“Monday morning, the first day back at work,” he writes, “after three weeks spent on a wonderful holiday in New Zealand. The phone rang, breaking my reverie and I could feel myself slipping back into the routine as if I had never been away. The next nine words were to metamorphose my rather staid existence – ‘Are you interested in setting up DHL in Iraq?’”
And those words were to change his life. Heyrick Bond Gunning, a wonderfully-named 33-year-old ex-Grenadier Guards officer, sitting now in a plush London hotel – but until then stuck in a dot.com startup – found himself shuttled onto the first civilian plane into Baghdad. It was the end of the second Gulf War. Or so everyone thought at the time.
With him were one colleague, two camp beds, a brightly-liveried (and amusingly inappropriate) van, a satellite telephone which rarely received a signal, a single laptop, 24 bottles of Evian water, some tins of baked beans – and an envelope stuffed with $25,000 in used notes. His mission? Start up a new business in a war zone.
What he has written of those experiences, set over one of the most hectic and adrenaline-fuelled 12 months you could imagine, has been set down in his new book Baghdad Business School: The Challenges of a War Zone Start Up (Eye Books, £9.99). It’s a blend of the funny and furious, where management speak-meets-boys-own adventure, each chapter introduced by an incongruous piece of business theory, the results getting ever more deadly and less light-hearted as the journey progresses.
Throughout it all are the observations of someone on-the-ground as history is breaking: it’s a unique glimpse from the other and frequently unheard side of the ‘occupation’. Of the ‘Walter Mittys’ he describes turning up at the hotels, describing their own war experiences; sleeping rough at forward military bases, waiting a chance to see a colonel to win a potential new contract, sheltering from incoming mortars at the same time; to the worries of his wife and friends back home, for whom his email diary became the core of the eventual book.
From first arrival, where the US Marines oggle their new guests and constantly talk of ‘poontang’ (girls), to finding out that a soldier’s knowledge of foreign cultures is primarily based on the Bible, or seeing the uncontrolled looting, you have a sense of the country slipping ever further into anarchy. His staff had to hide their identities for fear of reprisals from friends and neighbours; suppliers and sometimes potential clients demand constant kickbacks; mortaring and random sniper fire are constant companions; and then there is the incongruity of Heyrick’s business plans faced with harsh, hard reality – most spectacularly when one of his company Airbuses is shot down by a missile over Baghdad airport! Only a miracle and some stunning flying saves the crew. You can understand from reading Baghdad Business School why this is no standard business operation.
In fact, it’s a wonder at all that Heyrick and his colleagues managed to create a highly-profitable outfit. Yet they did indeed help establish logistics giant DHL as the number one courier and logistics firm in Iraq. In fact, so crucial was their role to become that US forces would order helicopter blades and other vital spare parts via the company, rather than from their own quartermasters. Where normally the military would wait months, thanks to Heyrick and his men – often flying the country in aging Russian cargo planes – the delivery times were cut to days.
“Yes, well that’s not so surprising you know,” says the tall, rangy figure. “If you were forced to wait months and you had frontline responsibilities, what would you do? Though most of our contracts were connected with the reconstruction, not military in the end.” With his accent clipped, if soft; the City tailoring; a premature hairline; prominent ears; and a diffident, even hesitant manner, it is hard to imagine him in his war-zone get-up. Until, that is, he starts detailing his experiences and a clear, fervent passion for the people and the country take hold.
“I just love it. I love the Middle East,” he says, as we both reminisce about our times in the region. He writes movingly about his Iraqi staff clubbing together to buy his wife (whom they’d never met) several hundred pound’s worth of jewelry as his leaving present. He still talks to them each week, when he can, though he has now moved onto pastures anew. Clearly, the whole culture has left a lasting impression, as he constantly refers to the hospitalities (amidst the danger) that he experienced. His talk now may be about setting up a consultancy for businesses wishing to invest in the region, but for Heyrick Iraq was his first actual Middle Eastern posting. Why give up the safe and secure day job?
“I’d been working in London, in the City. I was beginning to reach a plateau, when I got this call from DHL in Bahrain, suggesting I might like to come out for an interview. They’d got hold of my CV somehow and were looking for someone with military and startup experience. So I fell into that quite nicely. I went out just for a day, on the pretext to my current job that I was ill! It was a choice between that or opening a new office in New York for my other company. Iraq won out.”
Having studied archaeology, he says it was also a chance to indulge his passion in what had once been the cradle of civilisation. His wife, a business psychologist, also encouraged him to take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He didn’t get much chance for historical study, though, screaming around the country in the first months of reconstruction – a time he remembers for the freedom it offered – but suddenly noticing all the normal things you miss, “like being able to text someone when you’re late or just sending emails. You can’t follow up on meetings, you can’t send an email, so you have to get everything done there and then.”
Apart from the mortars and threat of lynchings (after a time even his hotel becomes too dangerous and the expats are forced to live in the airport itself) “driving was probably the most dangerous thing. Just imagine facing a constant stream of donkeys and carts coming the wrong way down a motorway!”
“But you haven’t asked about the strange requests,” he mentions, as the interview draws to a close. “We had lots of these, including the one with the ‘golden gun’. A gold-plated AK-47 someone was trying to send to Texas, probably one of Saddam’s weapons.” Was it sent? “No! No. Everything is X-rayed there and also on arrival. No, there was no chance that was getting through!”
Somehow, you feel that this is not the last strange situation Heyrick Bond Gunning will face.
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