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John Wood ~ From Caravans to Contentment

The Fleetwood caravan has become something of a WA icon ~ and yet John Wood, the energetic founder of the firm is rarely seen in business circles these days.

You’ll more likely find him in Midland, lovingly listening to someone with problems.

From the outside it would appear to be counselling, but what he does isn’t quite psychology. It’s not a religion either, but it’s making him a happy man ~ content both within himself and with the legacy he’ll leave percolating its way through the Australian psyche.

Smiling, he said that in comparison to his current mood, the rest of his life seems to have been seeped in restlessness.

He recalled it kicking in as an urge to leave school at 15, after which he became an office boy for a British insurance company. At 19 he knew that the insurance business wasn’t for him and he left to set up a deli, which prospered. Later that year he set off with a friend to travel around Australia, but his aptitude for work got the better of him and he found employment on road gangs and in the prawn business and never made it beyond WA’s north west.

Still young and zesty, he came back to Perth and wrote a glowing advertisement about himself and placed it in the West Australian’s situations wanted section. He got several replies but the one that piqued his curiousity most was Modern Caravans, a small company based in Tuart Hill.

John started work for the struggling firm that hadn’t sold a caravan in the three months before his arrival, and racked up 44 sales in four months. Then he left and started out on his own.

In February 1964, he bought an old caravan and parked it on his dad’s driveway in Vic Park. He renovated it and sold it and then he bought another and Fleetwood Caravans was born. He remembers calculating that he was making two and six pence an hour for the work, but he soldiered on and built a business that eventually diversified into insurance broking, manufactured housing and caravan park management.

In 1984 the company was floated on the stock exchange and John was hailed as a heroic local entrepreneur. But over the next few years, while the business prospered, his enthusiasm started to run dry.

By 1990 he realised decisively that his heart wasn’t in it anymore. He said: “I’d run my race and it was time to let others take the company forward. I was still doing my job, but not in the way that I used to.”

As well as leaving the company, he resigned from his other professional roles. He ceased to be a commissioner of the WA Tourism Commission, gave up his place on the Minister for Local Government’s Caravan Parks Advisory Committee, left the National Parks Association Committee and resigned from the Young Presidents Organisation.

The carrot that was calling him away, was something that had crossed his desk as a humble flyer advertising a workshop in Hawaii on “Management through Understanding”. He couldn’t make it to Hawaii, but he called the organisation and asked for tapes of the sessions. The organisation was so small that at the time the request flustered them, but the tapes were sent and he listened to them.

He said: “What I heard was so simple and yet so profound that it moved me to commit my time and resources to bringing it to Australia.”

John joined the fledgling operation and took his business sense with him. While undergoing five years of training, in the form of regular blocks of learning in the US supported by weekly phone coaching and large amounts of reading and self analysis, he started an international newsletter and supported the development of a professional image for the movement.

He wasn’t working alone, there were others too who were impressed with its potential and who began to publicize the results it was achieving.

Jack Pransky was one of those others. Having already achieved professional status as an expert on the prevention of social ills, Pransky, just weeks off completing a comprehensive text called ‘Prevention: The Critical Need’, was invited to a conference by the guidance counsellor at his children’s school. Dr Roger Mills was the keynote speaker and he brought two housing project residents with him.

Pranksy was mesmerized and deeply moved. He was shocked, both by the results achieved and by the fact that, despite being an expert in the field, he had never heard of Dr Mills or the Psychology of Mind ~ Health Realization (POM-HR) approach before.

He worked a few words about it into the nearly completed book and then started work on another book, devoted to the modern miracle that three POM trained social workers performed on Modello ~ the nightmarish New York housing project riddled with crack dealers, domestic violence and other gangland horrors.

A quirk of fate had it that George Pransky, the man who co-developed the approach with Dr Roger Mills, was a long lost second cousin of Jack’s, but Jack claims that his ongoing interest in POM, as an author and now as a foundation faculty member, is fuelled purely by his love of it.

He said: “At first I just wanted to know what it was that had created such profound changes in the lives of the people on the housing projects and so I started studying it and as I did, I felt profound changes starting to happen in my own life.”

Meanwhile, at the Psychology of Mind Centre in Midland, the first POM training Centre established outside the US, John Wood had begun filtering POM wisdom out into the WA community by focusing on training psychologists, social workers, teachers and business people working in a wide variety of fields. He also set about training trainers, who will be able to spread the work farther and wider.

John said: “One of the beauties of POM is that you don’t need to have a background in psychology to get into it, anyone can do the training, as long as they are willing to look at their own inner processes.

“The aim of the training is simply to produce people fully grounded in the inside-out nature of human existence, people who are absolutely clear about the fact that thoughts dictate perceptions and emotions.”

He said: “Once you have that firm grounding you don’t lose your bearings in seemingly hopeless circumstances, because you can always see the hope within humanity and the potential to change from within.”

This was the secret of success at Modello and the other US housing projects that Dr Mills and his team worked on. The POM staff did more than mumbling platitudes and handing out coupons. They sank deep into the lives of the residents, by seeing them not as thugs or even ‘clients’ but as intelligent people full of health and potential. The vision, held fast despite a monotonous sequence of busts and tantrums, eventually started to rub off and the community started to initiate study programmes and picnics and drug patrols. Life by life the community was transformed, proving a point about innate potential for healthy behaviour said to reside within all of us.

According to John, the Modello story also proves a point about the pointlessness of trying to solve problems from the outside in. He says handouts will never work because until people change their thinking, nothing else in their lives will change.

Jack Pransky, visiting Perth to share his insights with some of John’s students, said he was surprised at the amount of graffiti he saw here and that he thought that it indicated a fairly high level of the kinds of social ills that POM workers had successfully overcome in the US.

Slightly wistfully, John said that he would love to have the opportunity to work with distressed populations, but that here in WA, POM was not getting support from the top. “It’s not surprising”, he said, “because it challenges long-held beliefs about how change occurs.”

New Zealand, isn’t being so hesitant though. Jackie Brown, the executive director of the NZ national department of family and children’s services was in Midland last month arranging POM training for her 2000 staff members.

John is also sending two trainers to Switzerland next month to run a course, while here in Perth he is teaching students who have flown in from Singapore and a psychologist from the justice department in NSW.

John is also developing a way of presenting POM ideas to businesses in the form of a performance enhancement package. He said: “The principles don’t change, whether you are working with poor and needy groups or wealthy and affluent ones. They have the same kind of problems because they are all, in their own ways, searching for peace.

“The solution to all their problems is to help them to get beyond the limitations of their own personal thinking. As open and as flexible as we think we are, we still compare and contrast everything new we come across with everything we already know. We need to consciously learn how to see beyond our conditioning and habitual ways of looking at life.

“When that happens you discover a freshness and a deeper level of personal wisdom. It is the experiencing of that deeper wisdom that changes people’s behaviour and life experiences, nothing else.

“It’s so profound and so simple, it’s a joy to work with and the best thing is that the more you do it, the happier you get.”

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