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April 03, 2014

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MythBuster: Former Farmer Gregg McNair Proves Opportunties Still Abound in the Domain Business

By Ron Jackson 

I often hear people say that the really big opportunities in the domain business are long gone. That if you were not one of the lucky ones who snapped up the best domain names in the mid 90s when no one else realized how valuable they could become, you were too late for the dance. That is a misconception that talented latecomers to the industry have repeatedly proven wrong. 

Gregg McNair, the Executive Chairman of Hong Kong based domain management and monetization firm PPX International Ltd. is a perfect case in point. McNair didn't discover the domain business until late 2005 but in less than four years he has seemingly come out of nowhere to become one of the major players in the industry. 

In fact the amiable Aussie seems to be everywhere at once now. He can be found at virtually every domain conference, often on the podium as a featured speaker. At the evening social events you will see him burning up the dance floor and, after others have gone to bed exhausted, the indefatigable entrepreneur can often be found hosting a crowded party in his hotel room that will run into the wee hours of the night.  

Gregg McNair
Executive Chairman
PPX International Ltd.

Even when you are away from the domain crowd you could bump into McNair just about anywhere on the globe, from Africa (where he has been twice this year on charity missions) to Thailand's Phuket Island where he and his wife of more than 40 years, Beth, maintain a home in Patong. It's a house that McNair seldom sees. The chronic world traveler spends hundreds of nights in hotel rooms each year. As a result, he is on a first name basis with Marriott staffers at just about any port of call you could name, including the one in our home town of Tampa, Florida

When McNair visited me in mid-October for the interview this story is based on he summed up his wanderlust and multitude of business ventures by saying, "In my life I want to do as many different things as I possibly can!" McNair has applied that philosophy in both his personal and business lives since his days as a schoolboy in Melbourne, Australia. A good example of his desire to touch all of the bases on his run through this life is the fact that as a teenager McNair had a tough time deciding whether we would rather be a farmer or a stockbroker. He would wind up doing both and doing them very successfully well before his 25th birthday. 

Gregg McNair at a Sedo conference in
 Key West, Florida - October 2009

McNair and his family were urbanites to the core, but his innate desire to explore the unknown blossomed into a fascination with something 180 degrees opposite from his city environment. "I remember riding on the subway with a copy of the Financial Review under one arm and an agriculture journal called The Weekly Times under the other," McNair recalled. As a boy, when attending agricultural shows (similar to county or state fairs in the U.S.), McNair often went missing but his parents always knew they could find him at the cow or pig exhibits. "I wanted to talk with the farmers whenever I could," McNair explained.

With his admittedly short attention span, McNair found himself bored to death with school and wound up quitting when he was 17. He took a job, but without a diploma a stock brokerage career appeared to be out of the question and it would take a long time for a dropout to earn enough money to buy the farm he had always dreamed of. 

McNair said his life changed when he met some Christians who helped him understand what life was really about. He started going to church where he said, "All of a sudden I found some sort of purpose and direction." He traveled to some faith-based conferences including one trip to the Australian island state of Tasmania. His girlfriend at the time also went, traveling separately with her family. However, the object of Gregg's affections was about to change. "As soon as I walked into the building where the meeting was being held, I spotted Beth across the room," McNair said. "It was love at first sight for me." Appropriately enough Beth would turn out to be a farmer's daughter. 

The problem was Beth didn't seem to be as immediately enamored with Gregg as he was with her. Not to worry. "I don't think anything happens accidentally - I think there is a plan," McNair said. Sure enough what happened next was almost too good to be true. The custom at these conferences was for local families to each take in a guest that was visiting from out of town. When names were drawn, Gregg was stunned and delighted to find he had been assigned to stay with Beth's family

He made the most of that opportunity and with the charm he still exhibits today Gregg soon won Beth over. When he got back to Melbourne, still just 18 years old, he told his family he wanted to marry her. They of course thought he was too young and in an effort to dissuade him, his mother said he would have to get a job making $100 a week (a tidy sum back then) before he could support a wife. McNair protested that was as much as his dad made as the state manager of a well-known pharmaceutical company. They were adamant though, so Gregg went to school at night to complete the requirements for his diploma while simultaneously studying to pass the Securities Institute's exam. He  accomplished both tasks and managed to get an entry level position at a local brokerage firm as well.

Three months after he started, Gregg was making 50% more than his dad and he and Beth were soon married. In September this year they spent three days in Rome celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. 

