Leadership is sacrifice. This is the first lesson Adam Castillo learned while serving in the US Marine Corps. “I grew up in the US Marine Corps,” he reflects.
“Several older enlisted Marines taught me lessons as a young Lieutenant that prepared me and saved my life, as well as others, in Afghanistan. The moment when a senior enlisted Marine calls you by your first name and not sir, it means they are about to drop knowledge on you. They’d tell me, ‘Adam, the day you stop learning is the day you need to get out of the Marine Corps.’ I’ve applied that lesson to my post-military life. The day I stop learning here is the day I leave Myanmar.”
Adam went home from Afghanistan in 2012, returning as a Captain, and was ready to begin his life as a veteran. However, the transition proved to be remorseless. “I was unsuccessful. I couldn’t transition to the civilian world,” he explains.
“I couldn’t get a job. I went back to the Reserves. I was failing professionally, as many returning veterans do in America.” The only way forward was to engage his network from his study days in college, which led to a six-month move to Thailand and an introduction to Adam’s former business partner.
At the end of 2013, Adam took another chance. He moved to Myanmar and founded a security business. By the following year, the company had grown to employ thousands of locals across the country.
From the beginning, Adam aimed to empower the people of Myanmar, and used a similar strategy he learned while he was in Afghanistan. “A local problem needs a local solution,” he states.
“A Myanmar problem needs a Myanmar solution. In the early days, when I was doing all the training, I had young locals who just wanted an opportunity. Like me, they were down on their luck and needed someone to take a chance on them. I extended them this opportunity. ‘Believe in me, listen to me, do what I say and trust me. I will empower you as leaders and to be your own bosses.’ They have been with me ever since.”
In 2016, the growth of the business caught the eye of Atalian, a global organisation specialising in facility management services. “They were looking for strategic partners in Asia to do a semi-acquisition, more or less a partnership, with local partners to grow their businesses into total facility management,” Adam says.
“So we sold 51% of the company to Atalian.” Adam retained much of his share as well as the executive powers to run the company. After Atalian bought out Adam’s business partners, the local arm rebranded to Atalian Global Services Myanmar.
The 34-year-old explains that the biggest challenge he faced post-acquisition was convincing the market that it was no longer a one-person show.
“Facility management is broad,” Adam says. “There’s security, cleaning, maintenance, pest control, landscaping, reception. How do we become market leaders in these individual services?”
Adam notes that he relied heavily on Atalian’s expertise to achieve further growth. “Cleaning and facilities are not my expertise. I had to say, ‘Atalian, you need to bring your people in here; this is your show. I’ll be in the back looking at the financials, the business side of it.’” That strategy proved successful.
“When we first started the acquisition, we had fewer than 20 cleaners on our payroll,” he adds. “Now we have more than 150.” Atalian has remained in a rather fortunate position during COVID-19. The pandemic has created an uptick for the business.
“Our people are considered frontline workers. They’re the security guards checking people with temperature guns at entrances, or the cleaners cleaning the toilets – the most high-risk areas. We’re also offering a weekly high-level disinfecting service for businesses – the same level of chemical disinfection that we do for hospitals.
This is the time for leaders to step up and lead the people who have put their faith in them.
“I think what the pandemic has done for the global economy is show that, despite all our tech innovation, there’s a worker who’s making sure we’re safe. It’s somebody at the hospital, somebody taking you home or delivering your food. It’s a human being doing this, not just an app.”
Adam cites the hard lessons he learned in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, that prepared this Managing Director to manage crises. “This is the time for leaders to step up and lead the people who have put their faith in them,” he says.
“That’s what I’m going to be doing here.” Over nearly seven years, Myanmar has become home for Adam. He refused to get on any relief flights for US citizens being repatriated to the US due to COVID-19.
“I’ve always had this mindset and strategy of empowering the local people. I consider them my people,” Adam notes. “But they are on the frontlines now, and what would that say about me as a leader if I ran back to America?
“This is my home now, but this is also a tough place to survive for foreigners. What keeps me here from a personal and professional standpoint is that these people have relied on me and believed in me. I can’t walk away from that. It’s my responsibility as their leader to stay and make sure the business is safe so they can focus on the work needed to fight this virus.”
Adam was one of the first executives to publicly urge executives in Myanmar to forgo any financial compensation to ensure businesses are not hoarding cash. He is concerned this will destroy the market the business community has tried so hard to develop since 2013.
“We need to pay our people first, not ourselves. We also need to pay our suppliers who have workers who need their wages too. These are the real heroes right now, not executives.” Adam has gone four months to date without pay. “Leadership has a cost,” he reflects on the greatest lesson he learned in the Marine Corps.
“And that cost comes at the expense of people’s personal needs. This whole notion that you’re going to be a hero in the eyes of your employees every day – that’s just not reality. You must convince them to put aside their personal goals for the team, but you need to set the example. You should be the first to make that personal sacrifice, if not sacrifice more. “That’s leadership – that’s all it is.”