No-limits man

Sam Hazledine walks the talk of the “anything’s possible” school of business thought. Peta Carey talks to the irrepressible Queenstown entrepreneur.
Queenstown entrepreneur Sam Hazledine

Towards the end of Sam Hazledine’s best-selling book Unfair Fight, he tells his readers that he has invested over a quarter of a million dollars into his personal “business” education.

He has read nearly every biography of every successful entrepreneur, and followed on the coat-tails of business gurus and juggernauts such as Tony Robbins and Keith Cunningham. He has lived and breathed business ethos “from the best”.

Today, Hazledine is not only the creator of a highly successful medical recruitment business, but also dedicates much of his time to other small-business entrepreneurs “closing the gap between where you are and where you want to be”. The 36-year-old has become a mentor-guru himself – a dedicated follower and leader in the art of believing “anything is possible; anyone or any organisation can be exceptional”.

Phew. Admittedly, there’s a bit of the pendulum effect in one’s appreciation of Sam Hazledine. Reading the book, listening to the swathe of interviews, watching the online and keynote presentations (see, one swings from incredulity, exhaustion and a drop of cynicism to raised eyebrows of interest and the need to listen just a little more intently. He may, indeed, have a point.

Walk into the Queenstown office of MedRecruit and the pendulum swings to that of open-mindedness. Hazledine appears grinning, casual, with a Thermos of hot water and green teabags in hand. He’s young, disarming, likeable, fiercely intelligent, passionate and, obviously, driven. A plain meeting room, no frills. He enjoys the banter, and he has a good story to tell. Within the first minute of conversation, his overarching mantra is voiced: “Success lies at the intersection of mindset and action.”

Success. MedRecruit has had a meteoric rise, boasting more than $20 million of revenue within six years of launching. A bevvy of awards line the front of the Queenstown office – Ernst & Young: Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2012, Deloitte Fast 50 for four consecutive years and the Sir Peter Blake Leadership Award 2014. Behind the partition is the open-plan office. Well lit, with nearly 30 people on phones or computers, it’s the hard-drive of the entire Australasian MedRecruit operation.

With some 1500 hospitals and 7000 GP practices throughout Australasia, MedRecruit marries doctors to vacancies in hospitals and locums to openings in general practice. “There are over 100,000 doctors in Australasia. It’s not efficient for any doctor to create their own network,” Hazledine explains. So, his company does it for them. “Yep, just like a dating agency.”

Sam Hazledine in his MedRecruit head office in Queenstown.

The story of how MedRecruit started is repeated through every interview and keynote speech and lies at the kernel of Unfair Fight: that it was David versus Goliath – Goliath being a big company with a monopoly over medical recruitment at the time. (Hazledine prefers not to name it.) Like David, MedRecruit got smart, did things differently, played the unfair (yet ethical) fight. Hey presto, now MedRecruit has the monopoly.

How? The secret, Hazledine says, lies within the company’s vision statement (more mantras, but keep reading): “Enrich Lives”.

“When a doctor comes to us, we ask key questions about what really excites them. I believe if people get to do what excites them, they’re infinitely more likely to achieve it, and they’re going to be more fulfilled. So let’s find out what excites the doctor and find it for them.”

It’s a huge advantage that Hazledine is a doctor himself. Not only did he see a real need for his services – “25 per cent of graduates drop out after three years of graduation, through disillusionment” – but he knew instinctively what both doctors and organisations required, giving him credibility. “I understand the market, and I can connect with clients in a different way to a non-medical person. It’s an important part of my business.”

Why drop a promising medical career for the corporate world, after six years of study and only a couple of years of practice? “I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it,” he admits. Another metaphor: “Medicine was a ‘means goal’, not an ‘end goal.’” Listen up.

“I call it the ‘corridor of opportunity’. I wasn’t clear on the end goal, but I knew it was about enriching lives, helping people see what’s possible. So I started work as a doctor. What I mean by this so-called corridor of opportunity is, if you’re standing still and looking down a corridor, you can’t see if the doors are open or not. But if you start moving, you’ll see a door that’s open and you’ll think, ‘That’ll get me there more quickly or more effectively.’” Hence opening the door into medical recruitment.

Nice analogy. Did he come up with that one? “I don’t know!” he laughs. “I’ve been to so many forums, read so many books, sometimes I forget where the ideas come from!”

The chronology of Hazledine’s life, like every aspect of this interview, is dotted with metaphors, truisms, lessons in life.

“My parents copped criticism for giving me a lot of freedom, but I think that massively contributed to who I became. They instilled in me the belief that anything was possible. And that’s been the driving belief my entire life. Don’t accept any limits, don’t accept any limits other people put on you.”

Hazledine’s childhood, he says, was a wonderful one. His father worked for Shell, so for the first nine years the family lived in Venezuela, London and Qatar. Unsurprisingly the term “ADHD” was bandied about. Hazledine grins: “My grandfather, who was a doctor, assured my mother, ‘He doesn’t have ADHD, he just has a lot of energy.’”

Such was his energy, his recklessness, that Hazledine himself reckons he was close to spinning off track. He credits the few great teachers in his life – from New Plymouth Boys’ High School to Otago Medical School – “who continued to have faith in me, and see my potential beyond the going off the rails” for contributing to that success.

