In the past 17 years of his career, Gen-i general manager Chris Quin has learned that being the biggest integrator does not necessarily mean being the best.
When he arrived at Telecom Wellington in 1991 as a finance manager, the company knew none of the network competition that exists today.
Now, customer choice means Gen-i must earn its clients, which means Quin aims to nurture a team of first-class leaders among his staff to keep Gen-i at the top of clients’ lists.
“The challenge is you’ve got to make sure you never get lazy and don’t assume being big is of benefit to your customers.
“New Zealand has some good quality smaller providers and the branches of the globals here, but in the middle we’re big enough to meet many clients’ needs and employ the resources people want, but are still a New Zealand and trans-Tasman business. I want us to be a strong trans-Tasman organisation that is respected and preferred by our customers.”
Quin says Gen-i is more about its people than about the technology it deals in, adding that people will work where there is effective leadership.
“I believe people will work where they’re rewarded and challenged. I’ve got 100 people who manage teams of a dozen or more and 12 report to me. My responsibility is making sure we create great leaders in this business, because our brand is about the people customers work with. It’s not like a Coke or an Apple, where it’s about their product.”
Quin joined Telecom after training in accountancy and law at Wellington’s Victoria University in the mid 1980s, with subsequent stints at chemical company ICI (now Orica) and Mitel Networks. His first role was at an ICI paint factory in Lower Hutt as a divisional accountant.
The site employed several hundred people and while he enjoyed seeing how the business worked, he wanted to get into the tech industry.
“I enjoyed seeing how a manufacturing industry worked, but I was pretty excited by technology. You could see some of the cool stuff that was starting to happen with technology, even the difference it was making within ICI.”
This led to a new role at the local branch of Canadian-based Mitel Networks, which had considerably fewer staff (less than 100), but a turnover of more than $30 million annually.
When Mitel’s local office closed, the distribution moved to Telecom and Quin went with it.
He says he has held about a dozen roles since he joined, but they can be grouped into four phases – finance, sales management, service delivery, then Gen-i.
The move from finance into sales management was a result of working more closely with salespeople on business proposals for clients, and was made possible by the shift to a larger firm.
Quin says sales management meant he could “have a hand in making the numbers rather than just reporting them”.
Shifting to service management taught Quin a lesson he has adhered to throughout his career – understand the work your colleagues do and know what clients need.
“I spent a lot of time in customer queues, listening to customers. In all these roles I’ve tried to understand people’s jobs, because what worries me is the filtering of management information.
“I would never profess to be able to do the jobs of all the people who work for me, but I’d like to know what they do and what the challenges are and especially what is happening for clients.”
In the late 1990s he was part of several projects aimed at better serving the growing small and medium enterprise market here, but it wasn’t until the following decade that he faced two of his biggest challenges.
The first was Esolutions, the e-commerce infrastructure venture launched by EDS, Microsoft and Telecom in 2000, which Quin describes as “an interesting experiment in New Zealand’s dot com history”.
He says valuable lessons were learned, even though the initiative didn’t succeed.
“Everyone would say ‘not the right model and not the right time’. We said it wasn’t the right model, but that ICT was something our clients want.
“We knew we had to get into the ICT game or we wouldn’t become as important to our customers as we needed to be. Clients now have choices and the only business we can be in is one that’s preferred by our clients.”
Telecom Advanced Solutions was formed on the closure of Esolutions, with Quin at the helm throughout the acquisition of Gen-i and Computerland in 2004.
“It was a really exciting time building almost a start-up business within Telecom, where you’ve got the best big brother in terms of support and funding but the freedom to really build what our clients wanted. That’s been a privilege in the past five years.”
Quin says the management team wanted to build a totally new business, different to each of the three organisations it was bringing together.
“My marketing moment was changing the red I to a blue I,” he jokes. “We chose one of Telecom’s three colours and we liked blue, the team decided to go with it.
“But it was quite powerful in communicating it was not the same as it used to be for anyone – whether you were from Gen-i, Computerland or Telecom.”
The merger of the three organisations has resulted in a 1500-plus employee organisation today. Quin says he spends a third of his time among staff around the country, another third among clients and the other third answering emails. He takes overall responsibility for Gen-i’s relationship with HP and is heavily involved with a set of core ties with other partners.
While it’s a daunting weekly schedule he puts priority on family time during weekends, which often revolves around the go-kart racing his children are involved in .
His pre-teenage son and daughter are each involved, following in their father’s footsteps as Quin used to race classic cars.
“We love that, because it’s a great family thing.”
Q + A
What is your favourite website?
It has to be www.gen-i.co.nz – of course!
What is your favourite sport?
It’s pretty much motor racing, in any form.
What is your favourite cocktail recipe?
Tried a Falling Water with 42 Below Vodka on Air New Zealand… lovely.
If you could have a cup of coffee with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
William Shatner, but it would have to be whisky on the office deck.
What is your favourite gadget?
My new Telecom WorldMode Blackberry 8830 – it’s addictive!
What book are you currently reading/ have recently read?
A book called Execution about best practise at getting things done and To Finish First, all about McLaren, Amon and the other Kiwis who were trailblazers in New Zealand motorsport.
If you weren’t in IT, what would you be doing?
Any industry where you can drive change and where people’s leadership makes a difference.
What has been the most important technological advance in IT?
Mobility – not just the devices, more the convergence of mobile and fixed technologies and the raft of innovative applications that are transforming the way people work and play.
Who is/was your mentor?
I am fortunate to have a few people in the industry who spend some time catching up and challenging my thinking. Also my aunt, Mary Quin, who had a big career in the US and was kidnapped by Al Qaeda.