The Cream at the Top

The Cream at the Top

Profile: Rod Walden.

Group Business Systems Manager, Pauls Group.

When life decided to spring some stress tests on Rod Walden, they came in the large, economy-size package. Walden found himself in rapid succession turning 40, reaching the 20-year mark in his career with dairy giant Pauls Group and grappling with a slippery SAP implementation.

"That's about as mid-life crisis as it gets," laughs Walden, now 45, who was moving along a different career path when he was dropped in the deep end of the SAP project. He entered it as Pauls chief accountant and emerged with the corporate CIO baton in his hand. The promotion might easily have morphed into a poisoned chalice. It came as Pauls was sailing towards that reef of jagged acronyms - ERP, BPR, Y2K, E-Biz and CRM - which have scuttled a fleet of careers in the last half dozen years. So far, Walden has safely steered Pauls through all the dangers, becoming progressively "more conservative and hype-averse" as each new trend falls astern.

"My philosophy now is not to touch version one of any new solution or software but wait six to 12 months to see what real gains or benefits fall out of it," he says. "It's easy to get rolled up in the hype when you first start off in the industry. The longer you're in it, the more you wait for things to settle a bit and adopt an attitude of ‘let's not get our fingers burnt in a major way'."

Walden's survival skills owe much to the down-to-earth management ethos of the company, which began life in 1923 as an ice-cream factory in Brisbane. Pauls' senior management has steered clear of fashionable but unprofitable detours into new economy thinking. Sticking to traditional business values, they've carved out a company which now commands an enviable 22 per cent of the national market for milk, yoghurt and other fresh dairy products. Pauls' 1500 staffers last year pumped 335 million litres of milk through eight plants in Queensland, Victoria and the Northern Territory. Another 80 million litres was added by northern NSW and Gold Coast companies in which Pauls Group has a 50 per cent holding.

Pauls short-circuited the industry-wide evolution of CIOs from IT-centric to business-centric by insisting from the start on a business orientation for the role. The brass plaque on Walden's desk reads group business systems manager, not CIO. Even in 1994, when Pauls launched its SAP project, the company "saw it as a business package not an IT package, and wanted it run by a business person not an IT person", Walden says.

That he didn't stagger out of the multi-year project as "a piece of singed ash" Walden puts down to Pauls' do-it-yourself management atmosphere. At the time, neither he nor the organisation had any experience with projects on the scale of the SAP implementation. But Pauls' managerial history of sturdy self-reliance caused it to bristle at suggestions it should hand the project's ownership to consultants. "I recall one gentleman from a large consulting organisation who had a huge argument with me in our car park," says Walden. "He said: ‘If you do it your way, you'll fail.' I said: ‘Thanks very much, see you later.'"Walden also tossed in the rubbish bin the old "waterfall" method of system design, in which a huge amount of analysis and specification went in one end, and out the other - eventually - lumbered a polished monolith. Pauls had been practising its IT prototyping and iterative design skills for at least five years prior to launching the SAP project and saw the new task in the same conceptual light.

"We put the SAP experts and the business people together, threw in a bit of fresh food occasionally and felt that in bite-sized blocks of four weeks, they should come out with a process we would be happy with," recalls Walden. "The first three months were very anxious but I remember the moment of realisation when we said: ‘That's what we want and that's what we are going to do.' The amount of consulting input after that point was non-existent.

"If you want a large consulting group to come in and run the project and you meet with them every Friday afternoon, I am not sure you get the right answer or the right price," says Walden. "It all comes down to ownership. If ownership stays with you, then costs are under control. I was the manager, 98 per cent of the people on the project were Pauls people and we implemented on time, on budget."

Somewhere along the way, Pauls fell permanently out of love with business process re-engineering. "One of the things we realised very quickly in the SAP exercise and which has been our motto ever since: wholesale BPR is no good. You've got to change far too much all at once. You've got to change systems, people, practices and processes. It is like starting a whole new business, and how many of those do you know that succeed on day one?"

Pauls' domestic roots have blossomed in recent years into global ambitions. Courtesy of a public take-over, the company about four years ago became a subsidiary of Italian dairy behemoth Parmalat Finanziaria (worldwide sales last year: about $US6.5 billion) and now exports to 24 countries.

The acquisition has not emasculated local managers such as himself, Walden says. Parmalat purchased Pauls as part of a global expansion strategy designed to deliver an instant presence in a region where it lacked one. The Italian conglomerate was not expected to make deep changes in the structure of an executive team boasting an impressive track record. And so it has proved, Walden says. "The acquisition was very much about buying Pauls because of the quality of its performance and of its local management . . there have been no wholesale changes."

In terms of the responsibilities within Pauls, for Walden the most significant change caused by Parmalat's take-over is that he has more peer interaction - even if it's halfway around the globe. "Now I have colleagues in Italy who I can talk to about issues," he says. That's a positive for Walden because Queensland's "branch-state" legacy translates into a scarcity of private sector CIOs in his immediate geographical area. CIOs are usually tied to head offices which for the larger companies are sited in southern capitals. Exceptions include Queensland Cement Ltd, financial group Suncorp-Metway and agri-business Queensland Cotton Corporation.

Like all CIOs, Walden ranks personal exchanges of news and views with fellow CIOs very high on his list of information sources. His relative isolation from the major capital cities limits his opportunity to network on a one-to-one basis with a wide variety of colleagues. It makes doubly precious the chances that do present themselves. "Vendor functions are valuable to me not necessarily because of the formal presentation but because of the opportunities to network with my peer group. It's a good group and our biggest problem is we don't get together often enough."

