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Bowl 'Em Over

Bowl 'Em Over

As a boy growing up in Wollongong, south of Sydney on the coast, Scott Petty had cricket players for heroes: Dennis Lillee, Rod Marsh and Ian Chappell. To the man, Petty's heroes remain largely unchanged and unchallenged. Now, in a roundabout way, he works for one of them: Ian Chappel is a director of networking and e-commerce services company Com Tech, where Petty was recently appointed CIO.

A regular player of cricket still, Petty believes that there is a huge amount which can be learned from sporting captains, especially from their skills within a team. Petty is keen now to develop the IT team within Com Tech; but he is quite clear that he will not only play on the team, he will captain it, coach, umpire the play, and be chief selector. It is probably the appropriate form of benign dictatorship which Com Tech needs as it moves into the applications services provider (ASP) space, where it will need to supply information services not only to internal, but to also to external, clients.

This financial year the company is on track for a turnover of around $350 million, and it continues to demand profitable growth, placing the onus for profitability very firmly with individual employees. Although Australia-based, Com Tech is 69 per cent owned by South African company Dimension Data. Underpinning the company's growth is a simple principle, which, according to managing director David Shein, is that "if you look after the staff, they look after the customers, and they grow the business".

Scott Petty is the embodiment of the concept. One of the company's first 30-odd employees, Petty, now 31, started with Com Tech in 1991 and has always focused on the customer. That focus has never changed. Only the customer is now Com Tech itself.

When Shein and Com Tech general manager William Masson sat down with Petty one evening after work, the last thing he expected was that they would ask him to retreat from the customer coalface. "David and William sat me down and said that to solve the problems it was going to be necessary to move me out of the business. They had looked at my role in the business and what I was doing was what they wanted internally," he explains.

What Petty was doing externally was acting as a business consultant to some of the largest names in the corporate Australian landscape. Most recently he was consulting to Lend Lease on a rework of the company's IT strategy. He had previously consulted on a massive project to St George Bank, having run the company's consulting business since its inception.

When asked to make the switch Petty admits that "I was a bit surprised at first, I'd always had a profit and consumer focus. That David and William wanted to pull people [like me] out of the business indicated how serious they were. It is a good opportunity. I've done many infrastructure projects and here was the opportunity to do applications as well."

It took Petty a day to make the decision to accept Shein and Masson's offer, and he's still comfortable with it. But he hasn't totally broken the links with what he refers to as "the business". "The business still feels I'm one of them. I do presentations for the business," he says, and maintains his relationship with clients to whom he has consulted, taking half a day a week out of his schedule to spend time on those continuing projects.

You may be able to take the boy out of the business, but you can't take the business out of the boy. For that Shein and Masson should be grateful since their new CIO has an opportunity to use that business-honed perspective to develop a well-defined information system that will allow the business to run smoothly. Petty claims that one ambition is to ensure that IT doesn't in any way hold back Com Tech's employees. "It is important to maintain an understanding of how the business works. IT can become divorced," he notes.

Petty is the first CIO the company has had, although it has had IT management in the past. But as Petty notes: "Plumbers always have got leaky taps. IT tended to have been driven haphazardly." However, he says that some of the workflow applications which have been developed based on Notes have proven valuable.

But there were leaky taps; notably the wide area network infrastructure was not well managed, nor was allocation of bandwidth. For a company supporting 1000 users - 400 of whom have desktop PCs, and 600 who have laptops which are linking into the company regularly - allocation of bandwidth is a significant issue. More so still when the ASP business starts to fly.

In addition, Petty identified that there needed to be more standardisation at the server level. This is again a particularly critical issue as Com Tech migrates to the ASP realm, where it will be required to support its clients' mission-critical operations using its networks and servers. Petty sees himself very much as an enabler of the business.

For the IT department his appointment as CIO is double-edged. One project team, for example, was quite clear in its belief that "we have captured one of the enemy and they have to work for us". But as Petty responds, his leverage with the business is much greater than the internal IT group could have hoped for. With him on side they will be able to secure the much needed business buy-in to ensure projects flow more smoothly, and win the business support they need.

The transition has not been without its bumps. Petty notes caustically that he had to deal with some members of the IT team who "for some reason thought respect was given not earned". He makes clear their mistake: under his stewardship IT at Com Tech will be very much a meritocracy.

There are currently 42 people in Com Tech's IT department, a figure Petty intends to grow swiftly to 50; but he warns that IT won't be a soft option. "I am more demanding on them [than previous IT management]. Their initial feeling was that I was the enemy," he confirms. Petty himself is leading from the front, setting himself major targets and ambitious deadlines.

One of the initial shocks that he faced was that the IT department had no key performance indicators. KPIs are among the most common acronyms within Com Tech, where performance is closely observed at the individual level. "In IT there were no KPIs at all, and it quite shocked me," Petty says. "Within three months I should have a structure which is well suited for the next three years," he says, explaining that he will implement a project-focused scheme to keep closer watch on personal performance.

"I am very project-driven, even down to individuals," Petty says. He comments that one of the things which his inherited IT staff seems to find difficult is how to prioritise tasks. By creating a project office within the group he has created a system which he hopes will help staff to prioritise, while providing him with a mechanism to measure their performance.

IT staff will have to earn respect, and be accountable under the Petty government. So far he has not lost any staff, learning from the initial reviews he held that many recognised the need for more structure and process, which Petty is now starting to deliver.

