For Phill Patton working in technology does not revolve around flashing red and green lights or flashy gadgets. By his own admission Patton is not a “gadget freak” – he prefers to focus on the business benefits that can be delivered through technology.
As manager of IBM New Zealand’s software group, Patton is responsible for leading a team of 29 people who look after the vendor’s ever-expanding portfolio of products, which include brands like Lotus, Rational, Tivoli and Websphere.
Patton took on the role in February 2007, after working for SAP in New Zealand and Canada for nine years.
Although Patton now concentrates on the business end of technology, he did, in his own words, start off with a “small propeller”. His first job in the industry was as operations manager for a company called Terminal Computing & Consulting in 1987.
The business was owned by William Cox, who would be a close business associate of Patton’s for the following 10 years, and it provided what today would be regarded as a software-as-a-service offering, says Patton.
“We had a timeshare bureau – we were selling time and managing the operation for customers. I had to keep the lights on and keep the machines going.”
From there Patton and Cox worked together in a number of companies, including Network Computing & Consulting, which was one of the first installing Novell LANs in New Zealand. “That is where I started to move off into sales management.”
Other ventures included running the first local agency for JCB credit cards, which are set up especially for Japanese tourists.
Cox and Patton eventually moved in different directions, with Patton joining SAP in 1998.
In search of bigger things, Patton then took a sales role with SAP in Vancouver in 2000. “I was looking for something different. I was looking to take a step into a bigger geography with bigger accounts and opportunities.”
Patton chose Canada as he found the people had a similar outlook and lifestyle to Kiwis. “I looked at a number of locations around North America, but Canadians are a lot like Kiwis – with the same sort of ideals and go-out-and-do-it attitude.”
Patton eventually became SAP’s regional director for Western Canada – managing 200 people in the company’s largest active territory stretching across four provinces.
He would travel across the territory once a week, occasionally visiting oil and mining operations in the Northern Territory and Arctic Circle.
Joining a large multinational like SAP after essentially working for himself for 10 years was a major culture change for Patton, but it was one he had little trouble adjusting to.
“For me it is about the people you work with – your colleagues, and also your customers. It is about building a relationship mutually based on trust. Your colleagues have to trust that you are doing the right thing by them, for them and with them; and customers have to do the same. You don’t always agree, but the world would be a very boring place if we all agreed all the time.”
Patton returned home in 2005 as he wanted his two sons, now aged 10 and eight, to have a New Zealand education.
Returning to New Zealand was a big career decision, though it was fortunate that SAP was looking for a sales director locally at the time. “SAP was very good in how they enabled me to move back and to carry on in a senior role.”
But when the opportunity arose to become software group manager at IBM in 2007, Patton decided that after nine years with SAP it was time for a change. “It allowed me to move into a different environment with a different set of products and it allowed me to refresh and start learning again.”
An ability for relationship building that sometimes gets lost in multinationals and which he learned running his own business, is some of the “flavour” Patton says he brought to SAP and now IBM.
And during his time at both software giants, Patton says he has avoided becoming wrapped up in big company politics and has managed to stay true to himself. “As an individual you know how you’re hardwired and what are the things that are important to you.”
Patton’s core values include loyalty, integrity and trust. “I’ve always held true to those. I have to be loyal to my employer, I have to be loyal to the people who are working for me and I have to be loyal to my customers. I have to be trustworthy and show integrity in everything I do – and that has to be transparent.”
Such transparency was employed in the recent process where the software group reviewed its distribution strategy, which has seen it appoint Ingram Micro as a second distributor of all IBM software, alongside Express Data, says Patton. “Hopefully business partners would talk about the level of transparency we had in that process.”
The review included a survey of business partners that revealed they felt IBM was sometimes hard to deal with, which Patton plans to address. “IBM is a big, global organisation and there are processes that go with that. Our job is to make those easier for partners to handle. Business partners are an extension of our sales force and we need to provide them with tools at the right time that add value to their business, not that become administration tools.”
But no radical changes are required, he says. “There are some things we have to go through around our processes. A lot of it is around communication and expectation setting. It comes down to ensuring there is trust between us and our business partners. If we get that right, I think partners will see IBM as a far easier organisation to deal with, simply because we will be predictable. Predictability is what business partners are looking for.”
IBM offers a great supportive team environment, says Patton. “I have a fantastic team of people. When you look at the broader IBM, they are all supportive – when you put your hand up for help sometimes you get buried in the stampede of people who have good ideas.”
Patton also has a great deal of respect for IBM New Zealand managing director Katrina Troughton as a leader. “She gives me the freedom to shape and build New Zealand software group, as does Tony Best, the software group’s ANZ director.”
In his spare time Patton keeps fit by going to the gym six days a week and coaching his 10-year-old son’s rugby team. “That takes a fair bit of time – herding 10-year-olds around the rugby field.”