A walk on the strategic side
Eventually he did do an ‘OE’ of sorts, but he didn’t leave New Zealand and it took place in the middle of his career, just after he left Wang (now Gen-i) as chief executive.
It was 1999 and Wilson had intended to take a sabbatical before taking on his next challenge. “The day I left, I put on a pack and I walked around the coast from Opotiki to Gisborne, which is around 400 kilometres. I walked every single step of it. I did it by myself it took me 15 days.”
Was it a form of catharsis? He smiles. “Who knows? Part of it was that I loved the outdoors and tramping. I always wanted to do a long walk. I read about Bill Bryson who had done a long walk on the Appalachians and I often wondered what it would be like,” he says, referring to the book A Walk in the Woods.
“I planned it so I had this transition that would completely take my mind off the next challenge and the next challenge came along quite quickly.”
He had originally planned to take a six-month break, but that idea was ditched when got a call from PC Direct, a local PC manufacturer which had just been bought by the Gateway Company in the United States. “They wanted an experienced CEO to run the company.”
As managing director of Gateway NZ, Wilson reported to the senior vice president in Hong Kong. His brief was to restructure the operation. After completing the planning and initial phase of the implementation, Wilson left.
Two stints as chief executive prepared him for his next role, as a business consultant for a number of high profile organisations including Fonterra, Dell Computers and Hewlett Packard. The next steps took him to senior executive positions at Microsoft and EDS.
Today, Wilson is chief information officer of the New Zealand Automobile Association. Wilson’s career path has been quite different from many of his peers — and it is testament to his views on managing career transitions.
For Wilson, flexibility and keeping an open mind are imperatives. “It is the willingness to move on, to move cities, the willingness to take on new challenges. You can do this within the same company. You don’t have to shift companies but you must show the leaders of your business that you are prepared to take on new challenges if and when they become available.”
When you are in ICT, he says, you learn a lot about the way businesses operate. “There are good examples of people who have used that and gone on to do quite well,” he says, citing Ralph Norris of Commmonwealth Bank and Rob Fyfe of Air New Zealand; both chief executives who were former CIOs.
“These are people that take on new challenges. They aren’t in love with technology. They are in love with what it can do for their business.”
In his own case Wilson says he started his career in “tiny places” but he managed to succeed because he was “willing to take a punt”.
“You have to be flexible and also a bit confident. People skills are everything. You have a look at most of the people that are leaders now in government and business. What they have are not technical skills but people skills — leading, creating a vision, creating something people want to follow, being absolutely dedicated to your people, wanting them all the time to be looking for opportunities to enable your own people to grow. I have had people working for me who have done really well. I am proud of them.”
Wilson has been on board for barely a year as the first chief information officer of the AA but he has been involved with the organisation as a member for 36 years and also as a consultant.
Seven years ago he helped set up a new vision for information processing at the AA. “One of the things we discovered during that process was the governance of large projects and the control of capex processes needed a bit of work.”
He says AA set up an IT board that he headed and that looked at all requests for capital for ICT projects. He chaired it for five years as the position only required him to meet with the AA executive for three hours once a month. “But it meant that I had a pretty good idea about what was going on, because almost everything in this organisation involves ICT.”
When he first arrived at AA, the organisation only had around 20 PCs and email was restricted to the top executives. “That was not very long ago. Now we’ve got a thousand PCs and ICT is pervasive.”
As he explains, ICT supports the strategic goals of AA to remain on top in four business areas: The domestic tourism market; car and house insurance; advocacy on behalf of motorists; and technical, which involves car vehicle testing.
For Wilson, one crucial thing for the CIO role is that it should report to the chief executive, which he does at AA. One advantage of having this reporting line is that you can do things really quickly, especially with a CEO who trusts you, he notes.
He has a compact team at AA because the organisation operates on an outsource model with six people on his team, together with John Grisham who is the systems development manager. “It does work for AA and I wouldn’t want to change that.”
AA outsources its back office and membership systems to SAS. The call system for road service is handled by Econz. Datacom takes charge of its web development. The network and procurement consulting is with Axon. For telecommunication, AA works with TelstraClear, Telecom New Zealand and Vodafone. “We do horses for courses on them,” he says. “We have used the most appropriate people for the most appropriate service.”
