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Building on success; Greg Davidson's Datacom challenge

When Greg Davidson took the reins as chief executive officer for IT services company Datacom last July, its success might have made his job look easy.

The company’s financial performance in the two years to March 2006 and to March 2007 were highlighted by increases in the group’s revenue (17 and nine percent respectively), net profit after tax (28 percent and 11 percent) and staff numbers (10 percent and 11 percent).

The locally-owned services firm has grown rapidly during Davidson’s almost 11 years there – staff numbers are up to 2800 and business is increasing in Australia and Southeast Asia.

Yet Davidson knew it would have been more difficult if he’d signed on to lead an organisation in disarray.

“I did put up a board at the end of my first 90 days [as CEO] with a quote that it’s harder to turn around a successful company than an unsuccessful company. I’m not implying we need a turnaround, but keeping the continued ambition, the fires alight within a place that considers itself successful and has succeeded for a long period requires quite a different approach.”

The new role was made easier due to his 10 years at the company, initially setting up its internet development arm and then taking charge of software development in Auckland and Wellington.

“Given we’re a fairly unique company, a number of the principles we hold really dear in how we operate aren’t the same as [that of] everybody else. I think it would’ve been much more challenging if I’d stepped in from outside.

“I understand a lot about what we do successfully and what we need to improve on. I’ve been able to retain the important things while still challenging us to keep moving forward.”

The transition to chief executive meant Davidson needed greater understanding of each of the company’s seven divisions outside software development, including IT outsourcing and field servicing to business process outsourcing and helpdesk.

“In a place as large as we’ve become that’s very diverse; that’s a more complex and subtle challenge. It relies on maintaining clear accountability despite our size.

“We’ve got scale and presence, but we’re structured to emphasise the ability for smaller teams to work very locally with customers to get that responsiveness.”

Davidson admits Datacom has been happy to fly under the radar in the past rather than be vocal about its achievements, but now wants to raise its profile among customers to some extent.

“We’ve occupied a very understated position in the market for a business our size. I think we could be a little bit more visible.

“I’ve consciously tried to get out among customers, more to take on first-hand what they thought we did well. It’s the same thing with staff.”

Davidson says he doesn’t want to go to the opposite extreme of trumpeting every win, but adds “we should occasionally explain what we can do and what we have done”.

Although he didn’t set out to become Datacom’s CEO, Davidson felt he could have an influence on its direction when he began there in 1997.

He has been in the IT industry his entire working life, joining multimedia company Megabyte Graphics out of university in 1990. Founded in print and design, the company later became Terabyte Interactive and has moved through the adoption of Apple Macs, interactive CD-ROM development, the instigation of Virtual Spectator software for America’s Cup yachting and latterly web development.

However, Davidson says he realised systems would drive the future of the web, rather than the creative layers on top of the technology, so he wanted to join a systems company like Datacom.

“Datacom was New Zealand-owned and when I met the people who led it, I felt that I could become a part of it and have an influence on where it was going. Compared to any organisation that reported offshore, it still had size and scale and opportunity within.”

Basketball provides the perfect balance to Davidson’s busy working life, a sport he plays and coaches and which two of his three children also play.

One of he and wife Bronwen’s three children plays in a regional under-15 team, and Davidson played in a national divisional final last year (the competition one tier below the National Basketball League).

As he looks to Datacom’s future, Davidson says he needs to balance its current high standards with innovation to ensure the company remains relevant in future.

“As a professional services firm, we’re defined by the outward, far-reaching work we do and the worst of what we do.

“As we strike new ground and take on more complex projects, those pieces of work define us. The worst of what we do could leave us with a bad reputation unless we make sure it’s to a certain standard. If we focus on lifting the game at the bottom and striving for new ground at the top we’ll remain successful.”

Q + A

What is your favourite sport?

Definitely basketball. I coach a regional age group team (under 15 girls) and am preparing to play in a divisional regional tournament.

What is your favourite website?

The web has become a tool I go to for a purpose rather than recreation. It’s difficult to understate the influence Google and Wikipedia have had on the way we look for information.

What is your favourite cocktail?

I don’t drink them

What has been the most important technological advance in IT?

The network. Computers, like people, were meant to talk to each other.

If you could have coffee with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?

It would have to be my wife Bronwen, although hers would be a hot chocolate. Between two busy jobs, three growing kids and constant evening and weekend activity, we don’t get the opportunity enough. Somehow coffee with Michael Jordan wouldn’t be the right way to meet him!

Who is or was your mentor?

I try to learn from as many people as I can. My parents taught me problem solving, thinking and communication (they were both teachers). My wife taught me the importance of putting other people first.

The late Frank Stephenson (former Datacom chairman and my boss of 10 years) taught me a large amount of what I know about running a professional IT firm.

Ollie Dudfield (Basketball New Zealand’s head of player and coach development) taught me more about professional development and influencing a community (on a non-existent budget) than anything I’ve seen in the commercial world.

If you weren’t in IT what would you be doing?

It’s all I’ve ever done, but anything else I did would have to involve creating something

What book are you currently reading?

I have a sad pile of partially read books scattered around my office at work and at home because I’ve learned what I want from them. The book I’ve been giving to staff and senior management this year is True Professionalism by David H Maister, one of the best I have read on working in a professional services firm.