Medical school? “I was intelligent. I got good grades. It was a logical step.” But he continued “to be an idiot”. A heavy drinker, ski racer and freestyle skier, he played hard. Then comes the kicker. Hazledine’s entire story/success/raison d’être is predicated on what happened one night in June 2002 – with less than a year of medical school to go – when he had a night out drinking at the Captain Cook Tavern and decided to do a back flip off a two-metre-high wall onto concrete.

Two days later, he woke up in Dunedin Hospital from a coma with a serious head injury. The doctors were blunt: “They told me I would probably not regain full brain function, and I wouldn’t ski again.”

Sam Hazledine pulling a 360-degree tail grab in the terrain park at Cardrona. He was 2003 New Zealand Freeskier of the Year.

Not so. “Two of the biggest predictors of recovery from HI [head injury] are pre-morbid intelligence and family support. I was lucky, I had both,” he explains. Certainly lucky, and also determined. Because three months later, Hazledine returned to med school to finish his degree. Six months later, he met his future wife, Claire. And, such was his focus and newfound drive, he became New Zealand’s freestyle skiing champion the following year.

He admits it was tough – studying and battling on through constant headaches, fatigue, depression. But this was the big “Mack truck” of a wake-up call. “It was threatening to take away something I couldn’t ignore, the ability to think. It was the lesson that said I had to change. I took the opportunity to raise my standards.”

Take the skiing. “Before the HI, they used to call me ‘Crash’. If I did Big Air, I’d go higher and bigger than anyone else, and yeah, often crash. After the HI, I couldn’t behave in that way. I became more calculated. If you look at the top people in extreme sports, they’re not idiots. People might think they’re idiots, but they’re actually really, really calculating. Otherwise they get broken. That’s what I’ve taken into business – calculated risk.”

He stopped drinking completely – “fragile brain, not a good thing” – and took up the role of house officer at Dunedin Hospital’s emergency department for 18 months, before heading to a locum position at Coffs Harbour, Australia. “Which is where I saw the opportunity to do this for other people” – finding locum positions for junior doctors.

“Medicine hadn’t evolved to cater for the younger generation of doctors and what they wanted – those first few years where you’re either going to find what you love or you’re going to go, ‘I hate this’, and either stick with it and be miserable or leave.

“Because of that, there was a niche. Here was a cool opportunity to do some-thing I loved and actually make a difference and, hey, there was a great business opportunity there, too.”

Back to Wellington in 2006, Sam and Claire worked on building the company – Sam spending 50 hours a week on the business and 40 hours doing night shifts at Wellington Hospital to pay the bills. Gradually, over the next 18 months, he dropped the hours as doctor and moved to MedRecruit full time. The Hazledines shifted to Queenstown – a lifestyle choice – set up an Australian office on the Gold Coast, and the rest is history.

Fortunately, it’s not all such long hours now. Open the door to the office and the lack of formality – for the managing director of such a highly successful business – is refreshing. A battered old leather chair (reminiscent of student days) sits beneath a questionable portrait of Hazledine’s staffie dog, Ernie. “I had it commissioned. And when Claire saw it, she said, ‘This will hang in your office, not our home.’”

Most important, however, the walls are smothered with artwork by their daughters, Florence “Floss”, two, and Zara, four. Alongside the desk is a keyboard. And among the sheet music is the most-popular song of all little girls, “Let It Go” from the movie Frozen. “I got to grade four on the piano when I was a kid,” says Hazledine. “And I really want to be able to play it for them to sing along to.”

He’s as fervent about his role as father and husband as he is about business, insistent that he’s home every night in time for bath and books. It’s written into his own book – in the dedication to his family – and that loving sentiment is there alongside every other belief.

“I teach my daughters: fall down, you get back up,” he says. “You have to have that belief.”

And then comes the inspiration bit, the part that would have had the likes of the late Sir Paul Callaghan nodding in appreciation. Because Hazledine is on a mission – the website, the keynote speaking circuit, the book, the hours of online tutorials, the small-business mentoring.

“Ninety-six per cent of small businesses fail in this country,” he begins, an astonishing statistic. “I’ve invested a lot of money and time in personal and business education. I was using it some of the time, but not all the time.”

Having assimilated the teachings and experience of so many before him, he’s been more than willing to pass it on. “I believe one of the biggest contributions you can make in life is to create a successful business,” he writes, in Unfair Fight, “having a positive impact locally and globally.”

The Hazledine Foundation (set up by Sam and Claire) has picked one of the most despairing corners of the world to target funds, supporting children in South Sudan abducted by the extremist Lord’s Resistance Army. The foundation funds rescue missions through the Sam Childers Foundation, bringing children back into relatively safe orphanages, where they’re given an education and a fresh chance at life.

Hazledine says he’s not religious, but there’s certainly an evangelical aspect to his approach to life.

“I believe in the immense power of the human spirit. And I believe anyone can be exceptional. It takes them to believe in themselves. When people see in themselves what they’re truly capable of, great things can happen.”

A small voice in my head wonders if, perhaps, there are simply very few Sam Hazledines in this world: utterly brilliant, focused, driven – innate qualities the rest of us can only admire and wish for.

But then again, if only we were to take the Hazledine mantra of self-belief to heart, what then?

Words by: Petra Carey

Photos: Miz Watanabe and Peter Meecham

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