Gregg & Beth McNair
celebrated their 40th Anniversary 
in September 2009

McNair's position in the brokerage office also seemed to be heaven sent. While in his early 20's a mining boom in nickel stocks occurred and McNair made a series of highly profitable trades as the stocks went through the roof. Better yet, now that he had sufficient money in hand, McNair could trade the pinstripe suits he was never comfortable in for the farm life he always imagined. He and Beth used the money to buy a farm in her native state of Tasmania and Gregg was off on a new adventure. "Beth wasn't quite as excited," McNair said. "She married a city slicker to get her away from the farm, then just three years later I took her back to one!"

McNair during his years 
as farmer in Tasmania

They spent 12 years working their land with Gregg's father-in-law Harry, a fourth generation farmer, offering plenty of advice along the way. McNair loved his father-in-law but they were often at odds because Gregg wanted to try new things he had read about while Harry told him he should stick to tried and true methods. Gregg loved nothing more than succeeding with one of his own ideas and proving Harry wrong (even though he said Harry never admitted it)!

The McNairs grew peas and opium poppies (used by pharmaceutical companies to produce prescription painkillers) and managed a herd of dairy cattle that grew to 400 head. McNair was literally in hog heaven for about a decade before he started feeling a little restless again. The downside to farming was that you could do everything right and still get wiped out by a natural calamity. Entire crops of peas were lost in a drought and a single lightning strike killed 30 cows in one explosive flash.

Even so he had gained a reputation as an innovative and successful farmer and that would bring him an unexpected opportunity to travel the world. McNair won Tasmania's prestigious Lactos Global Scholarship (akin to Dairy Farmer of the Year in the U.S.), a prize worth $50,000 that sent the winner on a four-month tour of the 22 leading dairy nations in the world. "This was the first significant international travel I had done and it opened my eyes to machinery and technology that had never been introduced to Australia or New Zealand," McNair said.

Gregg McNair (center), with wife Beth, receiving the prestigious Lactos Global Scholarship
from the Tasmanian Minister for Agriculture Mr. Lloyd Costello (left).

"I wound up picking up a lot of franchise rights for machinery, like milking equipment, and technology that I was able to capitalize on when I returned home. With these new opportunities I found it difficult to settle back into what I had been doing," McNair added. As part of his scholarship award he was required to speak at about a dozen dairy farmer functions around

McNair on his lecture tour after visiting 
22 nations as the Lactos Global Scholar

the state. He met those obligations and continued to run his farm a bit longer, but now he and Beth were both thinking about a move back to Melbourne. The decision was cemented when their kids reached a level in school where they would have had to travel 90 minutes each way from their rural area to the nearest classroom. They decided they had done well enough now to lease out the farm and retire to the city.

It was the early 80s and of course McNair, still well shy of his 40th birthday. would not be content sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch in Melbourne. He took a national volunteer role with Christian Business Men - Australia and served as their Executive Director for six years, building the group into a much bigger and stronger association. During this time he also gained qualifications as a Realtor and was  involved in buying and developing property, both commercial and residential.

In another venture McNair partnered with a friend to found the National Reservation System (NRS), a ground breaking travel service that for the first time let travelers book hotel rooms at the same time they scheduled flights. That company was eventually sold and  it later found its way into the hands of American Airlines who incorporated it into their Sabre electronic reservations system. McNair gained a lot of valuable business experience with the NRS project, raising funds through a public offering to build it and growing the staff to 180 people. 

After NRS he went on a business buying binge that included ventures in quarries, garden supplies, nurseries, ready mix concrete plants, sheet metal manufacturing and air conditioning to name a few. No one thing seemed to be able to hold his attention for more than a few years before he was ready to sell it and take on a new challenge. He quickly gained a reputation as a small end investment banker, often joking that he could live comfortably off the crumbs from the Bankers Trust table.

For once in his life that would change when he began a 15-year love affair with the CEO Institute. It was an organization limited to company CEOs who got together in monthly syndicated groups to exchange knowledge, skills and experience in a confidential environment. McNair originally joined as a member but he was so impressed with the concept that he wound up buying the Institute's license rights for the state of Victoria. He would go on to build the organization from fewer than ten syndicates (companies) to more than 60 and also exported the concept to Malaysia and the Philippines.

"The CEO Institute brought together the cream of Australia's CEOs," McNair said. "It kept me stimulated with knowledge, ideas and opportunities." With control of the Institute it also left him with enough free time to pursue the other ventures he was always involved in. However after 15 years at the helm, he was finally ready to explore completely virgin territory again and the new ground he found to plow was in the domain business. Within six months of entering this industry McNair knew this was where he wanted to set up camp. He sold his license to operate the CEO Institute and dove headlong into the domain pool.

