IT's passing people parade

Thousands of people have paraded through the pages of Computerworld in the past decade and a half, some willing publicity seekers, others reluctantly poking their heads above the parapet.

Thousands of people have paraded through the pages of Computerworld in the past decade and a half, some willing publicity seekers, others reluctantly poking their heads above the parapet. Tens of thousands more have cast an interested glance while they’ve got on with business. Some have stood apart because of their profile, their personality, their achievements or notoriety, and their lasting impact. A few of them are here.

Kiwi battlers

These industry identities have fought the David and Goliath battles in which they’ve taken on the big guys and won. The PC market has been particularly fertile ground. Tom and Phil Ellis stole the headlines in Computerworld’s earliest days as the colourful owners of Computer Imports, a seller of cheap Taiwanese clones that took on IBM and sold thousands before collapsing.

While others followed, it was PC Direct’s Maurice Bryham and Sharon Hunter who took the mantle as our most-loved Kiwi battlers and played it like pros. Colin Brown and his PC Company is keeping the cause alive but hasn’t yet tapped the patriotic heights or public recognition of his predecessors.

Talent incubators

Some companies seem to ooze talent. It shows in the people and in the companies’ performance. Sometimes it’s serendipity, often there’s a special leader somewhere in history who created the climate for excellence to take root.

Wang’s illustrious alumni include Rick Ellis, Steve Trotter and Kevin Doddrell. Its down-under operations were always a global anomaly because of their success outside Wang’s traditional office automation market. The later careers of these three took them around the world and to companies as diverse as Unisys, Ubix, Ansett and TVNZ. Rebranded gen-i, the company is now headed by one of the industry’s most respected IS professionals-turned-CEO, Garth Biggs.

Another Kiwi standout which outshone its parent’s performance was Digital NZ. It managed to reinvent its lacklustre early self under the leadership of the clever, intense Nick Bessey. Bessey was a Brit who came here in the late eighties to run listed IBM dealership Powercorp after stints in IBM’s PC division and latterly as international vice president of Commodore Computer. Tragically, he committed suicide after leaving Digital, but the company went on to showcase two of the best management and marketing talents we’ve seen in Robyn West and Sue Leikis.

ASB Bank has been a star performer as both a business and a talent incubator. Its IT operations were led by Ralph Norris who later became CEO and one of New Zealand’s leading businessmen. The people who followed in the IT role — Neville Brown, now at the Warehouse, and Gary Fissenden, who recently moved to Australia — are widely admired in their own right as innovators and managers at the top of their profession.

Stars of Kiwi-made

Sir Gil Simpson has towered over the local industry for two decades, first with Linc, developed with partner Peter Hosking, now with Jade. John Blackham and Grant Wallace built software company Fact into one of New Zealand’s earliest international successes, later selling out to Canada’s GEAC. More recently Murray Haszard’s $30 million-dollar sale of Ghost software to Symantec and Steve Outtrim’s listing of Sausage Software in Australia have inspired tech entrepreneurs and shown investors that big gains can come from crazy small companies.

Sir Angus Tait, Neville Jordan and Dennis Chapman have received less recognition than they should within the IT community. Tait Electronics is a global success in wireless communications and like other great companies has nurtured many talented entrepreneurs. Chapman made his fortune from selling electronics firm Swichtec and is now investing much it back into technology start-ups. So is Neville Jordan who established a milestone by floating his wireless communications specialist MAS Technology on NASDAQ in 1997.

Coming of age

Fifteen years ago, a bunch of seat-of-the-pants entrepreneurs ran the PC industry. Now it’s run by large corporates turning over tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. Peter Uffindell and his partner Stewart Findlayson typified this growing up by taking Southmark Computers from a tiny, derelict Paxus cast-off in the mid-eighties to today’s $100m business, a division of Fujitsu.

One of the big personalities of the industry is Brian Eardley-Wilmot, who built Microsoft agent Brimaur Computer Services into an important independent software distributor.

Also on the distribution side, Tech Pacific’s thoughtful head, Tony Butler, has led much of the consolidation in this part of the industry, especially the move to a non-exclusive, multi-agency distribution model. Others who’ve made a big impact on the local distribution business include Renaissance’s Mal Thompson and Trevor Grey, Imagineering’s Paul Dixon, Number One Software’s Peter Macauley, Brocker’s Mike Ridgeway and Essentially’s Gary McNabb.

