A leader that advocated values and reciprocity

The Australian IT industry mourns the loss of Mike Clarkin.

Michael Fitzgerald Clarkin, 1941 - 2008

Mike Clarkin is recognised as one of Australia's great IT leaders and innovators.

Having successfully established the New Zealand subsidiary for Wang Laboratories (US), Clarkin came to Sydney in 1977 to take charge of the company's $8 million Australian operation. Within 10 years Clarkin transformed the small company, built primarily on WP and small DP hardware, into a $100 million information and networking systems powerhouse.

Long before it became a corporate mantra, Clarkin advocated the primary importance of values, and the principle of reciprocity, to growing a business. In applying these ideas he built a fiercely loyal employee culture which enabled Wang to work outside of its office systems 'comfort zone' and into markets dominated by giants such as IBM.

"Mike hated IBM," recalls Steve Chambers who Clarkin recruited from the record industry to help build the Wang brand. "He thought their products were boring and their culture robotic. In many ways Mike set out to create an opposite to the industry leader, when most believed you had to copy them - or accommodate them - to survive."

The pivotal year for Clarkin's plan was 1983 when the Department of Social Security (now Centrelink) put up a massive $63 million networking contract on the table.

Everyone thought it would go to IBM because it had already proven it could handle such a large scale network and, in those days, "nobody got fired for buying IBM." Clarkin went for it. He flew to Wang's Boston headquarters to get reassurance from the company's founder, Dr An Wang. The feedback was positive. The Dr said go for it. So he did.

Winning the blockbuster contract - to supply the DSS with VS series minicomputers, workstations and other peripherals - meant Wang would cement the number 2 spot in the Australian marketplace from the incumbent International Computers Australia Ltd.

True to his principles on reciprocity, Clarkin initiated a massive investment program back into the Australian industry and community. Over the following 5 years, over $10 million was poured into Australian sports and innovative art organisations such as the Sydney Dance Company, The Playbox Theatre, and the company also further strengthened its considerable commitment to local R & D and manufacturing.

"It's impossible to define Mike and the impact he had on the lives of people who worked for him: he was this talented, kind, and irrepressible energy, who would be as genuinely delighted to run into a Wang receptionist down the street as he would be for the MD of his biggest client" says Chambers.

Clarkin was always buoyant. He enjoyed a laugh. "He was larger than life. All round good guy," said Ray Gibson, who worked as a finance manager at Wang in the late 80's.

He would also be the first to say the party has started.

In the early 90's, as the international Wang business restructured to be more of a service and support company, Clarkin parted ways. He became highly sought after in the Australian and New Zealand business communities, occupying chairman and director roles with several major organisations.

Towards the latter part of his career, Clarkin's health deteriorated. Following a series of debilitating illnesses, he had a leg partially amputated, and was wheelchair bound.

To celebrate Clarkin's achievements former Wang Australia staff organised a 30 year reunion in November last year.

"Over 170 ex Wang employees attended the event to honour Mike. Not bad considering the company folded over 10 years ago," said reunion organiser Sandy Tischmann. "He was a remarkable visionary, who's support and encouragement resulted in tremendous loyalty from his employees and great success for Wang Australia. He was an inspiration to many, right through to the end."

Mike Clarkin passed away last Friday at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney. A Requiem Mass to celebrate his life at the Mary Immaculate Church in Manly will be held today -- Thursday, April 10 at 10.30 a.m.

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Anecdotes from Steve Chambers

I. There was a guy who had been with Wang Australia since the year dot. He worked in the warehouse and would have no contact with any head office executive. However, once every 6 months he'd go on a bender and around 2 a.m. would ring Mike at home to discus the company's strengths and weaknesses. For over 13 years, twice a year, Mike would take his call and listen to what he had to say. "You know," Mike would say, "I learn more about what's going on in logistics through him than I do through any consultant's report." "Who needs sleep? "You can sleep when you're dead."

II. The Australian leg of 'Live Aid' was going to be cancelled due to the fact that IBM told the organisers that a customised computer system that was needed to input and manage donations phoned in during the telethon, could not be created in the time frame that was imposed. Because I had worked with Bob Geldoff before, his people called me on the Monday to ask if Wang could create a system to do this - plus provide all the data entry and phone operators - in time for a 24-hour telethon that would be nationally covered live by the ABC the following Saturday.

We put a team together to front Clarkin with a way to do it. He had to fly to Boston that weekend so wouldn't be here. He questioned each member of the team as to whether they believed that their area could be done in time. The risk for failure on national TV was enormous, but the thought of doing something so important (and so impossible for IBM) was too much for Mike to resist. "If you all say you can do it, I believe you can...go for it" The rest is history.

The software was written in two days and over a 100 Wang employees from the Sydney office volunteered for those two days without sleep to make the 'Oz For Africa' telethon work. On his return he got us to put together footage of the Wang people working on the project plus footage of the African people who would benefit from Australia's donations. At an annual staff conference Mike tossed out all the Wang corporate motivational videos we had been sent from the US to use, and played the video that followed the employees around during Oz For Africa. "This is who we are" he said. There wasn't a dry eye in the place. How many CEO's could inspire this today?

(The author would like to express special thanks Steve Chambers and Brian Twomey, along with Ray Gibson, Sandy Tischmann and Peter Scott.)