How adventure made Ben and Oliver Black better leaders

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The brothers behind the successful My Family Care service reveal why their passion for gruelling endurance events has helped them to last the distance in business

The MacLehose Trail in Hong Kong is 100km long with a series of ascents that add up to the equivalent of climbing Everest. Despite that, teams compete annually to run its full length, and when Ben and Oliver Black tried to master it, it turned out to be an adventure they would never, ever forget.

In Ben’s case, mostly for all the wrong reasons. He recalls: “I got the training slightly wrong. So, after 60k, my body was seizing up and my feet were cramping up. We stopped at a checkpoint and the medics did their stuff. But during that stop I lost my head torch.

“So we carried on running but I couldn’t see where I was going. I fell over. I was covered in blood. Fell over again. Couldn’t see. Cramped up again. Still covered in blood.

“We got to 90k and I collapsed and I told the rest of my team to carry on without me. I thought this must be the lowest ebb. The following morning at breakfast, having done 90 of 100k, Ollie leaned over and grabbed my cereal.

“I looked at him and said, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ And he replied, ‘Well, you’re not going to finish it, are you?’” Nothing is sacred, it seems, when it comes to two siblings trying to get a rise out of each other.

But, as Oliver, the younger of the two, explains: “Doing endurance events gives me the confidence to know I can push through a tough situation. I can cope with a little bit more pain. We’ve gone cycling in the Alps and Dolomites, which involve a bit of an adventure.

“And there is always a moment where you’re thinking ‘do I really need this?’ My favourite event was the run from Chamonix to Zermatt (145km through the Alps). The challenge was, could we do it in three days? It was an incredible experience.”

Ben adds: “He loves the pain, I love showing off after I get through it! But we always end up preparing for a big physical challenge every year. Even thinking about it is painful. But once you’re fully involved and committed to the event then it’s fine. And it’s the same in business, I believe.”

In 2000, Oliver set out on a very different type of adventure. He quit his job with Procter & Gamble after realising that a number of his colleagues were struggling to juggle work with childcare duties. He convinced his older brother, a City lawyer at the time, to come on board and they bought Tinies Childcare nurseries.

Ben recalls: “The first two years were hell. But working with my brother was good because there is a lot of honour at stake and neither of us would admit how bad things were.

“A turning point came when we started to become suppliers of childcare. We also did the BBC programme Tough at the Top, where I came across quite well. Ollie didn’t! We got a lot of business through that.”

The brothers have since been credited with creating a revolution in the care industry through their company, My Family Care. Oliver says: “It’s been a fascinating adventure. We started as a childcare business and we’ve become a tech business – the software and platform make it possible.

“The single biggest thing we do is back-up care. This allows people to organise back-up child, elderly or dependent care, anywhere in the country with as little as two hours’ notice, half an hour for nurseries and childminders.”

Last year, they saved their clients over 30,000 days in productivity through the back-up care service. Ben explains. “If, for example, you work for Google and you have young children or elderly parents, Google tells you to go to the work and family space, which is a platform we run.

“Through the work and family space you can book emergency childcare anywhere in the country. Or you can access some special coaching programmes to help people going through maternity. Childcare is not something you can simply repeat in any country. But the online coaching is applicable anywhere.”

Oliver also argues that firms should be doing more to help women back into work and up the career ladder after maternity. “The case is proven that if you get equal numbers of men and women in every sphere of your business it works better,” he says.

“There are more girls coming out of university than boys and yet when you look at the board it is always white, male and stale.”

The Blacks’ other clients include Sky, Virgin and IBM. As the business continues to grow, so the brothers have used endurance events as a way to switch off. Oliver says: “When you’re training it’s also a great headspace territory to think about things with more clarity.”

Ben says there is a symmetry in the challenges they take on inside and outside of work. “If you’ve started your own business there is a certain restless insecurity where you think anything might happen at any moment.

“A fear of failure drives you on. We’ve got big American competitors and that helps to push us. And it was the same when I didn’t finish MacLehose.”

The brothers will return to Hong Kong next year, with Ben determined to finish what he started by completing the famous 100km course. “I would love to be able to relax and smoke a pipe but a business has to change and evolve,” he says.

“Both the physical and business challenges tend to run in parallel and as soon as you think you can sit back in the armchair, that’s the point where you get fat, arthritic and boring.” And the point when your competitors, and your little brother, will have you for breakfast.

Ben and Oliver Black gallery

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About author

Ryan Herman

Ryan Herman

Alongside his work for Director, Ryan has written for SportBusiness International, VICE Sports, Populous, Audi and Gallop Magazine and was previously editor of Sky Sports Magazine.

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