Gregg McNair speaking at 
T.R.A.F.F.I.C. Silicon Valley - April 2009

McNair explained how he was introduced to the domain business. "There was a guy at our church, Steve Bjerking, that I had struck up a friendship with. He had been away running an IT business in Hong Kong and when he came back to Melbourne in late 2005 Beth and I invited him and his partner, Alphan Culha, over for dinner. Knowing my business background, Steve asked me if I could give him some tax advice," McNair recalled. "While looking over his books I saw that there was tremendous potential in what he was doing with domains." 

PPX International partners Alphan Culha (left) 
and Gregg McNair at the Domain Roundtable 
conference in Washington, D.C. - June 2009

"The three of us and a fourth partner whom we bought out earlier this year decided to join forces and start a new Mauritius based business to buy, sell and trade domain names. We started rolling up portfolios of names in 2006 with a plan to sell out when the time was right. We actually wound up doing that twice! After selling the first group of portfolios we had amassed to Demand Media we started over, repeated the process and sold again about 18 months ago. In that deal our company, Strata Services agreed to stay on as managers of the portfolio for 10 years with a high revenue share as compensation. In the first sale we also wound up with a significant amount of Demand Media stock," McNair said.

In addition, Bjerking and Culha personally signed service contracts with Demand Media. Once those were completed, the partners started diversifying into new businesses, both in and out of the domain space. They bought into a digital media company in New York, an IT consulting firm in Australia and  became lead investors in a northern bluefish tuna hatchery in Spain, plus domain businesses and property investments in Panama and elsewhere. Their core business was now providing domain management services for some of the world's top portfolio holders. With that responsibility, they grew increasingly uneasy over the past 18 months with their dependency on Google and Yahoo for PPC revenue. As those revenues continued to drop, the urgency to find alternatives increased.

The pieces to the puzzle they wanted to solve started falling into place this year. In February at the Domainer Mardi Gras conference in New Orleans McNair met PPX.com owner Sam Dennis and within two months they had struck a deal for Strata to buy PPX, a company that had a monetization system that allows clients to access CPA (cost per acquisition) advertising as well as other forms of monetization on the same system. 

A month later, Strata bought JB Media, a consumer product marketing and manufacturing company that gave Strata a way to boost CPA payouts by offering products that they owned manufactured, marketed and delivered, giving them ownership of the entire vertical.

At the end of August, Strata and PPX were combined into a new Hong Kong based entity called PPX International. On October 1st, McNair was named Executive Chairman of the company and Dennis was designated CEO. Bjerking and Culha are also Directors and an integral part of the management team. The new firm has access to eight different PPC providers as well as their own CPA provider, a combination they say has a very positive impact on revenues generated. 

"We have 12 verticals we can pay out through CPA," McNair said. "CPA currently comprises 5-10%  of the traffic and we expect that to grow

to 15-20% over the next 12 months. We are building additional verticals and the development staff we have hired to work on that has grown from 10 to 30 people." Meanwhile the staff for the entire company has swelled from 17 to 150 members. 

In another major initiative, PPX International recently acquired the domain LiveBetter.com which they intend to build into a major consumer products brand. McNair said they are currently introducing two new nutraceutical products every 25 days. 

Veteran domain investor Richard Lau is a member of the PPX International board and McNair said Lau introduced him to a charity project that he has become passionate about - The Water School (TWS) - an organization with a mission to eradicate disease and needless loss of life by providing simple, safe, strategic, and sustainable clean water solutions to the developing world. 

TWS was founded in 2007 by Bob Dell, a water scientist, and Fraser Edwards, a businessman with decades of experience in partnering with indigenous leaders to implement lasting change. The Water School currently implements inexpensive and effective solar disinfection through its 

integrated teaching program of health and hygiene, called SODIS. A donation of just $50 will provide a family of six with safe, clean drinking water for life.

McNair, who has been involved in charity outreach programs in the Phillipines for 20 years wanted to see the TWS operation in person before fully committing to support it, so in April of this year he led a group of domain industry leaders to Uganda to see how much  the SODIS solar disinfection system (developed by Switzerland and improved on by Water School scientists) was benefiting people in Africa. He saw that once they were shown how to operate the system, they were self sufficient from that point on. McNair was immediately convinced and has been spreading the word ever since.

He took another domain industry group, with the number rising to 18 this time, to Kenya in September to see the TWS program in action. McNair said some of the young people who went on this trip told him that seeing how people have to live there, how much the availability of clean water improves their life and the deep gratitude the men, women and children all expressed for that helping hand has changed their lives forever. 

