Computershare’s Stuart Irving landed in the role of CEO after nearly two decades flying around the world.
Irving has held a variety of technology positions at the Melbourne-based stock transfer company over the last 18 years, including global CIO from 2008 to 2014. When he took the seat of Computershare CEO in July 2014, Irving – whose career began in business – had come full circle.
Irving says he had no idea what he wanted to do after completing six years of secondary school in Edinburgh. In 1989, after interviewing at a number of financial institutions, he took a business role at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) head office in the registrars department.
He soon became attracted to the technology side of the organisation. “My first job was cutting up with a ruler these 132-column wide computer printouts and distributing them throughout the various sections of that department,” Irving tells CIO.
“I felt like I spent six months sitting in a safe filing these things called transfer journals, which showed all the debits and credits of people buying shares at the time on the registers. That was because the online history was removed to tape after 30 days. So, if you wanted to go and look up something quickly, you’d go to paper copies.
“I remember spending a lot of time in that safe thinking there has to be a smarter way of doing this.” As desktop PCs came into the business, Irving became involved in automating processes using technology. Eventually, he was asked to join a test team responding to a major market change in the UK to get rid of stock certificates.
“I remember knocking on the doors of the technology department thinking well, if I’m going to test this thing, I might as well be sitting next to the people that build it to help understand it,” he says. “Soon after, I ended up joining that technology division.”
From that point onward, Irving worked in IT. In 1997, RBS asked Irving to inspect the systems at Australian company, Computershare, and see how much work it would take to translate them for the UK market.
What ended up happening, however, was that Computershare acquired the Royal Bank of Scotland’s registrar department and expanded into the UK. Irving resigned from RBS for a senior technology role on Computershare’s UK market rollout, where he managed the migration of RBS clients to Computershare systems.
The late 1990s was a period of significant international expansion for Computershare. In the three years after the deal with RBS, Computershare acquired businesses in Ireland, South Africa, Hong Kong, the US and Canada. Irving travelled around the world managing the integrations.
“Basically, we had to repeat what we did for the UK, but in all these other jurisdictions,” he says. “I ended up being the first person on the ground in a number of these areas.”
Irving says he learnt about local needs and reported them back to the Computershare headquarters in Melbourne. He also built technology teams in the local businesses.
In 2005, Irving moved to the US as regional CIO of Computershare’s Boston office following the acquisition of EquiServe. Just three years later, longtime head of IT for Computershare, Penny Maclagan, retired and Irving was promoted to global CIO. He moved to Australia and became the company’s first global executive to use the c-level title.
In 2011, he returned to the US to manage integration of the BNY Mellon shareowner services business. He also took on management of Computershare’s governance services division. Irving kept the global CIO title until July 2014, when he received his highest promotion yet: Chief executive officer.
“It was never something I consciously thought about,” says Irving about taking the top job. “I had spent so long helping the company grow with a number of other individuals.”
Despite this, the new role seemed like a good fit given his experience on the operations side of the business.
“Sometimes, I felt I was never the ‘textbook’ CIO anyway, because I really straddled this chief operations officer/CIO role,” Irving comments.
Technically, the job of CIO had been a technology role. “But at the same time, because Computershare really has IT in its DNA, the IT function was a big part of decision-making on acquisitions,” he says.
Irving, who has been CEO for less than a year, says the transition has been smooth. “I’ve been part of the company for such a long time, I’m really familiar with all parts of our operation,” he says.
The role does of course carry greater responsibilities. “You go from being responsible for 1000 employees in your IT division to being responsible for all the employees – some 15,000. I definitely feel that responsibility keenly,” he says.
A big change has been having more direct accountability to shareholders, and spending a large amount of time communicating with investors and analysts. As a result, Irving says one of the most significant new skills he had to learn was dealing with the board of directors – but this was something he prepared for.
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Having known the promotion to CEO was coming for some time, Irving asked for training more than a year before his appointment. The chairman of the board answered the request by inviting Irving to sit in all future board meetings as a guest until the promotion was official.
“For 18 months before I became CEO, I was able to sit and understand the dynamics of the board and what goes in for the preparation and how important that prep is, and all the very different facets of a board,” he says. “Not only was I asked to sit in, I was asked to be an important contributor during that period of time. “It took away the mystery.”
There have been a number of benefits coming into the role of CEO with an IT background, especially at a company like Computershare, which has long valued technology as an enabler, says Irving.
“Having that IT background is very, very good because you’ve already worked with all lines of the business. It’s not like you’re coming in new and spending hours and hours trying to understand things and making ill-informed decisions about context and history,” he claims.
Irving’s background as a CIO has also influenced his focus as CEO. “I do have a different perspective. I will give priorities to certain projects. I will take up more of a technologist’s view that you need to have rapid pilots and know that not everything’s going to work and that’s going to be OK,” he says.
In addition, Irving has benefitted from the worldly experience gained travelling among Computershare offices globally.
“Australia’s a long way from everywhere, and it can be very, very easy to sit in the head office … and be ignorant of what is happening in these countries,” he says.
Knowing what to want from it
After Irving became CEO, Mark McDougal – then global CTO and managing director of global development – took on the role of global CIO.
“Because I recruited him in the first place and have been working with him for a number of years, we have a very good relationship,” says Irving. “I leave him to run the IT group. He has a very experienced management team and they should run the IT group as they see fit and I try not to interfere.”
Irving adds jokingly: “Mark gets far more rigor around approvals than he would like”.
The promotion to CEO has returned Irving and his family to Melbourne, though he still spends about six months of the year travelling for business.
“In terms of my family, for the foreseeable future our base will be in Australia and we’re very much looking forward to exploring this vast country,” he says.
Stuart Irving’s 5 tips on rising from CIO to CEO
1. Work for a company that sees the true value of IT. “If you’re part of that IT organisation and helping that company be successful in whatever strategy and business line they’re running, then you’re always going to have a fairly important seat at the table.”
2. Own your IT background. “Having knowledge of our systems and processes is really good in dealing with customers … and for identifying opportunities.”
3. Form partnerships outside of IT. “You always have to remember as CIO that your job is to make the business group successful. There’s a big distinction between running a really good IT organisation that can tick all these boxes and running a good IT organisation that can make the business successful.”
4. Take every opportunity to learn about the wider business. “They’re the ones bringing in the revenue. Understanding systems and security is really important, but there are so many different facets to business and gaining proven experience across these is really important.”
5. Get a seat in the business executive group and become an influencer. “In all companies, there are the top five, 10 or 20 business managers from around the globe that will ultimately get together and discuss certain strategies and approaches. That’s where you’ve got to start.”