"The first process is to conduct a strategy review project - identify what has made Com Tech successful," he says. "Then we need to draw a demand map; and then develop that with products and technology that will automatically have the business buy-in, and implement those technologies in parallel not in serial."

To achieve this Petty has started out at a blistering pace, working seven days, up to 80 hours, a week. "It's not that different to when I ran the business unit," he says, adding that he expects to be able to pare that workload back to around 60 hours a week after the initial three-month burn-in phase. His wife also works for Com Tech, so at least understands what is taking up his time apart from her.

Although he did not initially see the CIO appointment as a promotion, he says that the number of times people have patted him on the back and congratulated him has made him rethink. And he is earning more as an insider than he did as an outsider, which seems to confirm the belief that he has taken a step up in the company.

"I was paid primarily on net profit [as a consultant]," Petty says, "and fairly handsomely." Although his remuneration model is still a work in progress [at the time of writing], and one which will be linked to the KPIs he is developing, Petty says he is already ahead of his earlier salary. He can't sit and wait for a formal remuneration model to be developed, though.

Petty believes it's hugely important to work quickly at the outset, maintaining the current management commitment to the changes he is rolling through the organisation. Such is the new-found cachet of the IT group that a couple more people from the business - including a young-gun consultant - have asked to make the leap from the business to the relative backstage that is IT. They are arriving at a time of great change within the organisation.

Besides having on its books a large SAP project, which will overhaul most of Com Tech's back-office systems, the IT group is facing a move to new premises in Sydney's Rocks area in April. A new data services operation is being constructed, which will be shared by internal IT operations and Com Tech's Enterprise Management Centre, which will drive the company's ASP ambitions.

"I think the ASP business will grow quickly," Petty says. For that, he says, the external bandwidth that the company can offer is solid, and it expects to have fixed shortly any outstanding internal bandwidth issues. This will allow Com Tech's internal users similar service to that being offered to clients.

As a provider of IT services, Petty is mindful that under the ASP model he will now have two sets of customers to serve: internal and external. But the challenge is essentially the same, he says. "You have to understand their requirements, and then provide them with seamless access into environments. I am acutely aware I will have more external than internal users," he says. "My main criterion is to make information technology more of a business driver. To present opportunities to the business. To get this [IT] organisation to be proactive rather than [reactive]."

Initially, however, much of his focus will have to be internal, if the company's SAP project is to fully succeed. The SAP project predates Petty's appointment, but is now his baby, although it is being project-managed by Com Tech's former IT manager.

The company had decided to overhaul its internal systems in early 1999, in order to get off the linear growth curve on which it seemed to be stuck, which demanded that employee numbers grow in lockstep with revenues. A long-term strategy that was going to be costly. With firm focus on profitability, the SAP project was intended to support an infrastructure where revenues could take off, while employee numbers could be closely managed.

The company is implementing an integrated financial, HR and project tracking system which is tipped to go live in July 2000, to coincide with the dawn of the goods and services tax (GST). Petty suspects that catering to the GST will provide more of a headache to business than Y2K did. (Asked to rank on a scale of one to 10 his "comfort level" about Y2K - with one as "paranoid" and 10 representing "relaxed" - Petty nominated a seven. The outstanding three points are external issues over which he has no control. Even so, he was working on December 31st.)GST, he thinks, is more of a smoking gun. Com Tech has an internal project team focused on the issue, and Petty still has to ensure that the Masterpack financial application used by Com Tech's Express Data division is updated ahead of July, as that division won't be cutting over to SAP, initially at least.

According to Petty, the technical side of the $3.5 million SAP project has gone well. "But the project has struggled to get the company buy-in." What was needed was someone who could view how the applications needed to be fine-tuned for the business. Petty's philosophy is that technology should never hold back employees, but rather empower them. But to be able to deliver on that ideal, the cooperation of the internal business users was essential.

Having one of "their own" on the inside seems to have helped. Petty admits that he has found his leverage with the business to be much greater that that which the IT group has secured in the past. How long that leverage lasts is unclear; the passing of time always makes insiders out of outsiders. Not that the long-term future holds much interest for Petty, with his self-confessed obsession with projects.

He admits that he doesn't have a formal career plan; having always landed roles that are both interesting and challenging, he hasn't felt the need. And in any case: "I personally think that if you set timeframes, you may miss opportunities."

For the time being at least though this outsider is on the inside, and he's ripping up great chunks of fence.

Sport was of primary importance to Scott Petty when he was growing up in Wollongong. He had no tertiary education ambitions, but just wanted to play and watch sport. Sent on a school camp in Year 11 to Wollongong University he came face-to-face with an Apple II, and discovered a lurking aptitude. A couple of years as a techie with Wollongong City Council and then Olivetti honed his skills. Then one day, egged on by a friend, he sent in a resume to David Shein, who was just getting ComTech off the ground.

Petty's first role at ComTech was to work in the presales group. He then spent two years in marketing, and was closely involved in the development of the now-famed, annual ComTech Forum. Petty went on to establish the company's consulting services group and focused on large infrastructure deployments. For example, he consulted to St George Bank on its 9000 workstation deployment, and has been most recently working with Lend Lease on a key IT strategy review, which is currently at the design phase. ComTech has only been selling consulting services for the last couple of years, but now has about 130 people in the division.

Petty describes his management style as pretty open. He doesn't have an office; indeed, he doesn't have a desk - falling in line with the company's preferred hot-desking model. "The only area where people may find me a tough manager is that I believe in sticking closely to milestones and deadlines," Petty says.

Sentiments to make a Waugh proud.

- B Head

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