James Huckerby's first anniversary as the CIO of Panthers has recently come and gone. On the other hand, Roger Cowan has chalked up 37 years as the club's general manager. Along the way he's developed a healthy scepticism for over-hyped IT solutions. A less than perfect match? Guess again. The relationship is not only working, but working well.
When Roger Cowan assumed the role of general manager at the Penrith Rugby League Club 37 years ago, Digital Equipment's first minicomputer was new to market. Today, Panthers - of which the rugby league club is a part - is Australia's largest licensed club, still with Cowan at the helm, while Digital Equipment is a fading memory.
Although Cowan took his time appointing a CIO for the group (36 years in fact) he is adamant that information systems, whether manual or computerised, have always had a high priority within the group. "Thirty-seven years ago I was the first person who wanted to know what each individual poker machine was doing," he says. In those days the only systems that could do it were manual, but Cowan was early to demonstrate a thirst for information, and it remains unquenched today.
"We were probably the first club to write our own software," Cowan says. "We tried to design a poker machine security system and spent a lot of money on it. It would let us know if anyone opened a machine without authority and help to identify legitimate jackpots." But there was a catch. "It gave us so much information we couldn't analyse it all," he says.
Over time the poker machine population and information systems sophistication grew, as did the Panthers club, in Penrith, nestled at the foot of the Blue Mountains to Sydney's west. Again there was a catch: the two were not growing in lockstep.
By 1988 Cowan says the group was heading for trouble because, although sales were up, the bottom line was not. He did not feel he had sufficient information to identify and then fix the problem. Again he looked for computer-based solutions. Even by the late 1980s, and more than 20 years after Cowan first joined the business, the sorts of information systems available to run an operation that was essentially membership-based, not-for-profit, with licensed premises and gaming, remained rarer than hen's teeth and were generally bespoke.
"We had three full-time programmers who wrote our own ledgers. At that time there was nothing for the clubs," he explains. Just getting a payroll system that could handle the rosters and awards systems for the group was a challenge. Cowan admits Panthers Entertainment Group (PEG) bought or developed three, only the last of which, called Clubline, actually worked. That system still runs today and will undergo a conversion to SQL this year.
What Cowan learned about information systems vendors from his first-hand experience of them in the early days left him a bit wary, a not altogether uncommon reaction even nowadays. "A lot of people claim to be able to do things that they just can't. And if you don't have the technical experience it's difficult to know that," he says. Today Cowan has more experience, and while he is more sceptical about IT vendor claims, he also acknowledges that the supply of information systems for vertical markets such as entertainment groups has improved dramatically.
And he finally has a CIO: James Huckerby, appointed in early 2002 (see "Putting Panthers in the Pink", CIO September 2002). Even so, it is Cowan still who translates what the IT vendors tell him into opportunities for the group, taking strategic advice from Huckerby along the way. "There's a lot of potential here for marketing," says Cowan. "When I sat through the first presentation of [Microsoft's] Great Plains I learned all about the e-commerce opportunities and the information that you can get from it. This is statistical analysis; it's not just about accounting. It will give us a much better feel for which groups are not using the club. There are some very upmarket systems used by casinos that locate where they are drawing people from. For example, it would be good for us to know how many we are drawing from Mount Druitt. We have a lot of competition there.
"In the past you would fire [marketing] shotguns and hope that you would hit them [members]. But now with the technology and the statistics we can be much more focused - right into the individual customer," Cowan says. It will no doubt also be particularly interesting to his son Max Cowan who runs marketing for the group. Understanding the member-Panthers relationship more fully is of major interest to Cowan and it's reflected in some of the early tasks he has set Huckerby, with a customer relationship management and loyalty rewards program high on the agenda.
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