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Changing Times - Paul Johnston Interview

01 Jun 12

A stint as a mobile DJ was Paul Johnston’s introduction to technology. The country manager for Simms International — due to be rebranded Exol (expressonline) this month — talks to Heather Wright about his career path, his management philosophy and change.

When Paul Johnston was appointed to set up Simms International in New Zealand in 2010, the plan was ‘to build the business for three to four years and see what happened’.

Eighteen months in, the distributor was acquired by Express Online. “Now we’re part of a multi-billion dollar business, so that’s been more change,” Johnston notes.

Change seems to be something Johnston is adept at.

A career spanning more than 30 years has seen him move from mobile DJ in Scotland to electronics engineer working on US nuclear submarines and with oil companies among others, then on to New Zealand and roles as an electronics engineer, in sales and in management.

“When you’re working as a mobile DJ, if things go wrong you either don’t work or you get it fixed, so I started fixing my own equipment — the decks, lighting controllers and so on,” Johnston says of his ‘more youthful years’. “Then I decided I should study electronics engineering. I never actually wanted to be an engineer, I wanted to sell, but I figured you needed to understand what you were selling.”

In 1988 he left Scotland for New Zealand. Ironically, the US nuclear submarines on which he worked in Scotland (“it was fascinating seeing the environment the technology we were working on was used in”) were one of the factors in leaving his homeland behind. “It was during the Thatcher years, and it was all very me, me, me. The social fabric was starting to get a bit unpleasant, but also, we saw the danger in close proximity [with the submarines nearby]. When you’ve got young children, it’s not ideal. It wasn’t the defining reason, but it was one of a number of things.”

His arrival in New Zealand wasn’t all smooth sailing, coming right after the stock market crash. “I didn’t know it at the time, but the company I was coming to work with was dying. Ten weeks after I arrived, they were gone.”

Datamatic picked up the agency for the product he had been working with in Scotland and so began a nine-year stint with the company. Electronic Resources followed, then came Renaissance, where he stayed more than a decade. “I met with Mal Thompson. They were in really big trouble at the time. I asked if the company was going to survive and when he said yes, I said I’d like to be part of it. The deal was done on a handshake.”

He says Thompson has been an inspiration. “He bet the farm many times on his business. I think that’s a fantastic thing to celebrate. There’s a very high level of ethical standards with him and he’s very focussed on what needs to be done in the business.

“Renaissance may be having a tough time, but if you look at what he’s built you have to have a big sense of admiration. I learned a huge amount from him, and he gave me the opportunity to grow.”

Growth opportunity

That opportunity to grow is something Johnston believes is a critical part of management. “When you hire someone to do a job, if you do it right you get the right person and then management should only be involved when asked or when something is drastically wrong.

“You have to let them do their job. Let them make mistakes and learn from the mistakes. Give them guidance, if needed, but have faith in people, let them get on with the job and, where possible, help them to grow.”

He says watching the growth of people from the organisations he’s been involved with over the years as they move into new roles or jobs, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of his career.

But while he believes growth should be encouraged, he’s wary about companies forcing it. “For those who want to advance and move into different areas you need to encourage it — but without it being mandatory or making people feel bad if they don’t want to.

“Sometimes you get the mistake where because for example, someone’s a great engineer and have been with the company for a while, they’re made a service manager. And you end up with a bad service manager — and lose a good engineer. And when you talk to them, they say, ‘but I was happy as an engineer’.

While he’s an avid reader — politics and ‘tech stuff’ top his list — management books aren’t usually on the reading list. “I’m not big on new fads, they can introduce a lot of change unnecessarily. Most really good business comes down to six to 12 key principles and a lot of common sense. “

However, he dubs Only the Paranoid Survive, by former Intel president, chief executive and chairman Andy Grove, ‘a brilliant book’. “I just started reading it again and it’s a great read second time around. Even after 20 years, it’s still very relevant to business today. It reminds us that staff very often know better than management. But management don’t talk to them...”

Music to live by

As someone upset by ‘this generation that does not go ‘wow’ enough’, Johnston says the iPhone is ‘still the best piece of technology that I’ve seen’. “I’m amazed at how much I do on it and where it will go.”

But beyong technology, Johnston opts for the wide open road, as a keen motorcyclist, currently looking to get back into off-roading. And the passion for music that first lead him to be a DJ remains even today. “I have a reasonable collection on my iTunes account,” he notes. When pushed he admits to some 28,000 tracks. “But if you take out duplicates it’s probably 24,000-25,000.

“My all time favourite is Queen. More recent stuff would be Adele and my favourite New Zealand band would be Midnight Youth.”

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