The career of Greg Cross might seem to reflect the IT industry with its ups and downs. But the former Advantage Group chief executive and former Microsoft New Zealand managing director can see nothing but progress.
Since leaving Advantage nine months ago, 42-year-old Cross has worked as a consultant overseas, toured Silicon Valley and prepared for the launch of his own software business.
Cross remains keen for new challenges -- just what you might expect from a man who keeps fit by boxing, once fighting former heavyweight champion Kevin Barry, and is still a regular sight at Auckland’s modish Les Mills gym.
The Auckland Grammar School old boy first worked as a management trainee for Hamilton-based Trigon packaging. The company was an early adopter of IT, and implemented one of the first mini-computer systems in the country. Cross says he ended up running the Quantel model, which boasted 96KB of memory and 256MB of disk and cost more than $1 million.
He then became involved with manufacturing software supplied through Fact, a joint venture involving Trigon and Wang. He moved to Fact, which took him to Boston in 1986 to start its US operations. Fact was taken over by Geac of Toronto, so Cross spent two years there as director of marketing until he tired of Canada’s high taxes and cold winters.
Returning to New Zealand in the early-90s, Cross launched the BellSouth cellular phone network, until being headhunted to lead Microsoft New Zealand in 1994.
Cross says Bill Gates, who visited the company twice while he was there, regarded the Kiwi subsidiary as the best in Asia-Pacific because of its market share, which increased under Cross's tenure.
New Zealand was also first for the global launch of Windows 95, which may have played a role in Cross's downfall. His successor, Geoff Lawrie, has denied the claim that Cross was blamed for poor sales of the software. Cross himself denies industry talk he went because he was selling Windows too cheaply. Instead, Cross says Microsoft was becoming “too big” and he “likes companies that are small and entrepreneurial”.
Whatever the reason, Cross says he has “nothing but respect” for Microsoft. Windows XP is “an amazing engineering feat”, he says, adding that Microsoft products may not be perfect but they are always revised and improved. “Microsoft is a company of talented people who execute things really well. You do not win market share and consistently produce great products over 25 years without being one of the most outstanding companies ever,” he says.
Cross says he went to Advantage in 1997 because he wanted to be involved with the internet and felt that the company needed substantial restructuring.
Advantage bought and sold many companies, and turnover rose from $20 million to $70 million by autumn 2001, when Cross announced it was time for him to leave as the firm restructured yet again.
By now, the IT sector was in turmoil with stock prices crashing, and Advantage did not escape. “We all got took in by the internet. Much smarter people than me were also taken in,” he says.
However, Cross still sees the internet as the most important development over the past 15 years. “We have just scratched the surface of the internet and what it means to society is far reaching,” he says. Coupled with email, he believes the web and server-based computing will be the next computing platform in business, further improving the interaction between firms, customers and suppliers.
Looking ahead, Cross sees a tough couple of years as the IT industry works through a cyclical downturn, coupled with a shift in technology. But he is confident about New Zealand’s future, provided the country can attract people back home who have gained valuable skills oversees.
Cross says Kiwi firms must learn how to get more out of its existing investment though he says our software products tend to be more complete, because of our small firms and economy. However, incentives like lower taxes and easier venture capital are needed, otherwise people will remain offshore.
Looking back, Cross says he has had “a great career” in IT, with much travel, visiting “amazing people” and learning much. IT remains “exciting” for others wanting to follow, but is tough with fast cycles.
“It’s all part of life and change is good,” he says.