The IT industry is well known for having fuelled the rapid growth of a number of its participant companies, so the story of Melbourne-based network integrator CNI shouldn't seem remarkable. But what started five years ago as a handful of people working with Novell 3.0 implementations has grown to a complete network integration specialist of over 65 people, including its own Internet service provision company.
According to CNI's director of sales and marketing Lyle Potgieter, the reason CNI has grown where others have failed lies in its focus. "The growth has been fairly rapid, but the business focus is on local- and wide-area networking. And that is why the business has been successful, because we have had focus and we have not deviated from that.
"I think in our market if you don't focus you end up with a mess; by having focus and conducting business in the area that we know we are comfortable in - that's been the reason for our success. And we try to keep everything simple - there are only customers, suppliers and staff. If all three are working well together you've got a good business."
Hence, as the products have evolved and its clients' needs have increased, so CNI has grown, said Potgieter. "Originally we didn't do much with hardware in terms of PCs and what not, but people wanted complete solutions. And now we provide full solutions including the workstations, the servers and the network infrastructure. And we are particularly strong with our SNA skills, such as integrating IBM AS/400s or IBM 3270 hosts. That certainly was a foundation of the company." CNI now works across almost all networking hardware and software vendors.
Potgieter said the company is now of such a size that large implementations are not a burden on resources. "We are rolling out a network now for a customer, which will eventually have in it 5000 nodes." CNI's client list includes ICI, Australian Paper, Price Waterhouse, BHP Minerals and Exploration, Victorian Legal Aid and a number of Victorian power utilities. Potgieter said a lot of the work is repeat business, but added: "There's no reliance on any particular customer - we've got a good spread of customers. That ensures that you get good experience - you're not just focusing on one particular customer."
While CNI has experienced strong growth in its lifetime, Potgieter said that growth has never gotten out of control. "It's been very managed, but that's because we work in the business every single day.
"I think in any business you can't have good people and bad systems. What we try to do is make sure we have the best people and the best systems. And we have made people responsible for what they do in their day - we don't have 50 managers. We basically have very high responsibility and very high autonomy.
"Being focused has been a strong part of that growth, based around the core competency of integration, by helping customers make sure their networks deliver the business functions they want them to. Too many companies get caught up in the technology, rather than looking at what their customer is trying to achieve in a business sense," Potgieter said.
Potgieter uses the model of the AS/400 mid-range system as a foundation for how a network should be built. "We put together a network model and said that what we should provide in a network is exactly what IBM provides in an AS/400. Every part of the network should be certified to work with every other part of the network. So I guess we have taken the approach from a total solution point of view - we try and stay away from the technology and focus on the solution."
Another key to staying ahead is in knowing not only what the market wants now, but predicting what it will want in the future. "We are expanding into different product markets when they are relevant to our customers. Internet was a natural for us, because there was high interest and a lot of impetus from our customers on that." Potgieter said part of that expansion will see CNI moving into videoconferencing in the local and wide area, but only if the customers demand it. "So I guess that the expansion and changes are going to be based on what our customers are dealing with."
Potgieter believes focus will also be the key to maintaining CNI's success. "With any business the biggest challenge has been making sure you deliver better customer service as you are growing. What can happen with a lot of companies is that as they grow they deliver a lower level of satisfaction. We have spent a lot of money making sure we can provide better answers and better information faster."