Net beginnings

The internet today is where the PC industry was when Computerworld launched. And love him or loathe him, Xtra’s Chris Tyler will qualify as one of the most important figures in the local internet industry. Tyler was an American import, brought here to launch Telecom into the internet world. He left after just a year to run Australian listed software and internet company Solution 6 but his aggressive marketing and bold approach shook up the cottage industry of the time. The prize was there for the taking and Tyler took it.

One of the Great Missed Opportunities must go to Clear who could have had the top spot on the net if it had started earlier and put a strong leader like Tyler at the helm. Instead it took a plodding corporate route and left it largely to clever marketers like Voyager’s John O’Hara and Ihug’s Nick and Tim Wood to scrap with the Telecom Goliath. The foundation Tyler put in place is now too hard to seriously crack.

A special place in local internet history belongs to Richard Naylor whose missionary efforts at the Wellington City Council led to the CityNet initiative almost 10 years ago. This created an admirable level of public access and awareness that should have been — but sadly wasn’t — followed elsewhere.

Talking up tech

The technology industry has had a hard row to hoe in New Zealand and has barely had the time of day from outsiders until recently. But a few voices in the wilderness worked their networks over the years and talked up tech until eventually the message got through.

The late Trevor Eagle was a long time and notable cheerleader. National politician Maurice Williamson deserves credit for getting IT on to the political agenda and into Cabinet, but there were few concrete actions at government level in his time. Williamson would no doubt argue that just keeping lobbyists at bay was a major achievement. John O’Hara gave a strong voice to the software industry during his tenure with the Software Exporters Association while early software entrepreneur John Blackham has been a tireless tech flag waver and networker.

Absent from this list is any leader of a major IT multinational. While many of them have had the ears of their offshore colleagues, none has lobbied hard enough to sell New Zealand as a technology creator and to open doors to offshore distribution, capital and exits for our fragile Kiwi development and manufacturing industry.

Quiet achievers

Column centimetres of media coverage aren’t always the best indicator of success. Some like to talk about it, others just get on with it. Among the latter group has been outstanding practitioners like John Holdsworth, whose Datacom group now employs 1200 people around the region, and the aptly named Brian Peace, who spent 20 years quietly turning Peace Computers into an overnight industry darling.

Embracing tech from the top

ASB Bank’s Ralph Norris and The Warehouse’s Stephen Tindall embraced IT as few CEOs have done and cleverly used it to build companies that outperform their sectors. Despite the stellar performance and the role IT has played, the lessons escaped many business leaders in New Zealand’s boardrooms and executives suites. In the government sector, former government statistician Len Cook deserves mention as a long-time enlightened CEO.

Show me the money

Investor interest is pivotal to cultivating a local technology industry. A milestone was Jenny Morel’s Number 8 Ventures, a venture capital fund that was raised the hard way in 1998, one at a time directly from New Zealand’s traditionally tech-shy super-rich.

Stephen Tindall, Dennis Chapman and Eric Watson are switching the wider investment community on to technology though their different approaches show in Watson’s punting mostly on established domestic businesses while the others are patiently growing risky new ones. Institutional investors are still largely absent and many successful individual investors choose to keep a low profile.

Great idea, lousy timing

Plenty of Computerworld’s readers will never have heard of Perce Harpham and his educational computing company Progeni. It collapsed not long after Computerworld began, just as it was on the verge of pulling off a major deal with the Chinese government. But Harpham is a real visionary and pioneering entrepreneur, starting the country’s first software development company in 1968 then pushing computer based learning through his own purpose-built Poly computer in the 1980s. Our education system, educational export industry and technology industry would have been better off today if Harpham had got the breaks he needed.

Icons

They pop into our minds and roll off our tongues in conversation everywhere when we need proof that the big prizes can be won against the odds. They’re people whose achievements get the rest of us started and keep us going on paths we might otherwise not have taken. Two people at opposite ends of our industry stand out — one for showing we can sell Kiwi technology to the world, the other for proving that smart technology people can be great business leaders. In my history of the computer world, Sir Gil Simpson and Ralph Norris go beyond the rest and qualify as Kiwi tech icons.

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