Nortel's Neville James talks to ARN
What was your first job?
My first job was as a deli assistant at Woolworths for six years while I was going through university. My first serious job was at the ANZ Bank as a credit analyst for two years. It was a logical progression from university but it soon became obvious being a credit analyst at a bank wasn't necessarily where my life was going to begin and end, so to speak.
How did you end up in IT?
Once I left the bank, I took on a series of channel roles. At Shell, for example, I was the channels manager for its service station franchise network in Melbourne. I moved up to Sydney to be involved in the channels business with Toyota and then got hired by Ericsson to take over as their NSW channel manger.
How did you progress to where you are now?
I had been channel manager for Ericsson for about 18 months when they decided to franchise their large-end enterprise business. The company set up a franchise network called Ericsson corporate networks franchises and I was part of a three-person team dedicated to selling them off because I had a fair history in franchising.
Did that come from your service station experience?
Yes. I also wrote a thesis at university on franchising. I've always been pretty passionate about channels being the most effective way of going to market - whether you're in the IT industry, the oil industry or the motor industry. Using the entrepreneurial spirit of people who run their own business to take your core product to market will always been more effective than doing it yourself. You get better reach, more innovation and dynamism.
So what happened next?
Once we'd sold Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane, I contacted a few friends of mine and said we should bid for the Sydney franchise - and we won. We were in business with Ericsson for nine years before Telstra bought that business off me. I then started a Nortel systems integration business and built that up until Commander bought it. At that time I was only 37 years of age and I wasn't ready to retire just yet. Because I'd had such a great experience with Nortel as a channel partner - and made some good contacts - I rang the APAC general enterprise manager and asked if he had any jobs going.
What do you like about your current role?
Probably the dynamic nature of channels. I'd be more inclined to stay in a channels business than an IT business if I had to choose between the two.
What's your biggest achievement?
My equal greatest achievements are building up two businesses, because I didn't have a private industry background. That was a pretty steep learning curve. The fact that they were both bought by large, listed entities in the IT space means we must have been doing something right.
What do you dislike about the industry?
The rate of change that comes with it can be challenging to keep abreast of. Just when you think you've got on top of a particular body of knowledge, you can pretty much guarantee it's changed while you've been learning it. I think that being a mid-tier systems integrator over the next 10 years is going to be pretty tough in Australia, too. The skills shortage in Australia is a real issue. There are people in my SI business who I was paying $80,000 three years ago that would now be making $130,000. And the thing to realise is that although the labour market has moved so dramatically, the actual market itself hasn't moved: Prices haven't gone up 60 per cent, for example. That puts a squeeze on us. We have almost full employment in Australia and our industry has to go back to training rather than redistributing the current talent pool.
What will be the next big thing?
We are on the verge of an explosion in the unified communications (UC) space. The whole concept of convergence has been around for some time but up until recently it has simply meant plonking, for want of a better word, your voice traffic on top of the data network. The UC space is about driving the apps that sit on top of the infrastructure and achieving the next wave of productivity for Australian businesses. It's taking productivity gains in technology and making these relevant from big business down to SMBs.
What is Nortel's main focus over the next 6-12 months?
Making customers aware of the benefits of UC and laying the groundwork for sales over the next 3-4 years. Going back to the skills issue, we also need to get the channel ready for customers when they come. There's no point generating excitement and not having enough people to deploy these solutions. The training we'll do over the next 6-12 months is almost as important as getting our message out there.
What do you like to do when you're not at work?
I spend a lot of time with my family, as that's extremely important to me. I don't mind a round of golf even though I'm not very good. I also love AFL because I grew up in Melbourne and that's in your blood, so I go to the footy whenever I can. I support North Melbourne - the Kangaroos.
Do you like gadgets?
Not really. I like to keep things simple. I'm a bit of traditionalist in that respect. I certainly don't have a little lab at home to play with routers and switches.
What did you want to be when you were younger?
I wanted to be a politician. I've always had a strong interest in politics, particularly African politics. I lived in South Africa for a year and I've been back 13 times. I love going on safari in southern Africa - Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe - although I haven't done it since the little one came along. My ideal role was when I was younger would have been the Foreign Minister because of the mix of politics and international relations.
What is your biggest ambition?
To try and build the best channel business in Australia. I think the building blocks are in place with Nortel and we have the right channels. It's now a matter of making us and them successful and keeping them in the areas they want to specialise in. I think we can build a really good business.