There is no large oil painted canvas of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates looming over his desk, or a Startup for Dummies book occupying his top drawer because blueAPACHE founder and managing director, Chris Marshall, has no inspirations.
What he does have is a blueprint for success that began 18 years ago with an unassuming appreciation of the business world.
Now the IT managed services provider is quietly celebrating its strong position in a crowded and highly competitive channel.
Marshall spoke to ARN Editor, James Henderson, about the long road to the top.
“It wasn’t quite a garage,” laughed Chris Marshall, Managing Director, blueAPACHE. “But it was close, I started the business in the spare bedroom of my parent’s house, and in looking at where we are today, it’s been an extraordinary adventure.”
Akin to the humble beginnings of Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard et al, the birth of Melbourne-based IT managed services provider, blueAPACHE, has stood tall as Australia’s own entrepreneurial adventure, forging an enviable reputation in the local market.
But for those nauseated by that clichéd Silicon Valley startup vibe, don’t worry; channelling the Palo Alto psyche isn’t Marshall’s game.
“I don’t have an inspiration as such, but I guess that isn’t as interesting to write about,” he joked.
With no large oil painted canvas of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates looming over his desk, or a Startup for Dummies book occupying his top drawer, Marshall’s blueprint for success has derived from an unassuming appreciation of the business world.
Founded in 1998, the Abbotsford headquartered tech firm has quietly, and organically, developed into one of the country’s leading managed services providers, serving Australia’s most successful organisations.
Operating in a local channel now crammed with competition, as new players usurp the old hands, blueAPACHE continues to subtly stand the test of time, inadvertently manufacturing a prototype for longevity and progression in a changing channel.
“I’ve always had an interest in the corporate world and remained mindful of how successful organisations operate,” Marshall said. “I can’t pinpoint it down to any particular individual or organisation, but I read countless biographies and make an effort to talk to business owners and stakeholders whenever possible.
“I suppose it’s just about trying to learn from other people as much as possible, and to take that into my own world.”
Short on spiel but long on logic, Marshall’s engineering background has helped foster an approach created away from the textbooks of business school, rather developed on the ground and in harsh reality.
“I’ve learned to talk to business owners and actually understand the challenges they are facing, and how best to solve them through applying technology solutions,” he explained.
But Marshall is quick to point out, this isn’t just rhetoric, he means it; “and that’s not reading the ‘About Us’ page on their website five minutes before your meeting, it’s a much deeper understanding”.
Traditionally speaking, engineers are the quiet guys in the room, that less creative bunch in the corner with the debatable social skills and the long beards.
While Marshall laughs at such a stereotypical assessment of his character, underneath the industry judgement lays a deep transformation, from the quirky genius of 1998, to the business leader of 2016.
“Absolutely I’ve changed as a person,” admitted Marshall, who recently launched a new Queensland office, in addition to New South Wales and Victoria locations. “I’m certainly less naive now than I was before. But I think you need that naivety to start a business in the first place, there has to be that element ignorance almost.”
Today, Marshall operates in a “far more measured and consultative” manner, honing his skills in line with the business demands that associate with being the boss.
“The great thing today is that we have so many people in the organisation that are much smarter than me, and that whole notion of surrounding yourself with more intelligent people is certainly a recipe for success,” he said.
“Growth has allowed the opportunity to employ people that are great at the things I’m not great a doing. At the start, I was responsible for finance, it’s something I just had to do but it’s not my core competency.
“Likewise around sales and marketing, it’s not an area I enjoy or excel in but I’ve been able to recruit someone far better at it than I am.”
With a team of 76 staff, with nine additional open roles and more forecast for the next 12 months, Marshall still plays an active role in the recruitment process, refusing to let growth be an excuse for mindless mass hirings.
“Yes we’re growing at scale but a cultural fit is critically important,” he explained. “We have a robust recruitment process and are very stringent in terms of technical excellence requirements, but equally ensuring they will slot into our way of work.”
For many business owners in channel, it can be easy to sit down with the press, and spout worldly wisdom about the true art of success. Let’s face it, all markets are overcrowded with the over-sharers and the personnel lacking in that fateful dose of reality.
In attempting to always recruit ahead of the curve, Marshall acknowledges that talk is one thing, but action is another, as he fights to ensure the culture of his one-man band nearly two decades ago continues to permeate the corridors of blueAPACHE’s expanding empire.
“At the start you have to do it all,” he recalled. “But only last week, I was fixing the dish washer, so it’s very much about mucking in together, even now.”
The art of creating a company culture remains complex however. For the very forcing of the issue, and the desire to manufacture such a working environment, is often the ultimate downfall of business leaders.
During the early days, with the headcount in single digits, Marshall could sit down and talk through every decision together with his team - the problems are simpler and the communication more direct.
But as one aspiring CEO put it: “And then it happened. I woke up and no longer knew the name or role of every person whom I passed in the office.”
While Marshall isn’t at the stage of managing a 100+ team just yet, the direction of travel is clear and as the company grows, he remains conscious that culture can help exert a powerful effect on staff, both old and new.