Saya Kaigama Moustapha
speaking at T.R.A.F.F.I.C. Amsterdam
June 2009

Before coming home from Africa, McNair joined three Water School leaders on a trip to nearby Cameroon to look into taking the SODIS technology there.  That trip was the result of McNair meeting Saya Moustapha, head of Cameroon's .cm registry, at the T.R.A.F.F.I.C. ccTLDS conference in Amsterdam last June.  When Moustapha heard about the Water School program from McNair he asked him if TWS could come to Cameroon and help people in his homeland. As a result of that visit TWS is now scoping out projects in rural Cameroon with Moustapha.

In March 2010, right before the ICANN meeting in Nairobi, acting on a suggestion from Rick Latona, McNair will take a group back to Africa to climb Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro in a fundraising effort for TWS. Sponsors will be sought for the participants, with at least 30 currently expected to take part. The cost to participate is $2,100 plus airfare. The fee will cover all ground transportation, accommodations and meals. You can visit  Kili2010.com for more information on the trip.

McNair is particularly hoping that industry companies will offer sponsorships to send young industry people on the trip. "If they get this opportunity it will give them the vision for giving – and know that it is possible to make a difference, even if the problem is huge," McNair said.

"Then when they become successful they will influence others in turn." McNair speaks from experience on that point. He was first exposed to third world needs when a sponsor sent him to New Guinea to see for himself. He has been involved in frequent outreach trips ever since. 

McNair said the Water School's administrative costs for the year 2010 are already independently underwritten so that 100% of every dollar donated by the domain community will go into the African field to help people rather than cover administrative expenses. His longer term goal is to get industry backing to fund a $200,000 monthly budget for TWS activities so they will have a funding source they can count on. He said he already has pledges close to $150,000 monthly. 

McNair was first exposed to third world needs 
on this sponsored trip to New Guinea 

The primary reason McNair agreed to do this interview and talk about his life and business operations publicly for the first time was to spread the word about the Water School and acknowledge the industry support already given to the organization. As just one example, McNair visited me just a few  days after receiving a $4,500 donation from Sedo CEO Tim Schumacher at the SedoPro Partners Forum that we both attended in Key West, Florida.

Gregg McNair accepts a $4,500 donation to The Water School from Sedo CEO 
Tim Schumacher
 at the SedoPro Partner Forum in Key West, Florida - October 2009

McNair said he keeps working even though he no longer has to so he can work on philanthropic projects like TWS. Gregg’s passion for philanthropy is shared equally by Beth and his business partners. He added that his only regret is that the time devoted to such worthy causes has kept him from spending as much time with his four kids and six grandchildren as he would like.

Talk is one thing but being willing to get your hands dirty is another and McNair clearly hasn't shied away from that while spreading the Water School gospel. In fact, on that September trip to Kenya, McNair's hand got a lot more than just dirty. While driving down the road in the bush country they came upon a cow lying by the side of  the road. McNair spotted two hooves sticking out from the cow's rear in an inverted position. The former farmer immediately recognized a breech birth situation that threatened the lives of both the mother and the calf. 

They stopped their van, McNair jumped out,  pulled off his watch and stuck it in his back pocket, then proceeded to internally turn the calf around so it could make its entrance into the world rather than perish. He then birthed the calf with the assistance of one of the Africans in the group. Kenya is currently in a desperate state of drought with emaciated cattle everywhere through lack of feed, a situation that contributed to the cow’s dilemma.

Gregg McNair finishes delivering a calf during an unexpected encounter in Kenya - Sept. 2009

Mother and Good Samaritan share a kiss after the birth
(photos courtesy of Richard Lau)

Mother cleaning up her new calf SODIS 

McNair's big concern was that two more vans were following his from some distance back. If they had pulled up and caused a commotion the cow could have gotten up and bolted with McNair hanging on to the calves' two hooves for dear life. The thought conjures up a funny vision, but he had seen it happen before during his farming days.  Fortunately all went well other than the fact that his traveling companions had to douse McNair from his shoulders to fingertips with every ounce of hand sanitizer they could muster to clean up the good "doctor"  after his impromptu procedure. 

McNair brushed off the amazement expressed by those who witnessed the delivery noting "It's like riding a bicycle - once you learn you never forget," he laughed. The new calf was quickly named Triple-G (in honor of Gregg), but was later rechristened SODIS to recognize the organization that has saved so many lives by sending people to Africa who want to make a difference in this world.


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