Is your leader one of... the fearless 5

Is your leader one of... the fearless 5

Over the next few months, Channel X will take a look at some of the more prominent channel identities. From the stalwarts and veterans of the industry to today's movers and shakers, we profile the people who've been instrumental in setting the standard for ethics, best practices and service, culminating with the 2002 Channel First XV list!

When the likes of John Chambers, Scott McNealy or Larry Ellison move across the conference room floor, they could be mistaken for Hollywood celebrities. Even in a republic like the US, the leaders of the world's largst IT companies are afforded royalty status. Sure, they get mobbed by supporters, sycophants and media, but just how much does the flamboyant, dictatorial or solemn nature of a company's top dog influence the market's perception of that company? Just how much do they set the tone of the company's character, influence its culture and ultimately determine its success? Perhaps more than you think.

In an increasingly complex and challenging economic environment, corporate leadership has come to the fore. The men and women who dictate the fate of companies also play a hand at determining the fate of economies, countries and ultimately, people's lives.

The art of business is in many ways synonymous with the art of war. It can certainly account for the sheer number of middle-management personnel that have read translated versions of the ancient Chinese military strategy text. Social theorists may argue the two have become one and the same in the modern age.

Either way, similar traits emerge in successful candidates from both sides: the ability to make critical decisions, rally the troops, build for the future, acquire geography, market share, quality staff, customer focus, discipline . . . and the list continues.

The first instalment looks at five executives whose fearless style has earned them the respect of their peers.

Let it Shein

When David Shein started up Com Tech Communications in 1987 he invited brother Jon to join him. A year later, Jon did just that - he joined Com Tech as the company's third employee.

More than a decade later, with the appointment of joint managing directors in Ross Cochrane and Steve Nola last year, Jon Shein can afford to sit back a little and contemplate the whirlwind ride of the 1990s. It was a decade that saw Com Tech become what it is today, a major cog in the Dimension Data empire.

The South African-born Shein brothers have in many ways pioneered system integration in Australia, thanks largely to the explosion of local area networking and the Internet. It could be said they were simply in the right place at the right time, but it's an assumption that negates just what it took to reach this point in the company's history.

Despite the incredible networking boom, the founding directors of Dimension Data didn't have the lavish premises or high-flying attributes synonymous with the 80s entrepreneurs. Not surprising, given their accounting backgrounds.

"We ran the business by the mantra ‘profitability is sanity, revenue is vanity'," says Jon Shein. "We did not really care whether our competitors were bigger from a revenue perspective. We were more concerned about ensuring that we could pay our bills and meet our obligations quicker than our competitors - and how much we could invest in the business as a result of our profit performance."

As the networking landscape changed, so did the company. In fact, change has been constant for Dimension Data. In 1996 the decision was made to restructure the company from a value-added distributor into three separate companies: a systems integrator, computer education and training organisation, and a distributor.

In July 2001 Com Tech rebranded as Dimension Data to reflect the significant investment that Dimension Data had had in the Australian company since 1996.

"I guess one of the things that [David] was absolutely instrumental in instilling in the DNA and culture of the business was a necessity to drive and embrace change, and recognise that we need to face reality as it is, not as we wish it to be. This meant changing before we had to."

Jon Shein believes a sound management succession plan is key to the success and longevity of not only Dimension Data but any business. It's a rare occasion when he gives his unsolicited two bob's worth; otherwise he's happy to let his charges take care of the day-to-day operations while he plays a mentoring role.

His style of management is one of empowerment. As Shein describes it, "appoint the right people, tell them what you expect of them, ask them what they want from you, and then ensure you are at their service to enable them to execute".

"I don't expect a Jon Shein clone. All I hope for is that the managers appreciate the culture and understand how this business was built. Essentially, when I appoint someone I give them absolute ownership of the job and say ‘I'm here if you need me'. Otherwise why bother to appoint a person to the role?"

gen-i knight

John Bessey was sitting on a beach in Croatia when a former boss asked him to head up the procurement business of New Zealand's largest integrator. Now the general manager of gen-i's expansion into Australia, Bessey is a second-generation IT professional who landed his first job at 17 as a photocopier with Digital Equipment Corporation in New Zealand - his father, Nick Bessey, just happened to be heading up DEC at the time.

