepreneur, I'm eminently unemployable. You lead by passion and ideology and your fascination with the product itself and the service you're offering. [You're] hoping to be inspirational, hoping others will share that passion. We only want people working in BridgeClimb who really are intrigued by the bridge and want to tell the stories and understand it and what relates to it. That's part of the raison d'etre.

Most entrepreneurs are not great managers. I need a complement – as in a managing director to run it – and the two of us together do that, hopefully empathically. I've just appointed a new managing director to run BridgeClimb who was running the Sydney Opera House previously.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: How do you define the passion behind somebody who can get a project like BridgeClimb off the ground?

Paul Cave: You need to be somewhat obsessive, to have a focus, a very clear goal. Importantly, you never stray from [that goal] – it's like firing a single rifle rather than a shotgun – you pursue it doggedly. It's always a multi-marathon, never a sprint, so you want to pursue something and go to the nth degree.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: Your idea has now been up and running for many years – for more than a decade people have been able to climb the bridge. As an innovator and an entrepreneur, how do you develop that further? Perhaps find new bridges?

Paul Cave: New bridges or other experiential tourism opportunities are clearly important and desirable. In my shareholder's agreement with BridgeClimb, I organised that I might separately start to look internationally and we've certainly done that.

The principles of the success of a business, like Amber or BridgeClimb, I managed to use in other ways as well, with other businesses I'm involved with such as InterRISK Insurance, in which I have an interest, or Domino's Pizza, which we floated [in 2005].

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: Other things like the global financial crisis or even the rise of the Australian dollar; that must be hurting your company as visitors to Australia find climbing the bridge costs twice as much now as it did a couple of years ago or four times as much as it did five years ago, due to the exchange rates.

Paul Cave: They are the challenges that business always has – the ups and downs. You have to be a realist and try and work with them. There are always challenges and the global financial crisis obviously has been a challenge for tourism. We have to lift our game with the Australian brand and the service we offer with BridgeClimb. We have to continue to want to make that business better every single day – otherwise it would be very easy to rest on your laurels and you'd probably wither or die in the process. 
You need to keep innovating, changing and improving, looking for growth and for opportunities. That's the reason to get up in the morning, the excitement, the adrenalin of making things happen in business and making a difference.

Knowledge@Australian School of Business: In your personal life as well you are wanting to make life better for people everyday through your charitable work. How do you combine that with a successful business career?

Paul Cave: I'm lucky enough to have survived a reasonably serious cancer scare with several operations due to a melanoma. I want to give back because we're very close in Australia to solving lots of things with cancer – it's happening progressively.

With the development of the Chris O'Brien* Lifehouse – he was my surgeon and a very, very close friend – it's very gratifying and satisfying to be able to make his dream happen. It's right at the cutting-edge and will make an enormous difference in this country when that centre opens in 18 months' time. So it's fantastic to be able to be the recipient of a cancer solution. But we can refine this further – so it's wonderful for Chris O'Brien to be doing this.

*Pioneering Sydney cancer specialist Chris O'Brien died in June 2009 following a three-year battle with an aggressive brain tumour. His vision for transforming cancer care in Australia will be realised with the opening of the Chris O'Brien Lifehouse at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, which will combine all facets of clinical care; surgery, medical and radiation oncology, research, integrative medicine and support services for patients, their families and carers.

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