His early career plan does not bear much resemblance to the path he has taken since. “When I left school I thought I was going to be a secondary school teacher. That’s why I took the Bachelor of Arts. I enrolled in what in those days was called a post-primary teachers’ studentship.”
After just one year at university, Langford realised he probably had better long-term prospects in accounting. He switched courses and qualified as a chartered accountant, whereupon he quickly repaid his bond for the post-primary teacher’s allowance.
Langford also had a passion for rugby and played for the university in a social team called the Teddy Bears for around 10 years. “We didn’t actually do any training – you could say we had to look after our own fitness,” he recalls. “Our theme song was Teddy Bears’ Picnic, so you can imagine after the game some rollicking renditions of that song with new lyrics.”
After becoming treasurer of the university rugby football club, Langford became embroiled in student politics as treasurer of the Victoria University Students’ Association. Following his marriage, he decided he’d better start earning a wage. “I got a job working with a company that was an antecedent firm of Ernst & Young, as a chartered accountant in training.”
When he started work in the late 1960s, there were no computers around and Langford could foresee no link to what would in the bright, shiny future become information technology. Instead, he moved into big business via auditing and accounting in a path that took in Alex Harvey Industries (AHI) and Fletcher Building. He considers his first major role, however, to have been financial controller of the New Zealand Glass Works in Auckland’s Penrose. He was then made a manager of some of the company’s building and packaging subsidiaries, where he spent several years. “I was manager of AHI Laminex and New Zealand Fibreglass Company, and in the packaging area I was manager of the metal container division and plastic film, flexible packaging.”
The path to information technology began when Langford was asked to manage what was then the AHI datacentre, in which an IBM 360 system – one of the first mainframes – had just been installed. So Langford, like a few other industry veterans, can talk first-hand about the evolution from punch cards to tape and beyond. “At that stage, in the 1970s going into the early 1980s, the first ERP or MRP [material and requirements planning] systems were just coming in,” he remembers. This grounding in management and finance in packaging and building products gave him a sound foundation and an understanding of various technologies, which made for a smooth transition into the business applications for early computing.
A move to the dairy industry followed, when Langford became a senior manager in the New Zealand Dairy Group prior to the creation of Fonterra, looking after marketing and distribution for the Anchor brand. He remained in dairy for 12 years and witnessed the rationalisation that took the industry from around 33 companies when he started to three when he left.
He went to work for the government, spending three years with Trade New Zealand. His network of international contacts resulted in him becoming closely involved with the creation of Investment New Zealand, of which he became a director, when it was set up with the change of government in 1999 to attract foreign investment to New Zealand. “I met a lot of people in IT and spent a lot of time with New Zealand IT companies, trying to get them connected to international networks, and also working with some of the big, international IT companies and trying to get them to take more interest in New Zealand.”
Some fortuitous timing around New Zealand’s hosting of the Americas Cup and the PR campaign connected with the release of the Lord of the Rings films, gave Langford an opportunity to promote both New Zealand and its film industry internationally. “Through those associations I came into contact with Coralee Eagle and she asked me if I would join the company. I joined as a member of the board after Trevor Eagle passed away suddenly. After her son Craig left the business I became the chief executive, a role I’ve held for almost six years now.”
With such a varied career behind him, it’s hardly surprising Langford is a technology fan; although he stops short of describing himself as a gadget freak. “My strengths are in being able to identify what the technology can do for the business, rather than implementing it. I love my PC at home and my wife would tell you I spend far too much time on it. I’m quite conversant with Excel, PowerPoint, and I do my personal finances on it.” He’s excited about convergence and mobility and as a result has developed something of a BlackBerry addiction. “Mine’s red, so I call it a Raspberry. I turn it off after eight o’clock at night, to get some peace, but I do check it for messages before I go to bed.”
If given the chance to start his career again knowing what he knows now, Langford says he would probably still choose IT. Eagle Technology, he says, is still challenged by a shortage of skilled staff and he considers that to be one of the biggest limitations to growth across the IT industry. “It’s also interesting that the number of IT graduates coming out of university is at an all-time low – or certainly at the lowest since the dot-com bubble burst,” he says. “My experience is that the rewards in IT are substantially better than in a number of other industries and I’m not sure why young people would want to go off and do something else.”
Q + A
What is your favourite gadget?
Certainly the BlackBerry.
What is your favourite website?
The one I spend the most time on is the New Zealand Herald. It’s a great site for getting up to date with the news, whether it’s markets, technology or just news.
What is your favourite sport?
Swimming. I’ve taken part in the Eagle Technology-sponsored Rangitoto-St Heliers swim and I was quite a good swimmer when I was younger. I’ve carried that on and it keeps me reasonably fit.
What is your favourite cocktail?
I love a gin and tonic.
What has been the most important advance in technology?
When you look back at the advance from mainframes to what we’ve got now, it’s all to do with the advances in computer chips and the power of the technology.
What book is on your bedside table?
At the moment I’m reading The Lost City of the Incas. I walked the Inca Trail about four years ago, so I’m fascinated by all things to do with the Incas and Peru. The book’s the story of Hiram Bingham III, a Yale professor who set out to discover the lost city.
If you were not in technology, what would you be doing?
I’m not sure I know the answer to that; it’s hard to conceive. We’re all in technology, don’t you think?
Who is/was your mentor?
Jack Dangermond who owns ESRI, which Eagle represents in New Zealand. He started the business and it’s still privately owned, with about 2800 staff. He is an absolute inspiration in the way in which he provides a vision for the technology and for his staff.