Hamilton IT scene: Gallagher cultivates culture of innovation

GM for research and development heads a team of around 100 developers and engineers

Gallagher Group is one of the most enduring brands in New Zealand's agricultural sector, but its conservative image disguises a culture of innovation, says Rob Heebink, general manager of research and development.

“From the outside looking in a lot of people see Gallagher as one of those stable old companies, all owned by the Gallagher family and there’s one guy who makes all the decisions. Well it’s nothing like that. It is a very dynamic company with a very healthy culture."

He says it can be tough recruiting software developers and engineers, especially from outside the Waikato region.

“There is this barrier called the Bombay Hills,” he says. “People perceive Hamilton still as the back country, the rural village where nothing much is happening. So we’ve got a little bit of an issue with the PR of the region itself, that is a slight disadvantage.”

Heebink left Auckland three years ago, where he had previously worked for Navman, to take up the role at Gallagher. The 73-year old private company is known for electric fencing, although the animal management division only makes up half its revenue. Security systems for a range of industries, but in particular mining, make up 40 percent and the remaining ten percent is through the manufacture of fuel pumps. According to the technology report TIN100, Gallagher Group employs 710 people and in 2011 its revenue was $175 million.

Heebink says the company spends seven percent of its revenue on research and development. He heads a 100-strong team, of which 30 are software developers. In 2010, Gallagher received $7.2 million from what is now the Ministry of Science and Innovation, towards research and development as part of the technology development grant scheme whereby 20 percent of R&D expenditure is refunded up to $2.4 million a year.

He says there is plenty of scope for software developers and engineers from a range of disciplines to experiment with new ideas.

“People are given responsibilities to make decisions – you get enough rope to hang yourself. You don’t get fired for making a mistake, you get fired for not getting off your backside.”

Around 60 percent of research and development funding goes into the security systems business. It was showing year-on-year growth of 20 to 25 percent before the recession in 2008, but this growth has slowed in recent months.

He says the security side of the business is more technology intensive, with systems being developed that integrate digital video recording systems, time in attendence systems, HR databases and digital cameras.

The target market is enterprise and high-end commercial and Heebink says the company has just developed a new version of its command centre software that is “a highly configurable and context situational aware user interface built on the .Net framework.”

He describes this as a major leap forward because it enables those in the security command centre to be instantly informed about people trying to access the site with security cards. Not only will it say why they are not being automatically allowed entry, but a screen will appear outlining the instructions for the security guard to follow.

On a mining site, the person may be refused entry because their access card shows they are not up to date with health and safety training. This is because new systems integrate compliance databases, so that workers’ access is directly linked to training.

“In the mining industry health and safety is a big issue, the cost of compliance is astronomical. The implications of a death on site are significant, a shut down costs tens of millions,” Heebink says. “So what we’ve done with our software is to integrate the access control with health and safety compliance.”

This makes it an easier sell. Security is considered a cost centre, but marry it with compliance and Gallagher reps are not just talking to the security manager, they are also in front of HR and possibly the chief executive.

On the security side of the business Heebink says Gallagher has no major competitors in New Zealand, but in animal management he cites the main rival as Tru-Test in Auckland ($90 million revenue a year according to the TIN100, 2011 report). Animal management systems will get a further boost with the compulsory introdcution of the National Animal Identification and Tracing project (NAIT) scheduled for next year.

Without regulation forcing farmers to purchase equipment such as electronic weighing scales and identification systems, he admits it would be tougher sell.

* This is the second in a series of articles about the Hamilton IT scene. Tomorrow Computerworld visits Dairy NZ. Read also Ultra fast starts now

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