Evergreen wildlife chief relishes role

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 April, 2007, 12:00am

Eric Bohm, at 62, brings a lifetime of skills to bear in top job at the WWF

Like many people his age, 62-year-old Eric Bohm is full of energy and ideas, and has a wealth of practical work experience. So he finds it a crying shame that so many companies require employees to retire at 60 and give them no choice in the matter. If you look at the world of politics, he says, many government leaders do not reach the highest echelons until they are well beyond the traditional retirement age. Some may even be challenging for electoral office in their 70s.

In effect, that means companies and other organisations with a policy of showing older workers the door are depriving themselves of hard-won expertise, valuable know-how and potential mentors for the younger generation.

Reading the signs, yet keen to keep using his business experience, Mr Bohm found a new challenge. Having worked in investment banking in his native Canada and, for the past 25 years, on a variety of corporate investment portfolios in Hong Kong, he knew his strengths lay in turning around companies which were in difficulty. He was confident these skills could be put to good use in other areas.

'I'm not a political animal,' he said. 'But what did dawn on me was that I'm a real generalist.' Previously, he had also used his business and analytical skills to help put a church and a charity on a firmer financial footing.

'I'm the trustee of a church and my wife is involved with the Kely Support Group,' he said, referring to the local group which assists teenagers. Reflecting on how this involvement had helped him get through a tough time in his own life, he said it had also shown him the opportunities such work gave for personal growth.

So, when a headhunter mentioned about two years ago that the role of chief executive of WWF in Hong Kong was open, Mr Bohm quickly confirmed his interest. Friends in the corporate world thought he was mad and strongly advised against accepting. Their arguments focused mainly on the salary level and were also based on the perception that, as an NGO, the organisation would not run as smoothly as a multinational.

Mr Bohm, however, had few concerns on either point, seeing instead the opportunity to apply his full range of skills, boost the organisation, sort out certain long-standing financial problems, and continue to learn along the way. But it turned out that the greatest source of job satisfaction came from being able to work with a high-calibre team.

'Corporations would give their hind-teeth to have such a passionate crowd,' he said. 'They are highly motivated, [but] they sometimes get distracted, so from a business point of view you have to keep the focus.' When Mr Bohm came in, he took stock of the situation and then began to streamline projects.

'I chopped tasks, not people,' he said. 'I'm a risk taker, but a calculated risk taker. In all the management meetings at WWF, I said: 'Don't worry'. I was trying to create a sense of calmness.' Now in the process of increasing headcount to bring in new talent, he obviously assesses job-specific qualifications and experience, but also looks for applicants with a sense of humour.

'Having a sense of humour is underrated in corporations,' he said, adding that it greatly helped in establishing better relations between staff and coping with problems in times of adversity.

Mr Bohm is a dapper dresser with a bold, striped shirt under a waistcoat. It is smart but there is a bit of flair and humour as well. Then there are the sideburns worthy of a part in a Charles Dickens film and his grey ponytail, which he was going to cut off when he turned 50, until stopped by his wife and daughters. He was glad he kept it because he played ice hockey for a local team until he was 56, and the ponytail made him look as if he was going faster across the ice.

The WWF role has tested not just his management skills and business acumen, and has also called for entrepreneurial flair and marketing ability. The work contains a significant element of public relations and fund-raising, and it is important to keep the WWF 'brand name' in the minds of the business community and before the public.

In this part of the world, the choice of logo - the giant panda - has been especially fortuitous. It is immediately recognisable, has the right level of cuteness, is almost universally popular and, of course, is a national symbol of China.

Winning public support is not always easy, but with one issue Mr Bohm and his team had a bit of luck. That was two years ago when Hong Kong Disneyland still had shark's fin soup on its menu for wedding banquets.

The WWF was at the forefront of a campaign to oppose this and even children started to write to the company to complain.

The resulting attention put the NGO back in the public eye and made Mr Bohm realise that big business was perhaps losing the ability to be the lead on sociological issues.

'You can see there are signs they are trying to get it back, but it's a bit overdue and it's got to be accelerated,' he said.

Overall, he is encouraged by the belief that the 'donor pie' for environmental organisations is growing, but warns that if there are too many separate groups their efforts are in danger of becoming too fragmented.

'At some point, some of these NGOs will need to merge,' he said.

In his newfound career, he has learned a great deal about the environment and, in doing so, has had cause to regret one of his previous jobs - running a detergent factory. That experience, though, has given him greater insight into what it takes to get the WWF's message across and what environmental lobbyists will need to do in the years ahead.

'You have to work with people; you must engage the stakeholder, the guy who is doing the polluting,' he said.

How to change career

Do detailed research and be realistic about what you can offer

Maintain contact with executive search firms and career advisers

If undertaking a major change of direction, be sure to educate yourself

Update your CV and meet people in the field you would like to get into

Take calculated risks. It is important to be ready to try new things

Be confident, maintain a sense of humour and an upbeat mood