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Peter Urs Bender:
Biography of a self-taught leader

By Shannon Moore


His past was perfect to get him where he is today. That's a phrase this best-selling Canadian author and speaker often throws out to his audiences as a starting point for change. It's a reminder you can let your past dominate you, or you can choose a new path and succeed at it. If ever a man personifies that belief, it's Peter Urs Bender.

     Born in Basel, Switzerland, Peter comes from an accounting and banking background. He was expected to follow in the family footsteps, but he was a total failure in school. He remembers his school years as a time of anguish, pain, frustration, and total failure-a time he'd rather not talk about. (Years later, when one of his own children was tested for suspected dyslexia, he discovered to his astonishment he himself had the learning disability that makes reading, and hence learning, very difficult).

     Still, when he reached young manhood he joined a bank and was required, like all Swiss, to do his three months of obligatory army service. He considered becoming an officer, but realized that you're only well off if you reach the top echelons of the service, and his school background would hardly allow that.

     When he told the bank his decision, the bank said: "So now you know your limitations with us." Bender, never at a loss for words, replied: "I have even better limitations than that," and promptly decided to emigrate.

     Actually, his emigration stemmed from a desire to learn English. In Switzerland, to get ahead in business, you must speak three languages fluently-French, English, and German. At the time, Bender could barely manage his native tongue.

     He had enough money to go to England, but loathed the idea of going back to school. The U.S. was at war with Vietnam, and Bender's stint in the Swiss army had not endeared him to the military. New Zealand, a country he has since come to love, wasn't even on the Swiss world map, and Australia was regarded as a country for burglars. Canada was looking better all the time. So in February 1967, Confederation Year, he landed in Montreal speaking no French and minimal English.

     He spent that month looking for a job (without success) before jumping on a bus that took him to Vancouver, with lengthy stops at Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Calgary. In Banff, the kids he met convinced him to work on the golf course as an inexperienced laborer sand-trap man. It was his first experience of physical labor and he loved it.

     At the end of the season, be bought himself a Volkswagen, touring the Canadian and U.S. West Coast as far south as the Baja before deciding to become a hippie.

     "I gave it up after three days," says Bender. "Too boring!"

     Back in Vancouver, he decided to stay and learn English. He took a job as a night cleaner for the BC Ferry Service and did so well that when he left the contractor invited him for dinner to ask how his gang managed to keep the ferries so clean. Peter never told him the formula: start on time, work your ass off, leave early.

     In 1970, following a stint selling costume jewelry in Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and the Prairie Provinces, Peter went to Toronto where, with his accounting background, he became a salesman for a company that sold pre-computer accounting systems. When he did well, his company insisted he take a Dale Carnegie course. He resisted strongly.

     "Why do I need to take a sales course?" he asked his boss.

     The reply: "Bender, if you don't go, the next best goes."

     "But it must cost a lot of money," said Bender. "Why not give it to me as a bonus?"

     Again came the reply, "Bender, if you don't go the next best goes."

     So Bender went. It was a life-changing opportunity, although Bender didn't realize it at first. He recalls starting at the back of the room, and gradually moving up to the front as he realized the value of what he was hearing. In typical Bender fashion he reversed his opposition and tried to make the most of it.

     "The main thing I learned," says Bender, "was that to everything there is a system. If you learn a system, even a mediocre person can be successful."

     The Carnegie training worked says Bender. "After the course I increased my sales by 20%, and decreased my effort by 20%."

     Bender also learned something else: that to be successful he had to learn to present. So he joined a Toronto group similar to Toastmasters.

     He recounts being absolutely terrified. The man who today is known as Canada's Presentation Guru recalls that the meetings came prepackaged with meals at the prestigious Albany Club. He could never eat them because he was too sick with worry.

     "If I was 19th in a list of 20 speakers, I never heard any of the prior speakers," he says.

     "I was too uptight!"

     But he persevered, and gradually he became better-good enough, in fact, to begin teaching at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto. (Imagine becoming a teacher when, with his dyslexia disability, he couldn't spell, and had great difficulty even in reading.)

     Bender recalls: "When I first started giving courses, I was literally only one chapter ahead of the class. I used to force myself to read the course books chapter by chapter, until I was sure I had mastered the material well enough to present it to my students."

     Of course, he had plenty of field sales experience to rely on, but teaching a course with texts, and expounding on points academically was foreign to him.

     Nevertheless, he taught up to three different part-time courses at Ryerson for almost 15 years. He vividly recalls rushing back from sales trips (he was now a sales manager) to keep Friday night teaching appointments at the school.

     But, says Bender, "All I know I learned from teaching."

     When he left the school for the last time in 1981, his grateful students presented him with a memento he treasures and has framed on his wall to this day. It was simply a letter thanking him for all his help.

     Today, he has transformed that teaching and sales experience into three international best sellers: Secrets of Power Presentations, Leadership from Within and Secrets of Power Marketing.

     He left his sales career in 1987, when his company wanted to move him to Indianapolis, self-published his first book in 1990, and started his first paid public speaking for the Toronto Sun for a fee of $350.

     His first book, Secrets of Power Presentations, pragmatically recapped everything he had learned from his speaking club, sales presenting, and teaching experience. He tried repeatedly to find a publisher for it and failed. Finally, he decided to self-publish.

     It was the right move. The book became an instant best seller in a field where almost nothing had existed previously. Bender's down-to-earth, no-nonsense style won him international advocates.

     The book became a bestseller in Canada, then went on to become an international bestseller, translated into ten languages, and still a best-selling book a decade later. It has just been republished in a jubilee edition, revised and updated as a result of the new technology available to presenters.

     After the success of Presentations, Bender's two other books found a ready market with a well-known Canadian publisher, and are following the same bestseller path.

     Today, he is on the verge of publishing a fourth book, Secrets of Face-to-Face Communication. Another one, called The Bug In You, designed for younger readers, is waiting in the wings for its time in the sun. Bender has also become one of the top speakers in Canada, and is constantly presenting, as well, both in the U.S. and Europe.

     Not bad for a young immigrant Swiss with nothing much to commend him.

     Nor has he stopped exploring. This year he decided he needed a challenge, so he took up motorcycle riding-took the training course with all the teenagers-and carefully set out to become a "Gentleman of the Road".

     Bender will never quit!

Shannon Moore is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in dozens of Canadian and American business publications.

Editor's note: Peter never did give up. He never gave up on himself or those around him. Unfortunately he ran out of options. After a brave fight with cancer he died on March 7, 2005. We mourned his passing and celebrated his life.

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