CEO of Sherriff Global Group and AML Global
Interview by Jonathan Bastable
‘Maybe half a dozen times in the past 20 years I have made bold decisions against the flow of conventional thinking,’ says entrepreneur and investor Chris Harborne. ‘Being contrary in a crisis is the opportunity. Success often comes if there is a willingness to continue along a particular path when everyone else is too scared to go on.’
This sounds like fighting talk, or it would do coming from someone with a less relaxed and thoughtful manner. Harborne thinks long and hard before answering any question. He seems almost surprised by his own insights, and by the direction that his career has taken. ‘Until I decided to go it alone I had the bluest of blue-chip résumés,’ he says. ‘I can operate in the world of dinner parties with finance ministers, but I am not part of that establishment, and this is deliberate. I absolutely do not want to follow the crowd.’
Just to stay standing when everyone else falls away is to win, because you only fail when you give up.
Harborne’s investment strategy is, he says, deliberately unconventional. ‘Many investors have 30 or 50 stocks in their portfolio. For me, that is too broad: I stick to between three and five at any one time. Three is enough to give you diversity: if one hits a roadblock, you have two others that you can go and work on. I can go intensely deep with a few ideas – too many and it creates overload. as you can’t go deep enough into too many ideas at the same time. My approach is to identify critical ideas that haven’t necessarily been fully understood by others and really investigate the fundamentals of those ideas. This requires an immense cognitive load, but most people are not prepared to engage at this level.’
It is key to Harborne’s strategy that there is no apparent overlap between concurrent projects. He says that he aims for investment themes that are ‘uncorrelated’, and adds that this is one of the hardest tricks to pull off in business. Part of his rationale is to quarantine investments from each other – if one fails the others are unaffected – but more importantly, spreading his interests across various industries and technologies allows him a broader field of vision: his strategy means that he is more likely than his competitors to spot the rare unicorns of opportunity in the thickly forested investment landscape.
In quite a short time – between 10 and 30 years – the sum of virtual tokens will be worth more than all the currencies, all the stockmarkets, all the tradeable assets in the world today.
That is not to say that Harborne’s investments have nothing in common. He has a knack for scoping out situations that are ripe for change – either through his intervention, or because profound forces are at work. This is certainly the case with his present portfolio. His main preoccupation is with distributed ledger tokens using open software platforms based on blockchain tech. Developers are creating world-changing applications in this area.
Harborne has been following the rise of digital money for five years and says that ‘the coming change is as fundamental as the invention of paper money in the 18th century. In quite a short time – between 10 and 30 years – the sum of virtual tokens will be worth more than all the currencies, all the stock markets, all the tradeable assets in the world today.’ That may seem like too bold a prediction, but Harborne is adamant. ‘The technology is there. And it meets a deeply rooted emotional need of humans to trade and exchange valuable assets and currencies without being arbitrarily censored by goverments, people they don’t know. People want control over their own money. Digital tokens on smart phones are not going to go away. If blockchain technology were to fail and disappear, people would want to reinvent it.’
Another of Harborne’s projects concerns jet fuel, or rather the Byzantine network of trading relationships between fuel producers, resellers, airlines and the travel industry. His company AML – which he has led for more than ten years – functions as an agency, with an unconventional approach in the marketplace. By arranging transactions in such a way as to minimise financial risks for all parties, Harborne’s model allows for much more efficient and cost-effective transactions.
Perhaps more speculatively, Harborne is involved in a long-term project to develop seabed mining. ‘I’ve been working at it for a decade,’ he says. ‘It is essential for the sustainability of human society that we mine minerals much more efficiently. All the minerals we could ever need are there on the seabed. You might have some billion dollars worth of gold or copper or zinc on an area the size of a few football pitches. People imagine that mining the seabed is bad for the environment, but it is actually hugely positive. If we can get down there and bring what we need to the surface, that will have so much less impact on the environment than slicing away the side of a mountain, as we do now.’
Harborne says that deep-sea mining, like the currency revolution, will happen surprisingly soon – so long as the right people keep working on it and investing in it. ‘Persistence, continued persistence, often means that you win,’ he says. ‘Just to stay standing when everyone else falls away is to win, because you only fail when you give up.’
AML Global fuelled Air Force One for the US President’s visit to APEC in Burma in 2012 © Alex Wong
What high-performance rowing can teach about assembling the optimum team.
‘When you are trying to put the optimum team together, it is not the individual’s performance which matters most, but the fit of the team.
I have observed this in multiple situations: even in the case of high performance rowing, a sport reliant on perfecting technique, selecting the best crew is about the right combination of technical fit and social fit, not about the ability to pull the oar through the water harder.
Like any highly demanding activity, rowing is not just about how hard you work in one particular moment, it is about consistency. That requires much more than physical training, it requires conditioning the mind to train the body to deliver excellent performances consistently.
Pulling harder in training can work against you; it creates burn-out because the pain experienced through extreme exertion is so intense, it is more than anyone can tolerate and your mind does not want to do it again. But in the right social environment, you not only can tolerate the pain, but it becomes supremely satisfying, almost pleasurable, because you learn to associate it with progress toward a shared goal. You look forward to doing it every day and that drives you on to top performance.
The same intense pain of exertion can be an act of self-torture or an act of supreme satisfaction depending on the circumstances; who you are doing it with and why. That is why the essence of team building – technical fit and social fit – is so important.’
— read more about optimising teams from the Judge Business School here.