‘Citizenship’ and innovation key to Ackhurst’s mission

New MD Kevin Ackhurst talks to Rob O'Neill about his plans for Microsoft NZ

It’s been four months since Kevin Ackhurst took the helm at Microsoft New Zealand. In that time, he’s bought and renovated a house, and, in six weeks’ time, the Ackhursts will have their first Kiwi child.

Ackhurst, who was appointed to the job after many years with the company in Australia and the US, is adamant he’s in New Zealand for a long haul —at least three years. His aim is to stabilise the leadership of the local business, and develop what he refers to as the “next iteration”.

So what is Ackhurst’s mission? What is he here to achieve? Surely, it’s about increasing revenue and sales?

Ackhurst says he has 32 separate items on his “balanced scorecard” and only two of these are revenue measures.

“Thirty other things are part of that scorecard,” he says.

These include “citizenship elements”, including engagement with the media. Five out of the 32 are measures of customer and partner satisfaction.

Then there are measures relating to the capability of Microsoft’s people, and their morale.

“Almost all of the rest relate to innovation,” he says.

Ackhurst says that the business has reached “a certain level” since Microsoft set up shop here in 1991. His efforts, in what is considered to be a mature market, will be focused on building relationships, building the organisation and on corporate social responsibility.

This involves exploring the benefits that technology can bring to citizens, to business, to health and to government, he says.

This, in turn, involves a level of learning and engagement. And it takes time, he says. He is currently busy meeting and consulting, with customers and partners, and, increasingly, stepping out when it comes to public speaking roles.

Ackhurst also says he wants to be very clear about the focus of Microsoft’s citizenship activities.

These will first centre on productivity and second on skills. New Zealand is still struggling to attract women into IT, and also to reflect the diversity of the general population in the industry, he says.

“There’s an opportunity to raise the level of skill and to attract others to the industry,’ he says. But he quickly adds that he doesn’t want to be a lone voice. He would like to be joined in this by other industry leaders, such as Sun’s John Mazenier, Gen-i’s Chris Quin and IBM’s Katrina Troughton.

Citizenship aside, there is still opportunity for business growth, Ackhurst insists. While Microsoft’s core technologies — most prominently, its operating systems and Office applications — have high penetration rates here, many other products don’t, and that represents an opportunity, he says.

Ackhurst also seems inspired by the many announcements coming out of the US recently: about the company opening up some of its technologies and delivering development tools to campuses, as well as announcements concerning web applications — not to mention the launch of Windows Server 08, which will kick-in locally soon.

He says recent price cuts to consumer versions of Vista are about offering New Zealand consumers the best possible deal. He adds that managing prices has been difficult because of New Zealand’s volatile exchange rate.

However, the cuts don’t apply to business versions of the software, as the business market is about volume-licensing and price is only one component of an enterprise deal, alongside support and development among other things, he says.

Ackhurst cites two key challenges he needs to address in New Zealand: building long-term, sustainable relationships with government, and building relationships with key players and bodies in the ICT community.

He concedes that Microsoft’s relationship with government is not what it needs to be.

Last year, Microsoft took out several full-page advertisements, aimed at influencing New Zealand’s standards vote on the Office Open XML file format.

Is this an example of the company failing to build direct relationships with government and industry?

“I’m not sure that’s how you do it, with all due respect to my predecessors,” he says. “Influencing government requires effort and time.”

Ackhurst adds that relationships with the 10,000 partners that Microsoft New Zealand does business with are also vital — to ensure they are profitable and can also provide a great service.

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