Mark Charlesworth could be regarded as a crown prince in one New Zealand’s technology royal families.
By his own admission, Charlesworth’s family has a “bit of a pedigree” in the telecommunications industry – his father, David, founded the Comworth Group, a quarter of a century ago in a garage in suburban Mairangi Bay on Auckland’s North Shore.
Now with his father poised to take a back seat role in the business, Mark Charlesworth looks set to be his successor.
However, while hinting at this possibility, he is coy to acknowledge whether he will take over from his father.
But as general manager of the firm’s distribution arm, Comworth Systems, Charlesworth is a likely heir to the throne. He not only knows the family business inside and out, he also has 15 years’ of international experience in the telecommunications industry.
Charlesworth has been involved with the family business from its inception when as a teenager he helped install some of the country’s first fax machines.
“My father started the business in the back of the garage in Mairangi Bay on the back of the first Oki facsimile machines coming to the market in the early ‘80s. We have a bit of a pedigree in the telecommunications industry.”
In addition to helping Oki become the market leader in the fax machine world, Comworth was also a pioneer in the mobile phone industry in the late 1980s as one of the first Telecom Approved Service Providers selling Oki phones. “In early days of mobiles, Telecom had eight of these TASPs.”
Charlesworth continued to work at the company during holidays while studying electrical engineering at Canterbury University, but his intention was not to join the family business.
Instead, he headed to the US where he worked at Oki’s mobile phone factory in Atlanta on a rotational graduate induction programme that saw him spend time in various departments including, the factory floor, marketing and planning. “That gave me a great introduction to telecommunications manufacturing. It was a great experience in terms of being immersed.”
After his stint in the US, Charlesworth worked in telecommunications in the UK for two years, before returning to New Zealand in the early 1990s joining Clear when it was investing significantly in the rapid expansion of its network.
“I was project manager in the rollout of the frame relay network. That was really exciting – being involved at a relatively young age in a massive capital expansion programme and green fields network build-outs. It was a great way to cut your teeth in the telco industry.”
From here Charlesworth moved to Nokia, where he held a variety of roles over a five-year period, eventually becoming responsible for Asia Pacific sales for the company’s infrastructure business.
During this time he kept an eye on the family business, which had grown substantially and was starting to look all the more appealing to Charlesworth. “It was a realisation that the more you progressed in a multinational, the more time you are going to spend in an aeroplane. Travelling two weeks every month started to take its toll, especially with a young family. And the only time I saw my father was in Singapore, Bangkok or Europe.”
It was during one of these offshore meetings that the two decided it was time for Charlesworth to join the business.
“We had a discussion – I think in Singapore – he was thinking about exit strategy and I was thinking about doing something else and the obvious solution appeared before us.”
As a result Charlesworth took on a business development role at Comworth Systems in 2003, after 15 years honing his skills in the outside world.
“It was interesting to come back into a business that was very different from when I was last involved in – with outside experiences and contacts, and different views.”
But moving into a smaller business, after working for a large multinational had its challenges, says Charlesworth. “There are a lot of things you need to relearn moving from a corporate to a smaller, privately-owned environment. Your decisions are a lot more vivid – if you don’t get it right the consequences are a lot more personal.”
As general manager of Comworth Systems, Charlesworth is responsible for the company’s distribution business, which predominantly focusses on Oki printers.
The vendor also took on the vendor’s IP PABX system earlier this year, but these are currently only offered to Orb Communications in a deal reached with Telecom.
However, Charlesworth’s involvement in the group is not limited to Comworth Systems. He is also on the senior management team for the larger Comworth Group, alongside Tony Jayne, general manager of subsidiary Agile, and chief financial controller Richard Westbrook.
“In effect I’m splitting my time between managing the Comworth Systems business and working on the group strategy and structure. Currently three of us are executive directors running the business from day-to-day, reporting to the board.”
And although Agile and Comworth Systems are run as separate businesses, both Charlesworth and Jayne are involved in setting the overall strategy for the group, which has an annual turnover of around $50 million with 140 staff.
“The group strategy is very much for us to look at developing and building the business through organic growth of the existing companies.”
The group is also considering acquisition to grow, says Charlesworth. “Our vision is to have a group of smaller companies with some management shareholding, so there is some skin in the game. We see a great opportunity for us to grow and expand the group.”
Charlesworth says the company has the infrastructure with shared facilities and resources to support either a start-up type business or to take over a business where the current owner is looking to exit.
“We see a real opportunity in terms of business owners that are reaching the age where they need to decide what their exit strategy is.”
And even though it can’t always compete with the packages offered by large multinationals, Comworth is able to attract people because of its North Shore location and because it is privately owned. “What works well for us is that people like to work in a private company that has a family feel. We are also seeing more and more people coming from overseas – people who are not so cornered about the package and who want a change from the multinational environment.”
Meanwhile, the group is now in the process of deciding the future of its management structure.
“We’re in a classic situation of moving the owner/founder fully into a chairman role and in effect we are transitioning that leadership and management structure.”
But whether or not Charlesworth will take over his father David’s role is still being decided. “It is still something we are working though at the moment.”
In his spare time Charlesworth enjoys sailing. “We do a lot of sailing – we have a boat, Oki Max, and often take customers and parents out sailing on Friday nights.”
Charlesworth also takes part in competitive sailing and spends plenty of time with his family and takes his two children, aged one and four, out on the water.
In addition he enjoys skiing and multi-sports, which “has been cut back with a young family.”
“I used to compete in the Coast to Coast, but have not done that for a few years now.”