A new Centaris of success

A new Centaris of success

Like many successful men before him, Jon Johnston believes there is a lot you can do to prepare yourself for success. Yet, unlike a number of his peers, Johnston does not allow his Chekovian `10 per cent talent, 90 per cent hard work' creed to shake his almost superstitious faith in luck. Luck, he believes, plays a part in paving most paths to distinction and prosperity.

`There is a lot you can do to prepare yourself to take advantage of business opportunities that present themselves and educate yourself to be successful,' Johnston reflects, `but there is also a certain amount of luck involved. Some things just happen and you have no control over them,' he says.

It's hard to believe that, as MD of Centari Systems, one of the most successful systems integration companies in the country, Johnston, an MBA graduate, would also be willing to abandon the obligatory rhetoric of economic rationalism in favour of squeezing concepts such as `balance', `job satisfaction' and `aligning interests' into his managerial vocabulary.

But he does. And, like everything else, he does it playfully and confidently. `Yes, I like to play, what can I do - I'm a competitive guy,' he laughs.

As far as Centari goes, he appears to be doing it with great success too, for in an industry renowned for high employee turnover he manages to keep most of over a hundred of Centari employees happy enough to stick around for awhile.

`Our focus is retaining customers and the key to that is to align the interest of staff members with the interest of customers,' he explains. `That concept is very simple, but very difficult to implement.

`At our annual off-site meetings, I preach to my employees that their primary loyalty needs to be to themselves. It's my job to create an environment which encourages them to contribute to the company, an environment in which they can achieve their personal goals and, by taking the ownership of their own careers, also take the ownership of their customer's opportunities and customer problems.'

It is this philosophy that has allowed Johnston to turn the company he started in 1992 as a one-man show into a $100 million `mini-outsourcer' (as he chooses to describe it) with offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Adelaide. (Another office, in Canberra this time, is about to open for business in February.) It is also the philosophy that has enabled him to convince some of his friends from university days to move to Australia and join him at the helm of Centari.

`I have known my partners [Todd Sullivan, Mick O'Rourke and Suzanne Tylka] for a long time - in fact, we all went to Stanford University in the late 70s and early 80s and we all worked for HP in the mid 1980s,' he confirms. `All of us are now citizens,' he adds proudly. Yet, the `Centari partners' share a lot more than citizenship and the good memories of the 80s. `These people have all had very successful careers,' Johnston boasts, almost like a proud parent (that he is to his three boys). `They all have experience in high-level managerial roles in IT, either in the US or in Europe, they all have MBAs and they all decided that the quality of life in Australia was too good to pass on,' he said.

Balancing even the description of one of the key achievements of his whole-encompassing `aligning interests' policy that has recently seen Centari abandon its long-term commitment to only one vendor, Hewlett-Packard, Johnston nevertheless cannot hide his excitement at Centari's new partnerships with Epson and Xerox.

`I would say this is a change of direction for us. We now have a great relationship with three vendors instead of just one.

`You see, everything we do is based on value for the customer,' Johnston explains. `The reason we expanded beyond HP was that they don't do everything and we wanted to have the best solution for our customers, so, strategically, it was only logical that we'd decide to partner with more vendors to meet our customers' needs.

`Providing value has everything to do with meeting customer needs,' he added, recalling that it was the low standard of customer service in the channel he noticed while he worked for HP that made him switch camps and try his luck in reseller land in the first place.

These days Centari, once upon a time frequently described as `distributor', is increasingly a services company, with their service section growing at almost 250 per cent a year. But even with their overall growth at 40 per cent and plans for further product and services expansion, Johnston refuses to allow an imbalance between his private and professional commitments to pierce through his `alignment' philosophy. (oops, that word again!) For instance, he doesn't believe in 60-70-hour weeks and when he is not exercising or reading stories to his three boys, he spends time working at the museum of old HP products that he started 5 years ago as a personal hobby and where people can see every HP calculator the company ever made and even an original IBM PC.

Indeed, everything about Johnston and Centari would have looked like a perfect actualisation of the purest idea of balance if only he hadn't chosen to finish our interview with an unexpected outburst. `I'm a real bastard,' he said to your confused reporter. But a lucky one at that, no doubt.

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