Back in the 1980s the Wellington office of Gordon Hogg, the boss of Databank Systems, the New Zealand-wide computer bureau and bank clearing house, was impressively cathedral-like.
Reputedly Hogg’s desk was the biggest in the whole of the country and, according to rumour, the office had a fully equipped en suite bar where he entertained VIP guests. It was whispered he got around in a chauffeur-driven limousine with blacked out windows and regularly dined at the very best city restaurants with cordon bleu chefs. Such a lavish corporate lifestyle, unheard of at the time, apparently came with an equally as impressive remuneration package that made other top executives green with envy.
But Hogg’s employers were bankers and not short of money. Databank was owned by ANZ Bank (20%), National Bank (20%), Bank of New Zealand (40%), what is now Westpac but was the Bank of NSW (13.3%) and CBA, soon to merge with BNSW (6.7%). The chiefs of the shareholding banks probably thought Hogg was worth every penny of what he was getting despite reputedly making more money than any of them.
The charismatic Hogg undoubtedly played the leading role in the development of the Databank company which became increasingly more successful as the years rolled by. It even began selling its services internationally in the late l970s, a pioneering move back in those days when computing in the banking industry was still relatively new. Banks in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia were among its first overseas customers.
Databank started out as a cheque clearing business for the banks and had major data processing centres in Auckland and Wellington linked to a huge network with nodes in towns and cities throughout both islands. The company was an international pioneer of online computer networking and even as far back as l969 had a host-to-host link between computers in Auckland and Hamilton. Over time, it developed into an independent computer bureau handling non-banking business. In the early l980s it accounted for about 8% of its total business. By the time it was Texas-based EDS in l994 for an estimated $100 million, that had reached 25%. It had even moved into hardware by producing its own communications gear that included a modem eliminator, a loop test unit and an asynchronous to synchronous communication line adapter.
But now it seems the only thing left of Databank is the name which is being used by a company in Dublin, Ireland, that is in the electronic funds transfer business in the Irish republic, the UK and Europe. Databank shared the same fate as scores -- and perhaps hundreds -- of other once significant and important information technology companies, big and small, local and international, over the past decade-and-a-half. They simply disappeared during the period either by being taken over, like Databank, going bust, or just virtually shrunk to nothing and faded away.
The recent wholesale collapse of so-called dot-com companies like internet retailer FlyingPig in New Zealand and elsewhere in the world bear mute testimony to the long-standing, and continuing, volatility of information technology firms.
So, too, does the rebellion of major Hewlett-Packard shareholders that threatens to stop the big computer company’s chief executive, Carly Fiorina, from buying Compaq Computer.
She wants Hewlett-Packard to buy Compaq for $US20.7 billion but members of the surviving families of Hewlett-Packard’s founders say no.
Just over two years ago Compaq, a huge corporate personal computer maker, itself took over Digital Equipment, a leader in the minicomputer manufacturing business. Since Compaq took over Digital the latter no longer has a presence in the New Zealand minicomputer market and the innovative Alpha workstation it developed has been put on ice.
Other once prominent midrange computer makers like Data General, Altos Computer Systems, ICL and McDonnell Douglas Information Systems are also no longer with us.
Compaq, which Hewlett-Packard has been planning to absorb, may not be around much longer if the rebellious shareholders decide to back off and let Fiorina have her way.
If so, Compaq stands a good chance of joining Auckland-based New Zealand personal computer manufacturer PC Direct in oblivion and become just a memory like overseas computer makers such as Apricot Computer, Amstrad Computers and Commodore Computer. In the Compaq case, however, such a fate could never have been envisaged even as recently as two years ago.
The roll call of New Zealand computer companies that have been and gone also includes Auckland-based business computer maker Microprocessor Developments, which disappeared from sight some years ago.
New Zealand business information systems services companies like Centron and Paxus Information Services, both of which were once major players in the local market, are also no longer seen.
Among the local software development companies that have faded away one way or another over the last 15 years or so are Advanced Management Systems, Fact International, Dialogic, Phoenix Software and Progeni.