You could say northern region general manager Verdon Kelliher’s IT career started with a major network problem.
He had been working as a high country farmer in rural Canterbury in the early part of the 1980s, but joined the state Post and Telegraph Department (PNT) as an apprentice linesman in 1985, apparently because it was the only job going.
“We didn’t own the farm, so there was no chance of taking over the family business. I never really thought about IT. I wanted to be a builder, but I couldn’t get a job because we lived fairly remotely.”
Kelliher says the job was great - it involved wiring telephone poles in the era of wind-up telephones. But one day the line between Hamner Springs and Christchurch was hit by a fault.
“We found the cable was damaged and we put a new piece in. The boss did one joint and Hamner Springs still couldn’t talk to Christchurch. We had to go back and open these joints that we had done.”
Due to his colour blindness, Kelliher had joined the coloured wires around the wrong way.
Kelliher says it was lucky PNT never used to fire anyone, they just made them managers.
“I landed my first management job at 21 as a senior foreman. That’s how I got into management, so when I came up to Auckland I started picking up sales and management roles from there.”
The government department became Telecom during the privatisation process in 1987 and Kelliher stayed with the company until 1994, based in Christchurch.
After seven years at Telecom, Kelliher was headhunted by Krone Communications and relocated to Auckland as an account manager.
From there he moved to network integration company Cray Communications, renamed Logical Networks in 1995.
“I spent nine years with them and grew the business into the number-one data cabling company in New Zealand, which included wins at Ministry of Social Development and ASB.
Kelliher was general manager of Logical Networks when it was acquired by IBM in 2004.
He says working for IBM was a big change as Logical Networks was a boutique company.
“It was like comparing going from the farm to Christchurch for the first time. Joining a company with huge capability was great. It was a fantastic organisation to work for and Katrina Troughton was leading it at the time.”
In 2009 he met with former Optimation CEO Rhoda Holmes, who asked if he would like to join the company.
“Optimation had been around for 18 years but hadn’t grown to the size that it should be. It had really good people and good products, but it was all about challenge.
“IBM has such defined ways of doing things that they’ll always be successful, but there’s not a lot of time or opportunity for creative thought or to do things for yourself.”
Joining Optimation provided the opportunity to do things the way he wanted and build a business, says Kelliher.
“It was almost like going back to Logical where we used to be a play hard, work hard company and spend time together.”
He says the Holmes’ departure half way through last year had a “massive impact” on the company. Holmes has since formed a consulting firm, Raghnall.
“I really liked Rhoda because she was an inspirational leader. Change is always an opportunity and out of it came some opportunity for me [to become general manager north]. Working for [managing director] Martin Butler has been brilliant so I’ve been lucky to have some good people to work for over the years.”
The Optimation business has been restructured so Kelliher only looks after the Auckland region, something he doesn’t mind.
“It’s no secret that I’m terrified of flying and I hold people’s hands that I’ve never met before. I love being in Wellington, I just don’t like flying there.”
Kelliher says Optimation is picking up more project work in Auckland. “We’re returning to our roots doing application development and building clever technologies for customers.”
The cyclical trend of acquisition is one he has experienced in his career, and he believes it will be accompanied by the rise of emerging players.
“Every seven years you’re going to see a whole lot of companies coming together. It happened when IBM purchased Logical and Gen-i was in acquisition mode.
“That was seven years ago and in between a number of new players have started to emerge such as Axon, Maclean Computing and Datacraft. Datacraft is a really good example of these smaller companies moving up into the enterprise space and challenging the IBMs and HPs of this world.”
Kelliher predicts more acquisitions over the next couple of years as the market consolidates.
Seventy percent of his time is spent with customers, something Kelliher loves.
“I look after the Vodafone account and the rest of the time I’m out working with new clients or our partners Microsoft, Oracle or Cisco.”
“It’s a greatest job in the world where you get paid well to spend time with good people and help their businesses be more successful. I never imagined when I was riding a horse on a farm that it’s what I would end up doing.”
An interest in gadgets has also helped develop his passion for IT.
“I love being able to be connected anywhere, anytime, anyplace. The advent of technology from the perspective of being connected is just amazing.”
Despite living in Auckland for several years, he is still a Canterbury rugby supporter.
“It’s disappointing living in Auckland because I never get to see finals footy. They’re always getting knocked out and Canterbury wins everything.”
Kelliher takes customers to the rugby and out game fishing on his Striker boat.
“I was lucky enough to marry into the family [that runs the Striker game fishing boat] so I developed a love for fishing. The biggest fish I’ve caught is a kingfish, but I haven’t got a marlin on it yet.”