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Comworth founder steps down as group managing director to retire

David Charlesworth is stepping down as Comworth Group managing director, 31 years after founding the business. He talks to Techday about the new company structure and the changes he's seen in 50 years in the industry.

Thirty-one years after laying the foundations for the Comworth Group of companies, founder and chief executive David Charlesworth is stepping down as the group managing director.

Charlesworth’s retirement has prompted a reorganisation in positions across each of the group’s three business entities, with dedicated leadership appointed for each business.

Mark Charlesworth has been appointed managing director of Comworth Group, while continuing his role as general manager of Comworth Technologies.

Robyn O’Reilly, previously general manager services, moves into the position of CEO for integrated contact centre, collaboration and telecommunications specialist, Agile, while Tony Jayne, who was previously CEO across cloud software developer Virsae and Agile, becomes dedicated CEO of Virsae.

David Charlesworth, who is the largest shareholder of the privately held company, will continue to be involved as chairman of the group.

He says while he’s pleased to be retiring, ‘it is quite challenging’.

Charlesworth says his 50-plus years in the industry have seen dramatic changes in the industry – and and within the Comworth business.

An engineer by training, Charlesworth worked New Zealand Post Office before heading overseas to work in ‘the new technology area in telecommunications’ for companies including TEC, which at the time was developing ‘a new generation of solid state telecommunications switches’.

He returned to New Zealand in the 1960s.

“Over 50 years in emerging technology, I've seen so many changes,” he says. “From the days of electro-mechanical types of technologies, to transistors, integrated circuits and on to the internet and other new technologies.

“The challenge, or vision, I always had was to be up with the latest, best technologies, to have people who understand it and have the capability to quickly become innovative in it and develop and apply it to the New Zealand situation.

“That has been my big driver.”

A changing business

Just as the industry has evolved, so too has Comworth, something Charlesworth says has been critical to the company's success – and 'fascinating' to be witness and be a part of.

Initially established on the back of OKI fax machines, the company now has the technology hardware distribution side, through Comworth Technologies, alongside Agile and Virsae.

“We've changed from a company importing boxes of hardware for sale to now predominantly producing software and applications for New Zealand and the global market,” Charlesworth says.

“While the technology industry has changed immeasurably since our first day of trading over three decades ago, some constants have remained,” says Charlesworth.

“Those are a focus on customers, dedication to innovation and the ability to flexibly respond to rapidly evolving markets.”

He says one of his greatest satisfactions has been the people working at Comworth.

“We have more than 20 people who have been with the company more than 20 years. Our people are the core of the business.”

With government apprenticeships no longer the norm, private companies such as Comworth have taken on the 'serious cost' of training up new staff. Many staff joined from high school or at a young age and were trained up within the business.

“Because the technology is always changing, their jobs have also changed. They have developed and grown with the technology.

“That's one of the great things about the industry. It's so dynamic, if you want to be successful you can't stand still. You have to grow and change.”

Comworth Group employees around 150 people, but Charlesworth says more than 750 people have been employed – and trained – by the business, over the years.

Comworth's relationship with technology companies such as OKI – a deal done on a handshake, with no written deal – and later the likes of Avaya and Fujitsu and more recently Panasonic, is also a highlight, Charlesworth says, along with the company's relationships with customers.

The mainly blue chip customer base includes Spark, AA, Fonterra and government departments like ACC. More recently with the Panasonic deal, Comworth has signed up customers such as Fulton Hogan.

“We work with many different major corporations.

“Our customers are significant companies, contributing to the productivity of New Zealand.”

Keeping it private

Charlesworth is a staunch believer in private companies. Having worked for large corporates in the 20 years before setting up Comworth, he was 'quite determined to have a private company run by New Zealanders'.

“We are a fiercely private company,” he says.

“We tend to fly under the radar. We don't have any big overseas shareholders and we encourage senior management to participate in the equity of the company.”

Charlesworth says in his role as chairman of the board his new challenge is to facilitate the new management structure's work in continuing to ensure Comworth remains a New Zealand company developing goods and services for the local and international markets.

“My challenge now is to facilitate that by having a strong board, including bringing in new people at a board level to guide, support and develop our senior management.”

Travel with wife Bronwen - 'the company mother' who supported Charlesworth and the company throughout its history – is also on the cards.

As he prepares to exit the day to day running of Comworth Group, Charlesworth says he has just one regret.

“That I am getting too old to so some of these things. There are still so many things to be done.

“But we have the younger generation coming through who have more skills that I had at the same stage.

“It's a pleasure to see the development and evolution of our people,” he adds.

“In taking retirement, I have every confidence in the proven skills of the executives who are stepping up to take the Comworth Group of businesses to new heights.”

David Charlesworth retires effective October 01.