Although he's enjoyed stints as a Cognos reseller where "I learnt how to sell" and marketing manager for Dell where he learnt "clarity of strategy", Bessey's allegiance has always been with gen-i, the company formerly known as Wang New Zealand.

When Wang Laboratories went belly-up in the US in 1992, Wang New Zealand bought itself out and floated on the NZ Stock Exchange. Well entrenched as Wang in NZ but looking to expand into Australia, the company was faced with a major dilemma.

"In the NZ marketplace it was quite a hard decision because Wang actually had very good brand recognition in terms of quality," says Bessey. "When we looked at expanding into Australia, Wang had obviously been here before but not as the same company - so we were presented with a conflict. We needed to look at a new name."

In Australia the gen-i brand begins with a clean slate, and with it, a narrower focus. Unlike in NZ where gen-i provides a range of solutions, gen-i Australia is establishing itself as one of the country's largest server-based computing integrators through its partnership with Citrix Systems.

"Certainly to start off with we thought about starting a gen-i like we have in New Zealand. But essentially to be successful in any market - and coming in with a brand name that isn't known - I think you have to own a particular space and be renowned for quality."

As a veteran of rebranding who is now cutting his teeth in a new market, two things govern Bessey's approach to business success: focus and quality of staff. "Business, although it can be quite hard, isn't necessarily rocket science. It's about having a very focused strategy and hiring really good people."

Bessey may joke about referring to his technology consultants as gen-i Knights in the theme of Star Wars, but it represents his commitment to his staff. It's something he takes very seriously.

"Technology consultants are the core of our business," he says. "It used to be eight years ago, If you had a good engineering force, people bought from you. Now you have to have one just to play. It used to be you needed a good call centre and you won business. Now you have to have one just to play.

"It's all about those architects, those technology consultants. If you've got the best, and you invest in them and give them the lab and the IT they require and great project management to work under, then it's a rocket ship."

Grant us strength

In 1972 he was the hard man of Queensland Rugby League. Growing up in a working-class environment in Brisbane, John Grant never shirked the tough stuff of the game. It led to representative stints with Queensland and Australia and a season in the UK.

For most they were league's golden years, where the sheer physical aspect of the game often overshadowed the skill level demonstrated by players. But Grant, the enforcer who played in the centres for his local Brisbane side, is a bit of a self-confessed anomaly - Grant was an educated man.

Grant maintains that there are a number of parallels between sport and business. As a result, his management principles are based largely on what made him (and the teams he was a part of) successful on the field. "In that [physical] environment you really had to take control of your opposition."

Graduating with an Honours degree in Engineering from Queensland University, Grant was working for Brisbane City Council in the late 1970s. It was here, heading up one of the council's first information technology projects, that Grant got his first taste of IT. Needless to say, as an engineer he wasn't impressed. It did, however, stir an interest in what has become a 20-year career in IT.

Two years later, Grant began his association with Powell, Clarke & Associates, the company that would later become Data#3. The company saw rapid growth, and as a fiercely loyal club player, Grant turned down big money offers from the "poker-machine" clubs in Sydney.

Reportedly the second "reseller" in Queensland, the company acquired All Brand Typewriters and Office Machines in 1984. Experiencing this acquisition process reaffirmed his belief in the importance of leadership when it comes to building a strong team culture.

"Culture is incredibly successful if it's right, and incredibly destructive if it's wrong. Integrating [corporate] culture needs really strong leadership, especially when you're trying to integrate cultures globally or on a nation basis."

Over the years, Data#3 has grown from 16 people to more than 300 staff in eight locations along the East Coast. This growth has required solid management skills to keep it on track. Grant's philosophy on management has relied on three cornerstones: customer focus - providing "what the customer wants" in terms of service delivery; flexibility - responsiveness in price and communication while being flexible in the products and services you can offer; and the discipline to manage the business.

"Business is very process-based and I think the industry has a long way to go in this," he says. "Because growth was so strong for so long it was always a seller's market. But when the [economy turned] and it became a buyer's market, the industry was flummoxed."

