November has been a tough month so far for the country's leading PC manufacturer, Optima. The Sydney-based builder has been forced into shuffling the pack after its managing director, chief financial officer and channel manager resigned in less than a week. And it then made operational staff redundant following the NSW education and training department's decision to award it a smaller slice of the pie than expected in Australia's largest ever public school PC rollout.
While DET estimated Optima and ASI Solutions would supply about a third of the desktops in the first year of the $544 million contract, Optima was clearly expecting to get more out of its first bite of the cherry.
It is difficult to assess how far short of the mark Optima has fallen with this contract, but the disappointment was significant enough for company chairman, Cornel Ung, to resume the managing director's role in the short term and announce a change of focus in the education market.
Reading between the lines, the biggest disappointment for Optima seems to have been that DET has moved the goalposts just when it had worked out how to play the government game rather well. In fact, it would be fair to say that Ung and other local system builders think the department has switched codes all together.
Optima must feel something like a lightweight boxer that has been using agility and ringcraft to outpoint a much more powerful but slower opponent. Everything was going well but now the contest is being switched to sumo wrestling. Brawn is king again and the advantages local whitebox manufacturers had have been wiped out in a stroke by the department's decision to take the final call away from the schools that will use the equipment. It is down at this grassroots level where the likes of Optima have spent a lot of time and effort cultivating healthy relationships and offering that famous flexibility that local system builders hold over their multinational competitors.
Unfortunately, the problem is unlikely to stop with this particular DET contract because the reversion to a centrally driven model is applicable to the wider state education market and, indeed, government purchasing as a whole. And when so much of your success is based on performing well in this department, as Optima's undoubtedly is, it is vital to act quickly and stop the bleeding as soon as possible. That is what Ung is hoping to do by switching horses and focusing on opportunities within privately held education establishments. These institutions have control of their own purse strings and can still be swayed by a smaller IT provider that promises to be more responsive to individual needs and provide plenty of value-added services.
But if the trend of centrally purchasing does spread throughout the government sector, the local PC manufacturing community can probably expect to see a smaller share of future rollouts. And the job of finding other business to fill the void will become a whole lot trickier.
Only time will tell just how much this change in government tack hurts Australian system builders but the split between local players and the multinationals will be very interesting to monitor as the next few major contracts are divided up.