Hall of Fame 2010 inductee - Steve Nola: the entrepreneur

His journey through the ICT arena has taken him from the telco trenches to a chosen brain-team behind Telstra’s network to become CEO of the largest systems integrator in Australia
Dimension Data's Steve Nola

Dimension Data's Steve Nola

He is a pioneer in the ICT industry – one of five tech-heads seconded to run optical fibre networks back in the mid-80s for a company called Telecom, better known today as Telstra.

And if that’s not impressive enough, our latest Hall of fame inductee, Steve Nola, has risen to the top of the corporate food chain by good old-fashioned hard work and a hearty dose of entrepreneurial flair.

Welcome to the tech-inspired, business savvy world of Mr. Nola, the CEO of Dimension Data and a 2010 Hall of Fame inductee.

With a love for technology running through his veins – he’s an electrical engineer by profession and would have ended up in academia had it paid well – Nola helped build the first optical fibre networks in Sydney and Melbourne, laying the foundation for part of today’s telecommunications network.

“We became these pioneers building this fibre optic network. We put networks in place and got departments to build the local area network, connecting them to this optical fibre network,” Nola said. “We built the largest network in the southern hemisphere – and really it was the foray for the things that Telstra did, or what Telecom did back in those days. It was incredible grounding in terms of the knowledge and it was at the forefront of what was happening with networks.”

After accomplishing great feats while in design and build mode, he got bored when the network was in operate mode and so he looked for other pursuits to feed his adventurous appetite.

He moved into ‘start-up mode’ for a networking distribution company dubbed ComTech Communications, a great training ground where he learned the business ropes from mentors, brothers Jon and David Shein.

“I think time and place is critical and more importantly the people who you meet who inspire you probably make the biggest change in your life, and I think they ultimately will dictate where you end up. So I was quite fortunate along the journey I’ve had incredible mentors and people who’ve inspired me.”

He hatched the Victorian part of the ComTech business, and thrived in helping the business become a dominant play in the distribution scene for networking products – in 1989 the company became the second distributor for Novell in Australia.

“The brand grew on the back of its ability to support the products we sold. We sold on technical knowledge that we knew more than anybody else in the marketplace.

Business grew to a point in 1996 where it was at its peak. We found the market had changed after being in business for almost 10 years.”

At that time, the team decided to hatch the system integration part of the business, and the company renamed the distribution business, Express Data. Meanwhile, South-African-based Dimension Data came to Australia at that time looking to invest. And after finding the perfect fit the full acquisition of ComTech by Dimension Data took place at the end of 2001.

“The journey for me is in terms of being a full SI is a highlight for me in terms of changing the business from being a product fulfilment and supplier to now being a services-based organisation. The bulk of our revenues come out of that services play today, and our ability to continue to be at the forefront of what we do in the market is really pleasing.”

And after being at the helm of the Dimension Data ship for 10 years, he is excited about the future: one that will include new Japanese-owned parent company NTT.

“What made Dimension Data attractive to NTT is the areas we are strong in they weren’t strong in, and where the bulk of their revenues today are very much Japanese revenues, and they have a desire to become a global company as well,” he said. “DiData really provided a vehicle for them to get incredible global footprint that is potentially a hot part of the ICT sector and the overlaps between the two companies are absolutely minimum, so it’s just a really natural fit for NTT to look at DiData.”

He sees incredible opportunity for Dimension Data to take advantage of NTT’s strengths in telco, ERP and mobile markets. “The assets around the datacentre business are assets that Dimension Data would love to get its hands on and promote to its own clients,” he said.

As the local boss, Nola said the continual move into the managed services and cloud-based offerings is going to be important for the business at the local level.

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Asked his big ambition moving forward, he said he wanted to leave a strong legacy.

“I want to make sure I create a sustainable business. With me here or not, I want to ensure the business is well positioned for continual success – not just for the next couple of years. The industry is full of very short-term objectives, but how do we actually create long-term success where the business in the next 25 years still has relevance and presence in the marketplace and is a dominant play in the areas it chooses to play in?”

Indeed, he’s an amicable leader, who prides himself on always being accessible to staff and credits some of the biggest ideas – company direction - to come from the non-management level.

“I’m pretty open. I have a very open and casual leadership style. I pride myself on the fact I’m approachable. From my perspective, hierarchy means nothing. So any person can come and talk to me at any time about any topic,” he said.

“You want absolute truth in your business. You can’t operate without it. And ideas you want to be able to nourish and nurture because the biggest mistake most businesses have is they feel that ideas all come from your managers. But ideas actually come from your staff. They are at the coalface each and every day, working with the technology, with the clients, and you want to make sure you create that environment where you can learn, listen and invest behind those ideas.”

Beyond the world of IT and top-level business planning, he’s a passionate woodworker, who loves to tinker in his workshop.

“Making furniture for friends - that’s my passion and hobby at the moment. That consumes my time away from IT, in terms of being more tactile, and more hands-on. Perhaps to the chagrin of my wife, it’s now been almost a decade of investing in equipment. Like anything, you move from hobbyist to more professional and you have to have bigger facilities and area to work in. It actually is an expensive hobby, so I’m in a fortunate position where I can enjoy that and explore that activity. And it’s quite interesting because there’s a whole group within Dimension Data that is also quite passionate about woodworking. It just breeds. So there are a few ‘woodies’ around the place: the closet woodworkers.”

He is also passionate about green IT. “To me, IT has a very critical role to play in terms of assisting businesses with the challenges they have around green. Green manifests itself in different ways: in cost savings, in governance issues, and in corporate social responsibility positioning,” he said.

“It is a very important thing that I think today needs to be explored much more by IT. And I think alternate power sources that are green are one thing, but how you make that sustainable, because there’s a lot of green washing that’s happening in the marketplace.”

And after being at the CEO helm for more than ten years, Nola said the secret to his success is being passionate about the industry.

“To get into this game you have to be self-motivated. I think it’s critical. I think you have to love the industry, and as a result of that, you have to understand the industry. You have to be immersed totally in this industry, and you also have to continually reset your expectations. You gotta love managing staff – because you’re going to be dealing with people and if that’s not your strong points then you’re going to be challenged.”

Looking back after spending more than 20 years in the industry, he is full of praise.

“I think now after spending 20 plus years in the industry, it is a great industry. It is one full of challenges. It is dynamic, it is one that is hard to be bored in. the things you do today are going to be very different tomorrow. And it’s an opportunity to make a fundamental difference, and I’m quite blessed to be part of it.”