Dubai: British expat Phil Bedford is an interesting man to talk to. He’d better be, you would think, considering he is an international speaker, author, business coach and professional networker.
But get past the polite conversation and you realise here is a man who walks his talk.
A shy boy who beat the bullies; a tongue-tied teen who now holds a 4,000-plus audience to motivational ransom; a laggard who flunked his English exam, yet penned six books; a self-taught salsa teacher; an unlikely diver who became a kite-surfing instructor and underwater hockey trainer – there’s so much more to Bedford than just the hats he wears.
‘I was sat alone because nobody came’
Delving into his eventful past, the “52-running-on-26” Bedford, recounted: “I grew up in Brixham, a small fishing village in the UK. I was clever but chubby and heavily bullied as a child. I hated conflict and would at times hide from others in the forests behind my school. When I turned 15, my parents encouraged me to have a party and invite my classmates home. They lay the food on the table and left. When they came back four hours later, I was sat all alone because nobody came.”
And pray, why? “It was actually my fault – I was too scared to invite anyone,” lets on Bedford.
The Rebel Networker
But fast forward to the present, and this “Rebel Networker” will tell you how that no-show all those many years ago changed him forever.
A trendsetter host, he has even set up an informal group called the International Dinner Friends, where he and six other men meet every six weeks at one of their homes as they play chef, cook and chat over a three-course meal.
The networking that happens in the kitchen and over the dining table is priceless, he says. “We’ve helped friends land jobs, got household snags fixed for free and connected people where it mattered.” Why, he even ended up in a Spanish cooking show viewed by eight million households, thanks to one of these dinners.
Bedford’s foray into Dubai is equally interesting. “I first came here on a holiday in 1997 and met some interesting people on a desert drive. They offered me a job in the exhibition stands industry and chased me up, with the result that I was back the next year to move into the role.”
A new way of getting business
As he grew from strength to strength and earned the recognition of an adept salesperson, it dawned upon Bedford that it was no coincidence. “I was a top salesman without any technical training in sales. I realised I had been networking all along whether it was in exhibition stands or recruitment and real estate which I was involved with earlier,” says Bedford, who holds a masters degree in construction engineering.
“Because of friends, the contacts I had from hobbies and doing a good job of things, I was being referred to others and meeting great people. This was a whole new way of getting business.”
He cautions against common misconceptions about networking though. “Networking is not about exchanging cards and expecting someone to do something for you. Neither is it about cold calling face to face and selling at everyone. It is about how you can enrich other people’s lives and enrich yours in the process too. It’s about reciprocity.”
Never go it alone
Another important lesson that the master networker shares is that you don’t have to go it alone. To drive home the point, he talks of the time when his father tried to launch a boat hiring business on his own to spend more time with the family. “But he went bust and then had to live away from us. While he did what he thought was the best, obviously his passion was not enough,” says Bedford, regretting that he was not able to help him in any way as a child back then.
But it is precisely that pain which pushes him to help other families and businesses to succeed now, he reasons. “Now, my dad watches me on social media as if to say, ‘That’s my boy’.”
The bullies didn’t win
It’s the same feeling that Bedford gets every time a client acknowledges his work. “For the kid who would hide in the forests, every time someone thanks me, I know the bullies didn’t win,” he says. “The only reason I got here is because of the people I was surrounded with.”
A master franchisee for Asentiv in the GCC and former director consultant at the networking major BNI International, Bedford says Dubai is one of the best cities for networking. “There are a lot of people from different backgrounds here. In any case, everybody you want to meet on the planet can be introduced to you through someone.”
He cites his own story of how he became an underwater hockey trainer in 2017. “I used to dive with dad as a child. Now after so many years, some of my contacts abroad reached out to me. They were looking to build an underwater hockey team in the UAE. So we plugged into our networks and got things going. Today, we have two teams with 45 members, all trying to get UAE on the global map.”
Power of networking
Building a sports team is much like building a business, he says, as both necessitate networking.
According to him, nothing could have demonstrated the power of networking better than the COVID-19 pandemic. “It was a time when some just sat at home and complained. Others took to Zoom and networked. I was one of them and I was able to grow my business from my front room during COVID-19,” he says.
Bedford, who had trained for Triathlon a few years ago, has also begun training for an Ironman in South Africa.
With all that he does, just how does Bedford manage his family life? “My wife Michelle, who I happened to meet in a salsa class, is super supportive of who I am and what I do. Though she did not initially understand the challenges of running a business, she always respected my interests.”
But today, the former head of a school is inspired enough to launch an online cook coaching business of her own.
Clearly, the couple enjoy having their hands full.