The upside of down

Hard knocks and failures can lead to unexpected positives in careers and life.

Kahi Puru can't remember the pain of having six tonnes on top of him. With his body crushed in a forklift accident at BHP's steelworks in Newcastle, the doctors believed he would not survive. It was only after they turned off his life-support machine that he woke up, to the joy of his wife and two children aged four and four months.

A week in intensive care and almost six months in a general ward plus years of rehabilitation followed as he learned to get on with his life without one leg.

That was 20 years ago. Now 49, Puru has turned the workplace accident into a positive by making a business out of speaking to workers about the importance of workplace safety.

He has a new career as an ambassador for WorkCover NSW and a safety representative for training company Real Institute, which last financial year had revenue of $10.5 million and sits at No. 20 on the 2012 BRW Fast 100 list of fastest-growing businesses.

“My message is that workplace safety is something everyone should be concerned about,” says Puru. “I tell people you came here with two arms and two legs, make sure you leave that way.

“There are no guarantees in life. But I believe in the power of positive thinking and faith.

“I am also about picking yourself up and going to it no matter what happens to you. We can all make a difference.”

Puru has also defied the odds and become a world-class athlete. He represented Australia at the Sydney Paralympics as a paralifter, bench-pressing 207.5 kilograms to come seventh in the world. This year he hand-cycled the 14-kilometre City2Surf in Sydney.

Adro Sarnelli is another success story who built a new life after a tough start. Sarnelli weighed 155 kilograms when he joined television show The Biggest Loser. He became the show's first winner, in 2006, when he lost 70 kilograms over four months. Now he has turned his experience of obesity into a business, publishing a book and setting up a fat farm in Victoria four years ago.

The New Me in the Dandenongs outside Melbourne runs weight loss programs for obese people who weigh more than 100 kilograms.

“The only advantage of being overweight is I know what it's like and can use that knowledge to help people,” says Sarnelli, who trained as a jeweller and was working on cars when he joined the show.

One of seven children in an Italian family, he says meals loaded with carbohydrates and too much food were his downfall.

“I was a product of my environment – everyone in my family was overweight,” he says. “Now I've made a life out of it and it's made a life out of me.”

Sarnelli, 32, says 700 people have attended the centre on live-in programs that run from two to 12 weeks.

“We move people from their sabotaging environment and allow them to fix the problem,” he says. “I absolutely did not think I would make it on the show, that I would win the show or that I would make a business out of fitness.

“On The Biggest Loser we had to do public speaking to people who hadn't made it on the show. I felt an enormous amount of pain speaking to people who just a few months before I had been fat with. I realised I had been given a gift and it was something I had to share.”

Another person proving there is an upside to down is Mark Kenway, a Brisbane businessman who has had two businesses go into liquidation and now mentors people who go bankrupt or whose businesses fail.

According to statistics from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, 6100 businesses failed in the year to July 31. This is a record high and 7 per cent worse than the number of failures during the global financial crisis.

Still, Kenway's message is that you can recover and build a life – and failure could make you happier than ever.

“My father and I ran an electrical appliance company that collapsed in 1985, and then in 2006 another family business was liquidated,” says the 53-year-old. “I bought into a franchise called My Virtual Home, a software program for people to design their own home. That franchise disintegrated in 2008.

“I was an emotional wreck after the businesses failed and I found no books and no one I could talk to to help me through the emotions of a business failure.

“I went back to uni until I couldn't afford it any more and had to get another job. I started working for a company that imports ceiling fans and my first job there was as a storeman, which was the first job I ever had when I was 17.

“Men and women are so different, as for many men their identity is their work so if that fails, they can be really hit hard. I wrote a book to help people deal with loss at work and I love my work now. I have never been happier.”

Kenway has self-published and you can buy ReBound – Life After Liquidation online. He says the secret to surviving failure is to rebuild your relationships and give yourself time to recover.

“Don't let your ego get in the way of your success,” he says.