A US Marine and his multicultural army of refugees are out to prove that background should be no barrier for finding meaningful and profitable work.
Doug Abdiel, who served in active duty in the US Marines for six years, including tours of Haiti and Afghanistan, has a new mission here in Australia – opening doors for refugees when so many are closed.
The 36-year old father of two, who runs partnerships and platform deals across the Asia-Pacific for Google,
also advises the Australian government on cybersecurity and is still an active member of US Marine Corps Reserves.
But his passion project is worlds away from those high-powered roles, tucked inside a shed in an industrial park in Laverton North in Melbourne’s west.
The Sydney-based tech executive runs a business that’s about as low-fi as you could imagine. And it’s just the way he likes it.
“I wanted a business so boring that it wouldn’t attract many competitors, Mr Abdiel said.
“It had to be a business that could be operated by workers who were illiterate or innumerate in English, and that didn’t require workers to have any trade certifications,” he says.
“And, most importantly, it had to be a business that couldn’t be offshored.”
That business is paper tubing, a business Abdiel bought 4½ years ago for $500,000 after selling his Google shares. He searched through 30,000 business listings to find it and although it was “a disaster” in terms of how it was run, it did meet his key criteria.
“The thing about paper tubes is they are mostly air,” Mr Abdiel said. “So it’s uneconomical to put them in a container and ship them to Australia. It’s a niche business that has to be done here.”
With two kids under three and a full time job at Google, Mr Abdiel put in 20-hour weeks for the first year setting up systems to “bring the business three decades forward in time”. Machines were cleaned, hi-vis vests were made compulsory and some “basic six-sigma” type processes introduced to prevent wastage.
There were many moments when he thought he’d made a “huge mistake”.
“As a US Marine I have an uncommonly high pain threshold,” he said.
“I can take a beating longer than almost anybody, so you take the hits on the chin, suck it up and drive on.”
He found a kindred spirit in his first general manager, a former Sri Lankan air force colonel who, when he arrived in Australia, had been “told after 26 years flying Mirage fighter jets that he had no job skills”.
“My response was ‘I think you do’. He was great,” says Abdiel.
With only one native English speaker currently on site, P&G Paper Tubes has pioneered a model for running a safe, productive factory for a workforce that speaks eight different languages.
From his time building up competency in the Afghan military while in the Marines, Mr Abdiel says learning by pictures is a very effective method for communication.
“A great big picture of what happens when your hand gets too close to a saw is very effective,” he explained. “With some hi-vis chains and flashing lights that gets you most of the way there.”
They’ve also found a novel way of upskilling staff. P&G has developed educational courses based on freely available training videos on workers’ rights and workplace safety from sources such as Monash University and Safe Work Australia. The existing YouTube videos automatically generate captions in more than 100 languages, and the course is delivered in a simple Google form. The courses are freely available to other companies wishing to hire refugees and P&G will fund up to $500 for certification in jobs such as forklift operation to help bridge the qualification gap.
Free or near-free software keeps the rest of the business running efficiently with key performance indicators on everything from metres of tubing per labour hour to freight costs tracked weekly in accounting software MYOB and shared in Google docs. Like a highly organised military campaign, deviations from established parameters are marked in red, yellow, or green, with Mr Abdiel and a volunteer board stepping in when necessary.
From a “disaster” five years ago, the factory is now profitable, generating over $2m a year in revenue and delivering a 25 per cent return on invested capital, counting blue chip companies like Godfrey Hirst Carpets as a customer. Now that Mr Abdiel has proven it can be done, he intends to use the proceeds to buy other businesses through his non-profit and provide more opportunities.
He’s proud to have given 26 people their first job in Australia and paid out more than $1m in wages to workers who might otherwise be on government support. Along with the current eight full-time employees who work in the tubing business, P&G has also set up another 22 refugees in a separate business sewing face masks. Mr Abdiel is constantly amazed by the talent and enthusiasm of his workforce, even if sometimes he has to stop them from putting themselves in danger in their excitement to work. He understands why they are so keen, given their incredible backstories.
“One of our workers’ entire family was murdered in one night in sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.
“Another survived the Iraq-Iran war and both invasions of Iraq but when ISIS came he was a target because he was Christian. He was an airconditioning technician back there. He might not be literate or numerate in English but he’s smart.
“A lot of what we do is unearth that talent, finding work for someone who just needs a chance, rather than being rejected because an employer might see them as a terrorist.”
Mr Abdiel’s own experiences in conflict zones is a constant reminder of how important it is that this overlooked community is given a chance.
“You look at what these guys have gone through and how they carry themselves with such dignity when they come to work,” he said.
“Sometimes Marines carry less from what they have been through and yet we treat them with so much more care.
“These guys inspire me every day.”