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EN PASSANT: Crisis Manager

EN PASSANT: Crisis Manager

To this day Neil Gamble commands respect for almost breaking the Packer, Murdoch gridlock on pay-TV. It was a corporate battle fought to the death, with Gamble at the head of fledgling media company Australis, struggling valiantly against market clout. He failed. But his passion for the good fight survived, as did his reputation in the corporate world for being exceptionally good at his job.

"[Australis] was a first mover. It established a combined distribution on cable, MDS and satellite, [and] major programming such as ShowTime, Encore and Fox Sports," explains Gamble. "The challenge was in 1995, when Optus Vision came out with ludicrous pricing at 30 per cent of cost price. It was this move that forced pay-TV to be a subservient industry to the telecommunications industry, [something which] has not happened anywhere else in the world. The Optus Vision pricing badly damaged Optus Vision, Telstra and, of course, Australis. The consequent challenge was the merger with Foxtel, which was knocked back by the ACCC. As a result Telstra and News Corp "turned their guns" on Australis and it became impossible to raise money."

Gamble says his "last deed" to pay-TV was to complete the fundraising with PBL. The action was driven by his desire to fulfil obligations but the comment smacks of a parting spar. "Pay-TV, and in particular Australis, is probably the largest case of corporate buggery this country has ever experienced," he adds, just in case there was any doubt.

Life is more normal in Gamble's current role as CEO of software developer, Solution 6. No more 3am phone calls, and he has refrained from wedging himself in doorways to stop people leaving the negotiating table. The tale of Gamble blocking Hollywood lawyers from leaving a room when they threatened to cancel a movie contract has become legendary in business circles. "They were literally getting on their feet to walk out the door and he got them back to the table - and to agree," says Mark Johnson, deputy chairman of Macquarie Bank and Gamble's friend. Those harried times at Australis made Gamble much of what he is today and won him the moniker "crisis manager".

Gamble is not a risk taker. He is a reputed "cleanskin" - honest and straight-talking, and one who does business with integrity and commands an eerie level of trust. "If you're ever down in the trenches, Neil is a good person to have with you," says Gary Weiss, who sat on the Australis board during Gamble's rein.

There is no doubt Solution 6's board is praying these attributes rub off after the dubious performance of departed managers Chris Tyler and Tom Montgomery. Johnson believes they will. "I've never seen him succumb to the temptation to cut corners or paper-over cracks," he says. And, it's not for want of opportunity.

In his short rein, Gamble has surrounded himself with trusted colleagues at Solution 6 in an effort to tighten managerial accountability. His personal assistant tells me in passing that she has been with him for 10 years. His close friend and fellow South African, John Greaves, joined as finance director soon after Gamble's appointment. And, former Star City pals, Iain Keddie and Steve Alperstein were recently announced as CFO and company secretary respectively. Creating a reliable clique is Gamble's trademark. It allows him to maintain a gruelling schedule and achieve results in record time.

Gamble has one other crucial skill: he is extremely good at welding people together. Getting techies and creative people to gel has been likened to "herding cats", and Gamble's talent is essential for the ambitious restructure of Solution 6 to work. In many ways, the job has brought him full circle from his involvement in the developers' start-up in the mid-1980s while working at Wang Technologies.

It was at Wang that Gamble made the jump from accounting to management, eventually travelling a paved route into Wormald International at the prompting of Telstra chairman, Bob Mansfield. The relationship with Mansfield remained a rudder throughout Gamble's career, with a glowing recommendation from the former seeing Gamble strapped in the Australis saddle.

Since then, Gamble has forged a niche in corporate restructures. He enjoys "being his own boss" and sees no reason to take second chair if he can lead from the front. He jumped ship to Star City Holdings rather than take orders from PBL after the merger between Australis and Telstra fell through. As Sydney's first legal casino, the company unleashed a scathing moral debate on gambling addiction. Gamble came under attack from ABC's "7:30 Report" for encouraging his "mate" John Laws to smooth things over on radio and advocate support for the casino. Gamble gracefully extracted himself from the mud by fronting up on TV and not running away at the mouth. Needless to say, Gamble excels under pressure.

When Tabcorp took over Star City in 1999, Gamble bowed out. He left the casino generating positive revenues in excess of $100 million a year, a spectacular turnaround considering it was sustaining $170 million losses on his arrival. Gamble's craving to get back into technology had become undeniable. When he met with Mark Johnson over lunch to contemplate his next move, the pair agreed he shouldn't be hurried to take just anything. So Gamble practiced his golf swing and waited for the right opportunity.

"Solution 6 brought me back to the industry that excites me most," says Gamble. "My time at Digital Equipment and Wang gave me an understanding of the relationship between product development, testing, marketing and post sales service and support. These features have remained static over the past 30 years in the IT industry."

The jury is still out on whether Gamble can succeed in controlling Solution 6's cash burn, but his fate will be clinched when financial figures are posted within weeks. Who knows, he may yet live up to his moniker.Photograph: Agnes King


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