Aspect Computing is unique amongst companies in the Australian IT channel. Comfortably successful over a sustained period of time, it has blossomed from a two-person training school 25 years ago to become one of the top 10 integrators in Australia.
When examining the success of Aspect Computing, one is immediately struck by one very distinctive feature: its directors have so far resisted the courting of large overseas and local companies which it says have been coming at the rate of about one per week for the last few years. Instead its two managing directors have preferred to continue building the company up as a locally and independently owned concern while expanding off on new tangents as the numerous opportunities in IT present themselves.
From humble beginnings, the company has branched out in so many directions that even Peter Draney, Aspect's joint managing director, finds it hard to briefly cover all the different types of pie Aspect now has its fingers in.
"We are big, ugly and broad," Draney said, of the way the company has grown and diversified into "about 15 groups" that include training services, systems integration, outsourcing and application development.
Often these various operations all combine to form part of a total solution for large customers but there is also lucrative work in the SME market.
Aspect has been around for all the ups and downs of the industry over 25 years and, in Draney's opinion, has continued to be successful because of its ability to develop long-term relationships with customers.
Today it employs "around 1300 staff", has a turnover of "just under $200 million" and has local offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Adelaide as well as operations in Europe, the US and Singapore.
Doing its bit for the Australian economy, last year it managed to generate just under $20 million in export revenues, mainly in the sale of Windows application and Internet software development tools.
Looking after your financials and customers is the best business advice Draney can give.
"Aspect is a classic example of a company that started out small and concentrated on what it knew best. We have just grown gradually, taking small but logical steps along the way.
"You have to concentrate on your core competencies and build additional services and lines of business without ever risking the business at any point in time. We have grown gradually and never over-extended ourselves or been in too much debt and that is important."
Playing with the big boys
Fundamentally, Aspect plays at "the big end of town" in systems integration, according to Draney. While its prime customer base consists of financial institutions, government departments and defence forces, it also caters to a lot of smaller players as well.
"There are lot of customers that are in the $10-50 million range and we see good growth in that. At the moment the hot item is e-business," according to Draney.
"More and more these days the application development and integration side of the business revolves around e-business. If you were to split up the business, a rapidly growing percentage is now focusing on consulting with customers and setting them up to be involved in the e-business economy that is nearly upon us.
"The problem that customers have at the moment is in trying to work out what is the best application, functionality and methodology to enable business-to-business transactions over the Internet.
"We help them find what the best initial application is that will give them a return on investment."
Draney said Aspect has discovered that its customers either have no idea what they are talking about in relation to the Internet or they have a vision for what they want to achieve without having the associated knowledge of how to make it happen. While the business is lucrative and in big demand, being able to deliver on promises is the tricky part.
"The technology is probably still not quite there yet," Draney said. "Taking that into consideration is important for building an expectation set in the customer. You have got to make sure [the customer's] expectations are met by the software and the hardware that is available to deliver on the vision.
"The levels of disappointment if things don't work quite right can be extreme."
Some of the recent e-business work Aspect has been involved in includes a new computer-aided dispatch system for the NSW Ambulance Service and it had a hand in the joint venture that launched the Victorian Government's Maxi project.
That contract gave Aspect good leverage into the work currently being undertaken by Federal authorities in regards to electronic tax returns.
Aspect's evolution to the diverse company it is today has been interesting. It all started back in 1974 when Draney and partner Lyndsey Cattermole started training mainframe programmers as that technology began being broadly adopted.
"That evolved eventually into the very early days of time and materials contract programming," Draney said. "Customers who we were training staff for started to ask if we had anybody that could come and help them write application software.
"We were actually there on the ground in the very early days of contract programming for which we started to build a services arm. That then grew into fixed-price projects, which differentiated us from other contract programming firms."
The business model for Aspect's services operations has always been to have all the people working for it as employees although that is getting more and more difficult these days. Attracting and retaining quality staff is an issue faced by all integrators and application developers, according to Draney.
"We are lucky that we can train them better because that is what we have done for 25 years," he said. "I think that is definitely an attraction to a lot of people."
Draney is confident there is a lot more organic growth left for Aspect. "The open end of the cone can get bigger," he said. "We are seeing our education department getting bigger, R&D is getting bigger and the domestic services side is set to boom as e-business swamps everything.
"Because we know how to stay ahead of technology and deliver on our promises, we see the cone just getting larger and wider. Some people are going to reinvigorate their businesses to go online and others are going to have to start all over again."
Training still plays a significant part in Aspect's business and has been an interesting road for the company.
"When we started to get into contract programming and R&D in a big way, we continued on with the training," Draney said. "Even when the bottom fell out of IBM mainframe training, we found that was quickly taken over by Microsoft and Lotus technical training.
"Then when the Y2K issue reared its head, the market came back to IBM mainframe training. It did the full circle," he added. "We have found that because things move so quickly in this industry there is always somebody looking for training."
At the moment things are starting to hot up in the Windows 2000 arena and Aspect has started running courses for the much-maligned multi-user operating system.
"Despite the bad press, I think Microsoft has actually got itself an operating system at long last," he said.
"Over the next 12-24 months you will see the biggies [corporates] starting to roll it out and that is going to represent serious opportunities to use our systems integration, training and rollout capabilities."