Walden sees few barriers between himself and a general management career at Pauls if he so desired. "My role is about facilitating systems that support business and enable it to grow. So my ability to move into a general management area is quite open."

His job, Walden says, is already taking him in new directions that lead away from IT backrooms. For example, business processes well-leveraged by technology can impress prospective new customers. "So in the early stages of picking up a new customer, I get involved in visiting their head office to discuss business processes. If they feel ours are good, that can be a large factor in them deciding whether to deal with us or not."

It is part and parcel of the expansionary trend in CIO roles that Walden sees occurring in the current era. Years ago, CIOs oversaw IT efforts that were focused primarily on financial areas. "Now it is very much working with marketing and sales negotiators and business strategists in terms of showing how such-and-such a business process supported by such-and-such a technology can add value to the business," he says.

Walden reckons these days he spends as much as 90 per cent of his time dealing with managers in other departments of the company. Some are very tech-savvy and others are very inexperienced but all require polished presentation skills from him as he puts forward ideas and explains benefits.

When he first took over his job, Walden admits ruefully, he thought: "If you see a good solution or piece of technology, everyone will just embrace it." Experience soon taught him the naivety of that belief. "In reality, you've got to get business and management buy-in, especially at the operational level. It is no good my telling them they'll get these benefits if they revamp this business process in this way. If their hearts aren't in it, well, then, it won't be realised."

So he's had to hone his ability to sell opportunities to business units and obtain their commitment. More and more he's finding pilot projects are an effective technique for winning corporate buy-in of new solutions. "We use it a lot more now than five years ago. We did it recently with an imaging workflow scenario. It worked well in a small section with a small business process and it went crazy in terms of acceptance because everybody could appreciate the technology after seeing it in real use and not in a cold demo.

"We are now seeing lots of pilots and I think the whole industry is going that way because people want to make sure the benefits are tangible before they commit to change."

Nevertheless, Walden concedes he's somewhat scaled back the vision he entertained in his early days of being a strong agent for organisational change in terms of revising and improving business processes. He hasn't been able to deliver as much as he or the organisation had hoped because of issues such as complexity and timing. The uneven progress of e-business is a case in point, Walden says. "While we may have the structures in place, many of our business partners are still working on theirs. That is just the reality of things."

Among the era's career-threatening occurrences, Y2K proved a non-event for Walden and the Pauls Group, following as it did hard on the SAP project's completion around 1998. "We had a fair degree of confidence going into Y2K because of the newness of our upgrade," Walden recalls. "We took it seriously and we used it as an opportunity to revisit our business continuity plans but it was not a huge panic exercise."

If he was disappointed Y2K didn't give him the chance to put Pauls' disaster recovery techniques to the test, several post-implementation SAP upgrades have helped right the balance. "We've learned more about disaster recovery from SAP upgrades than anything," he says.

"The one that comes to mind was when somebody accidentally hit a carriage return when a window popped up on the PC running the upgrade. It was not the response the software wanted. It wasn't even an operator error, just the wrong answer at the wrong time. So we went through four hours of struggling with the recovery and eventually I had to stand up and say: ‘Guys, we are not going to get this under control in the time frame that we've got.' And the upgrade was abandoned."

In terms of disaster recovery, the industry itself learned a lot from the dotcom debacle, Walden believes. It was a change point because it demonstrated in embarrassing and conclusive detail how technology for technology's sake was not necessarily going to generate revenues.

"Business said: ‘It might be wonderful, but what does it give us?' I think it put the profession's record of delivering benefits to industry under the spotlight and we've become a bit more cautious over the past few years in terms of real benefits as opposed to promises," Walden says.

Things I Have Learned

When I was learning to drive many years ago, I had an accident. I remember my father saying to me: "Sit down, take three deep breaths and think about how you can learn from this to move on." And when something goes wrong now, I do. I say to myself: "What can you learn from that? Now let's move on."

Conservatism means you analyse risk. Once you've analysed the risk, you put it in the back of your mind and move forward. If you are paranoid about risk, then you won't do the job.

The couple of times we have had to call in the disaster plan, the thing I have struggled with is making that decision as to whether it is or isn't time to declare a crisis. You keep thinking: "Another five minutes and we'll be right." Or that you'll just try one more thing. So it's a tough call, declaring a disaster.

I have a principle I try to extol to all my staff . . . [If your job is the right one for you] nine times out of 10 you should wake up in the morning and want to come to work. I still do. I get satisfaction out of being able to bring about improvements to the company.

If you are going to be a senior manager in today's business environment, there will be a reasonable amount of demand on your time. The thing with IT is it is 24x7. My mobile phone doesn't go far from me and it is always on. If the business has an issue at 2am and the support people can't deal with it, then I will certainly hear about it. That is par for the job and you manage it. I have three children in their early teens and I am comfortable with my mix of family and work time.

I would teach my kids two things. One is to think about the consequences of your actions on other people. The second is to do everything in moderation, not to excess.

I take time out occasionally to rethink my approach to things. I always find the first week of every annual leave is my opportunity to reflect on how the last six months have gone and what I need to improve. Then I relax. So from my family's point of view, the first week is wasted because I am still in wind-down mode.

I learned to rely on technologists but I also learned I had to draw a line in the sand and say: "No, I don't want to understand the nth degree, I just want the core concept."

My job revolves around people management and problem resolution. It's also about bringing about change, thinking outside the boundaries and cost management.

I don't get stressed out, no matter what crisis is happening. I think: "Let's not focus on what has happened, let's focus on fixing it."

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