Channel Champion: John Grant, Data #3

If there was one adjective which arguably describes John Grant to a tee, it’s tenacious. The managing director of listed integrator, Data#3 (ASX:DTL), and chairman of the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), is not one to let an opportunity pass, nor is he one to mince words. And as his successful career in IT proves, he has an ability to lead and demonstrates such strong-will in adversity that he can make the most of whatever he’s presented with.

It was these very qualities that saw Grant inducted into the ARN Hall of Fame for 2008. Grant, who has played representative rugby league at a national level, said being tenacious and never giving up were key qualities he learnt as a footballer, and held him in good stead in the corporate sector.

The Queenslander completed an engineering degree at the University of Queensland before taking up a scholarship with Brisbane City Council. He spent four years in the public sector undertaking a variety of engineering roles, mostly within the council’s Department of Works. The agency’s decision to start automating select operations allowed him to get his first taste of IT.

“I started off as a design engineer then a continuity engineer managing contract work and ended up running the quarry operations for the council. At that point, they had made a decision to automate things, so I helped write the applications and spoke with the leading IT players at the time including NCR and CSC. That got me really excited about the IT industry,” he said.

“I began looking further afield and applied for civil engineering positions. IBM was looking for mature-age graduates, so I sent in an application. Three interviews and seven days later, I got the job. I had already had that involvement with computing and liked what I saw, so I changed careers at age 30.”

Grant said he was put through 12 months’ sales training at IBM – “something no one does anymore and probably should” – and progressed to selling mid-range computers into local government and corporates. But after three years, the chance to work more closely with customers in the trenches proved too hard to resist.

“I was working with Powell Clark and Associates [the forerunner to Data#3, which was founded by ex-IBM staff] selling applications into government. After three years with IBM, I decided I didn’t want to be in a multinational, and almost ended up in real estate before Powell Clark offered me a job,” he said. “I wanted to make a statement of change, but that [real estate] was whimsical. I would have been ok, as I work hard, but I decided to go the other way.”

Grant joined Powell Clark as a sales manager and bought into the business a year later. In 1984 the company was renamed Data#3 and in 1997, listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. Grant was appointed managing director in 1996 and has maintained the helm ever since. After 12 years, he admits to his fair share of successes and good outcomes as well as the difficult times.

“In the early Data#3 days, we nearly ran out of cash twice – once the shareholders tipped in money, the other time I ran the accounts for three months to understand how cash management worked and then implemented changes to how we collected money,” he said. “There’s a great value in managers getting into the hub of the business so they can understand how to do things better.”

Another averted disaster was Data#3’s partnership with Powerlan Queensland, which collapsed in 2002. The pair were involved in joint ventures providing desktop and software services to various Queensland Government agencies including a $77 million Microsoft Enterprise Licensing Agreement deal. The appointment of administrators and receivers to Powerlan threw Datat#3’s main source of income into immediate jeopardy.

“That put us into a hole but we negotiated an outcome with the receivers that was productive,” Grant said. “We had $8 million that the receivers were trying to get, which could have put us out of business. We spent two months working through the legal processes and nutted out a deal which got us out of the situation.

“You learn through difficult times to do things differently and to work through them.”

When asked to nominate some highlights during his tenure with Data#3, Grant pointed to its decision to begin offering PC maintenance contracts in the 1980s – a common practice today, but an innovative move for its time, he said. Within the first month, the company had sold a hefty $1 million worth of maintenance contracts.

More generally, Grant said the best moments stemmed from its aptitude for surviving in times of adversity.

“We’ve had difficult times as a listed company – we went through the tech wreck and we’ve had to write-off goodwill – but we’ve come out the other side,” he said. “The whole team works together and by doing so, we’ve been able to build successes over and over again.

“The other highlight would be the relationships I have built with our customers – I really enjoy that part of the business and it’s very satisfying.”

Running with the ball

In his early days as an engineer, Grant moonlighted as a representative football player and was part of the Australian Rugby League team that fought Great Britain for the World Cup in France in 1972. He battled for the title alongside game icons like Bobby Fulton, Bob McCarthy, Elwyn Walters, Ray Branighan, Arthur Beetson and Tommy Roudonikis but lost. From 1971-1974 and in 1976 he played for Queensland in interstate competition against NSW and on tours of New Zealand.

Many of the skills which make you a formidable league player are highly relevant to being successful in business, he said.

“Representative football teaches you discipline, which is applicable in sales roles and in terms of leadership,” he said. “You have to push through physically and mentally and be tenacious – not in an unkind way, but by never giving up. These are all strong attributes in business. Engineering skills, and being logical and sequence-oriented, also means you think out how things happen. Architects do the strategic planning; how to build it is the engineer’s role and that’s where my skills have followed through into management. I’m process-oriented, fair and reasonable and make decisions then execute on them.

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