A Shaw thing

Ray Shaw doesn't mince words. The Brisbane businessman's repeated public revelations about unsavoury practices in the PC reseller industry have made Shaw a target for death threats and hacker attacks. They have also earned him a high public profile as the honest face of the reseller community in Queensland. In the early to mid-1990s, Shaw helped expose a string of reseller abuses such as over-clocking, partial substitution and sales tax avoidance. His newspaper column, "The Fixer", in the Courier Mail became a lightning rod for complaints regarding shonky reseller practices. And he lifted his public profile further by hosting an ABC Queensland radio program on PC issues for three years.

"During that time I received numerous legal notices, death threats, had my car and premises broken into or vandalised, and our Internet systems mercilessly hacked. It was pretty scary at times. I had a campaign of hate and lies waged against me by those I sought to expose."

Between the newspaper column and radio program, Shaw has to juggle the demands of running his Intermedia group of PC distribution, retail and conference management companies. He's also embarked on developing an ambitious software platform (called Saviour) for creating database-driven Web pages and programs.

Shaw comes from a long line of hardworking and honest Brisbane merchants. Four generations and around 150 years ago, an ancestor, George Shaw, set up Brisbane's first general store and "ironmongery" on a dirt track called Queen Street in Brisbane. In the early 1900s it became George Shaw's Sports store, a Brisbane icon.

Ray Shaw learned the wholesale and retail trade working in his father's sporting goods store and experienced first-hand the tricks and shady practices that were causing the sporting goods industry such heartache: sales tax avoidance, parallel importing, grey market, counterfeiting, outright deception - you name it.

"When I entered the computer industry in 1979 it was a case of déjà vu, only the stakes were a lot higher," says Shaw. "The whole thing that has driven me in the last 20 years is ethics and honesty, and they have been sorely lacking in the computer retail industry. I am afraid that ethical companies will go the way of the dinosaur once computers become a white goods industry, as it becomes very hard to add value to a PC.

"Perhaps we have survived for so long because of good management, vision and flexibility. But the end result is that you can have the best product, the best service and the best systems and still go broke because it is too expensive and no-one wants to buy."

Despite the personal cost - and in the face of continued government inaction - Shaw holds firm to a simple personal philosophy: that truth and justice will always win in the end, it just takes a little longer. It's a Shaw thing.

Fiona's way

The concept of loyalty usually isn't associated with flowers and glass ceilings. But then, Fiona Dicker, a former florist and head of one of Australia's foremost IT distribution companies, isn't a conventional woman.

Although dwarfed in size by some of its internationally owned competitors, her company, Dicker Data, has something money can't buy - loyalty. The longevity and sustainability of Dicker Data is largely attributed to the loyalty that customers, suppliers and employees have shown and continue to show.

In many respects, it's a testament to the determined, uncompromising way Dicker lives her life. Loyalty, coupled with a natural flair and love for business, have always underpinned her success.

Now a 22-year veteran in the industry, there's more to Dicker than merely IT distribution. There's her past passion for racing cars as a privateer entrant in circuits around NSW, her desire to sail her 43-foot Adam's yacht around the world, and the fact that she climbed an ice mountain in Switzerland despite a fear of heights.

Dicker joined what was a family fabrication business in 1978 through her then husband David Dicker. "We were looking at using a PC to do the roof design. We went to the US to buy the application and Vector Graphics offered us the Australian distribution rights for their PC," she says.

Getting a sale was tough back then because it was more about selling the concept than the brand, Dicker explains. Then, in the mid-1980s, Dicker Data faced a major hurdle when IBM entered the PC market and Vector Graphics went broke. Responding to the challenge, the company modified its focus.

"David started an R&D division and I started importing clones from Taiwan, which was hard because in those days the Taiwanese didn't support the products," she says. "We had to swap faulty product for good ones. We survived because we had a couple of good OEM contracts. And then later we got the Toshiba distributorship, which is now 12 years old."

After sinking more than $3 million into the R&D division, the pair closed it down in the early 1990s. The reality of manufacturing PCs didn't match the dream.

Dicker Data then started to concentrate solely on distribution. Although small in comparison with its competitors, the company has support from big brand names such as Compaq, Toshiba and Epson. Time has confirmed that Dicker Data has a good reputation and solid dealer network in the small business market.

"We still deal with some of those small businesses we used to [deal with] 22 years ago. Back then it was all about technology - and we still maintain that product knowledge is the key to successful sales."

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