After a decade in the navy, Ralph Marshall has had a varied career in IT. Recently appointed as Cisco business manager for LAN Systems, he still enjoys spending time on the water.
What was your first ever job?
Collecting cow manure as a lad and selling it door-to-door from a wheelbarrow in Townsville. It was a dollar a bag, which was good money in those days, and I think it bought my first stereo.
How did you enter the paid workforce?
RM: My first real job was with the Navy and I spent 10 years there in supply and logistics. I left home at the age of 15 and joined the naval college down at Jervis Bay. I did my HSC and went to university through the navy and I really loved it. My dad owned a fishing and diving charter boat in North Queensland and I did a bit of work with him on that before joining up so I always had the sea in my veins. I also had a grandfather who was a Royal Navy man. The government made a fairly big investment in training me but, as is the risk with young recruits, you don't always get a return on that investment.
How did you end up in the IT industry?
RM: In one of my navy roles I was in charge of word processing so I had a mini typing pool of two ladies that had to learn the Raytheon dedicated word processing system. My job was to supervise them so I put myself on a TAFE course to understand microcomputers and that's how I developed an interest in IT. A mate of mine from the navy joined IBM, and was telling me how good it was, so when my 10 years were up I went into the graduate sales training program. I was in Canberra and started selling into Federal Government.
How did you progress to where you are today?
I sold most of the IBM technologies along the way including mainframes mid-range PCs and services in Canberra, Darwin and Sydney over a period of 10 years. I ended up as Australian marketing manager for the PC business unit before moving to Toshiba in 1996 as marketing director for four years. I worked there with David Henderson, then Bruce Lakin and Ross Cochrane. They were both high-growth businesses; I picked up corporate selling skills at IBM and a lot about channel loyalty at Toshiba. I then moved into mobile phones with Brightpoint, which was the biggest local Nokia distributor outside of the telcos. After a short spell at Vodafone I then went into Telstra for four years as general manager of marketing, originally for SMB but then extending into corporate and government. Eventually, after one of many restructures, I was across the whole product range and that is where I was exposed to Cisco through joint marketing. Most recently, I was marketing director at Epsom and dipped my toe into the consumer area. Printing is a very tough market.
You have covered a lot of different areas of the market in your career. What will be new about your role with LAN Systems?
I was attracted by the broad nature of the job. Leigh [Howard, national sales manager] and I run two pretty independent business units so there is end-to-end responsibility. Wendy [O'Keeffe, managing director] is a great leader and gives me enough rope to hang myself.
There are opposing vendors in the two business units? Does that generate a sense of competition?
There's a bit of friendly rivalry but it's a global model and certainly not an issue. We look to complement each other in the channel as much as we can. You don't find too many resellers doing Cisco and Nortel.
What do you dislike most about the industry?
RM: There's a certain shallowness that doesn't always give us credibility. There's a tendency to over-hype things but I have always tried to be open and down-to-earth with customers about what I can and can't achieve. I think it would be good for the industry to cut the crap a little bit sometimes. I encourage my team to call a spade a spade. People have business problems and if you haven't got the right solution you are wasting everybody's time by trying to over-sell something. It's better to be a good consultant and tell the customer you can't help.
What do you do in your spare time? Do you still enjoy getting out on the water?
RM: Absolutely. My son and I do a lot of snorkelling and scuba diving either around Jervis Bay or up north [NSW] at Port Stephens. At Jervis Bay recently, we found a stainless steel anchor with chain and rope when snorkelling in some fairly deep water. It was about 40ft down but now it's hanging in the garage. I joked to my wife that I now have everything but the boat. I did a five-day diving trip near Lizard Island [Queensland] just before joining LAN and that was out of this world. Historically, I have only done two or three dives a year but on a big trip like that I did 15 and you really get into it after a couple. It's so enjoyable to live on a boat like that and be diving before breakfast.
What else keeps you occupied?
I keep fit with a bit of bush regeneration in my local area and walk our Australian kelpie, Buddy, with my wife. He's very energetic and needs a lot of walking, which is good for us all.
Do you like gadgets?
RM: I'm not obsessed with them but I do like using the productivity tools. I can touch type so I prefer to use a laptop as a workstation while I'm on the road and only use the phone for talking. I'm not obsessed with a Blackberry like some executives you see and haven't got a GPS yet - but that might come with the boat.
What did you want to be when you were younger?
RM: Probably a battleship captain but after a few years in the navy the realities of time at sea struck home. Once my wife and I had a daughter in Canberra I decided not to continue with a naval career but I still have a few mates in service. One of my classmates is the Admiral of the Fleet in Sydney.
What's your biggest ambition?
RM: Professionally, I enjoy growing people around me and being part of their success. Personally, to stay healthy and keep a balance between my working and personal life.