One area where they insource is around AA’s tourism business. AA recently bought GeoSmart, which has developers working on its tourism site and mapping. “It is only indirectly under my control.”
AA has recently shifted its office in Albany in Auckland’s North Shore. He says the office was converted fully to VoIP, and will gradually deploy the technology at other offices.
On the advocacy side, the AA is coordinating with overseas motoring associations and redeveloping the website to include online videos on defensive driving and the road rules.
The road to ICT
Wilson had originally set his sights on another career — having enrolled in a food technology degree course at Massey University in Palmerston North in the late 60s. At that time, Massey was only one of two universities, the other being Otago, offering a course in computer science.
Wilson says he had always been “really good” at mathematics and decided to shift to mathematics and computer science for his degree.
Wilson says that if he had his time all over again, he would have studied accounting formally. “No matter where you go in business, you need to understand numbers. So I would have probably done a business degree and then specialised in one area.”
Right after university, Massey University asked him to help in setting up its early administration systems. In 1975 Wilson shifted his young family when he joined the University of Waikato in Hamilton, having been appointed as assistant registrar data processing. The title dates him, he says, even though he was the youngest person to hold that post in New Zealand.
But in 1982, he decided to switch to the business world.
He was introduced to his next employer, Wang, when the company was chosen to provide administrative data processing equipment for the University of Waikato. He was involved in the creation of a Wang user group in New Zealand and organised its first national conference.
It was also at this time he began to reflect on his career so far. “At the age of about 34, I had developed about five student record systems. I sort of extrapolated that when I was 60 maybe I would have done about 25 [such systems]. I decided to try and do something else.”
His first assignment at Wang was to set up an office in Hamilton. After two years, he was asked to move to Wellington “where the deals were bigger”, referring to the government agencies and the manufacturing operations that were then based in the capital city.
Moving his family again, the then 35-year-old Wilson set up Wang’s ‘government branch’. “That was where I learned about managing people in a commercial environment.”
Wang provided ongoing management training for its key staff, inviting external experts to conduct the programme.
The sales people “who drove the company” likewise received sophisticated training and were taught the various techniques for selling to major accounts. “To cut a long story short, I did a number of jobs within Wang and ended up being the CEO.” This was a position he held from 1997 to 1999.
As a business consultant, Wilson worked with a number of major organisations, one of which was Kiwi Dairies.
He was also asked to undertake the early planning for the merger of the IT systems for the different companies that will comprise what was to become the country’s largest company, Fonterra. “My main job during that period was to stop those three individual companies heading off in different directions, which made me hugely popular — not,” he says. “All three were big companies, all had different technologies, and all thought theirs was the most appropriate for the merger.”
He was part of the planning group and says his job was completed when the company appointed Marcel van den Assum of NZ Milk Products as Fonterra CIO.
After that he was approached by Advantage Group (now Provenco) to head its software development company.
His next move was public sector manager for Microsoft. “That was really exciting. I was really interested in what Microsoft did, their products, and the way they managed their sales model. I have never worked for an organisation that could count almost every single company in New Zealand as a client and that was fun.”
Then Rick Ellis, now TVNZ chief executive, then the managing director of EDS, asked him to join the company. EDS had just won the outsourcing contract for Fonterra. As well as working together at Wang, he says Ellis knew that he had worked closely with many of the senior executives of Fonterra as a business consultant.
“If there is a constant theme to why I may or I may not have been successful, it is about relationships,” says Wilson. “It is almost an acknowledgement that as you get older, a lot of the skills you have get outdated but there is one thing that doesn’t stop growing if you work on it. And that is your network and your relationships.”
There are basic things, he says, in building and reinforcing those relationships. “You must spend as much time as you can with your clients. It doesn’t matter whether you are on the supply side of the computer industry or the consuming side, which I am now. You still have clients inside this business whom you need to spend time with. There is no way you can meet their needs if you don’t know them and understand what they are trying to achieve.”
“As long as you had a record in the small New Zealand community of being really interested in seeing New Zealand companies and organisations grow and survive, those relationships don’t disappear. Those relationships are critical to your success if you want to get to the top.”
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