Swapping the ocean for IT

Swapping the ocean for IT

Certus Solutions director Greg Woolley had no plans to go into IT. In fact, he looked at joining the medical profession and was a navy engineer for nine years before entering the tech sector.

But he says the skills he developed in the military were transferable, with many of his colleagues from the navy making the leap into the IT industry.

“When I was at school I wanted to be a doctor, but I decided all that study was too much work.”

So Woolley joined the navy in 1988, becoming an electrical and weapons engineer, studying an engineering degree in Auckland and spending a year in the UK, followed by a couple of years at sea with the HMNZ Wellington.

Back on dry land in Wellington in defence headquarters, he ran capital procurement projects. “I specialised in HF [high frequency] radio replacement for the N class frigates and a weapon system. That was a cool project, because I managed to spend $56 million of taxpayers’ money in 18 months!”

He says one of the misconceptions about the military is it’s all about command and control.

“It’s not at all, except when it needs to be. In a project-based environment you’re just doing what you need to do, you’re not just following orders. [In the Navy] you get a lot of responsibility at a very young age. When I was 24 I had 35 people reporting to me. That was within a structure, so it’s hard to go too far wrong before someone corrects you.”

He also enjoyed the extensive travel. “I managed to get to about 30 countries in 10 years and made a lot of good friends.” He says a lot of navy engineers have also ended up in IT. “The skills were transferable to IT, in that it was complex systems driven by software.”

But after nine years Woolley became frustrated with the lack of advancement.

“Promotion was based on how long you had been there and you just had to wait your turn. I couldn’t cope with that concept.”

Looking for new challenges, he decided project management was his most transferable skill and Woolley’s first IT foray was at Eagle Technology in Wellington in 1997.

“I ran a project for Housing New Zealand to roll out Citrix Winframe, a leading edge technology in those days. We rolled out Citrix across 650 users from Kaitaia to Invercargill. I believe that was the first major deployment of Citrix in New Zealand.”

His stint at Eagle was short-lived, as another opportunity came up in late 1997, as a senior programme manager at Wang. He stayed with Wang until 1999.

“I was responsible for the national and international directory replacement project for Telecom. Every time you ring 018 that’s the software we put in — that was a two-year project.”

During that time Woolley became semi-fluent in German due to project meetings in Munich, but says he is quite rusty these days.

“I also decided learning Chinese Mandarin in 1995 was a good idea, but I only did it for about six months. I wish I’d kept up with it.”

Woolley is currently learning Spanish, as he went on holiday to Cuba last year.

There, he was fascinated by the petrol stations on the auto pesta — the motorway that runs down the middle of the country. “You go in and it’s like a mix between a gas station and a liquor store as there are bottles of rum everywhere. A bottle of Havana Club is NZ$3 there, so it’s a very cheap place to drink alcohol.”

After Wang, Woolley decided the time was right to start his own business. “I didn’t really want to work for other people the rest of my life, so I had a go to do it myself. Me and another guy called Hamish Miles started out in a garage selling project management services. That was Certus Solutions ‘mark one’ in May 1999.”

Woolley says it was a good time to start an IT company. “Everyone was in project mode prior to the year 2000, so there was demand for our expertise.”

After 18 months the company diversified, acquiring Lotus Notes specialist Pritech, which provided a connection to IBM. A Wellington office came as part of the Pritech acquisition. “That’s been steady, but I think there is more potential in Wellington than we’re currently exploiting,” he says.

In 2001, Certus acquired the assets of CyberElves — a company Woolley describes as a “spectacular dot com failure”. The company had a business model of outsourcing business development from the US to New Zealand.

Further diversification has helped Certus, Woolley says. “We kept all the IBM stuff in Certus and moved [offerings] Plumtree, Microsoft, Equinox into the CyberElves business unit.”

This left Certus doing the IBM software business, which has been its specialisation for the past seven years. According to Woolley, the company is the largest reseller of IBM software in terms of revenue. “There are other partners who are bigger than us in terms of size, like Gen-i, who sell IBM software.”

Certus Solutions was awarded IBM’s top reseller prize in 2007, and it was highly commended at the IBM Reseller News Business Partner Awards the same year. “I’d like to think we’re important to IBM and equally IBM is very important to us,” says Woolley.

The appointment of new managing director Jennifer Moxon will be a good thing for IBM, believes Woolley. “I’ve never met Jennifer, so I’m looking forward to meeting her and understanding what she’s trying to do with the business. I like the fact that she has a sales background, because at the end of the day it’s about selling stuff.”

Woolley says the company’s strategy as an organisation is to expand its IBM business. “Adding MRO and Maximo really gave us a whole business unit that we didn’t have before. We’ve been getting 30 percent growth every year, but we’re very focused and still hiring staff. We’ll make our revenue targets for this year too. The skill set we have isn’t widely available in the market. We’re busier now than we were at this time last year.”

Woolley’s goal is for Certus to be a $35 million company by the end of 2011.

“The current market is full of opportunity. People who are half serious about IBM technology are going back to things they are serious about which is good for us.”

He is also not ruling out branching into Australia.

“It’s always an option if the right opportunity came along. IBM is very supportive of us being in Australia and there are Maximo customers that we’re looking after in the asset management space.”

Q + A

What’s your favourite gadget?

Probably my BlackBerry, because I spend a lot of time travelling.

The ability to clear email and stay in touch using 12 portions of five minutes a day, is an hour at the end of the day I don’t have to spend doing email or following things up.

What’s your favourite website?

Facebook. I’ve got friends scattered all around the world, so it’s a good way of keeping in touch.

What’s your favourite tipple?

Whiskey. A glass of whiskey and a Cuban cigar is never a bad way to finish the day.

Do you have a favourite sport?

Sailing — because my family is very much a marine family. My dad was a boat builder/designer and my brother is a sailmaker who has been involved in the past two America’s Cups. Most of my holidays revolve around the water in one way or the other.

What has been the most important advance in technology?

Probably the reduction in cost and the density of transistors. Transistors used to be huge and now you can’t see them. That leads the ability to have them in a highly dispersed manner and in multiple devices at a very low price with lots of horsepower.

What books are on your bedside table?

I’ve just finished reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. He’s an Australian who was convicted for armed robbery when he was a heroin addict. He escaped from high security prison in Melbourne and ended up working in the Bombay slums as a doctor, and also worked for the Bombay mafia. Sometimes you wonder if it’s too far fetched, but it is a really good book. The other books I tend to buy are cook books because I like cooking.

If you were not in technology, what would you be doing?

Something revolving around the marine world. One of the reasons I joined the navy was that aspect. When this is all done and dusted I might look at designing boats.

Who is/was your mentor?

When I was in the navy there was a guy called John Meldrum who was the head engineer. He’s a very intelligent guy and let me get on with stuff, but also guided me in different directions.

In the early days of the IBM relationship Nick Lambert used to sit me down in his office in Wellington and counsel me on where I was going wrong.

More recently its been one of my fellow directors Bryan Allen, formerly of iHealth. He has headed a number of technology companies he has grown and sold off over the years. I have bright ideas and he sifts out the ones that are worth pursuing.

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