From a six year stint as a choir boy to managing director of New Zealand’s second largest distributor, Justin Tye talks to Heather Wright about growing businesses, hiring well and music.
If Justin Tye wasn’t in technology, he would be a music producer. “That would be my dream job,” says Exeed’s managing director.
“I’m really into my music: hip hop, rap, all sorts. I love a good live gig and seek them out at every opportunity.”
He attributes his love of music to a six year stint, from the age of seven, as a choir boy at Christchurch Cathedral. Twice a day, six days a week, Tye trained with the choir.
“It was a huge commitment and it made for an interesting upbringing.” It was also a position which gave him the chance to sing with the Vienna Boys Choir.
His budding music career ended at Canterbury University, where he was a member of a Ska punk band, The Cardboard Cutouts, when his older brothers recommended he give up singing.
It may have been the end of his music career, but it was the start of a new career in technology. Tye initially started out as a commercial programmer for Lincoln University. “This will date me,” he quips. “It was in the days of punchcards!”
His time with Lincoln University included a stint as a tutor, teaching farmers how to use newly developed software to improve gross margins for cropping. Despite friends and colleagues heading overseas to lucrative posts in programming, “I realised programming was not the career for me,” he says.
Instead he headed to Otago University to complete a BCom and was hired by Hewlett-Packard on its graduate programme. “I never looked back,” he says, “and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.”
It was the start of a 15 year stint with the tech giant, working across fields including sales and marketing. He credits HP with providing him with many of the skills required to set up Exeed.
“They were very good at identifying and developing people and pouring money into helping extend the practical and theoretical training of people.”
Tye went through the company’s management training programme. “They invested a huge amount training me,” he says.
“It gave both Andrew [Bain, Exeed director and former HP colleague] and me a huge leg up. You had access to people from Harvard Business School and psychologists who put you through the wringer on how to deal with different issues.
“I’m forever grateful to HP.”
Then Renaissance announced it was dropping the Toshiba, Compaq, HP and Microsoft agencies. HP – which had just bought Compaq – required two distributors in the market. Tye and Bain saw an opening.
“Ten years later, here we are,” says Tye, smiling as he notes: “We just bought Renaissance.” It’s an irony not lost on Renaissance’s Mal Thompson, he adds.
Of the purchase, and the brief spat when Renaissance threatened legal action, he says: “We could have done without a few of the hiccups around the end. But it’s all tidied up now, to both parties’ satisfaction I might add.”
The Exeed experience has, he says, been a lot of fun, albeit with hard work and, at times, a lot of stress. Setting up HP’s channel aspects stood him in good stead and he says plenty of what he learned there translated to the new business.
“The difference was, we didn’t have the cushion of a large corporation to fall back on if needed, or the money.”
In its first year Exeed had revenue of $12 million. Year two saw $24 million and year three, $36 million. “By year three, everyone knew it wasn’t just an experiment. It was working and it was working for a reason.”
While others focused on volume, Tye says Exeed focused on adding value.
Ironically, the early success also led to early challenges as the company quickly learned how important it was to have sufficient funds to support the revenue growth.
While multinationals can access corporate funds, Exeed ‘has our own funds through a facility BNZ supplies’. “If you do not have the ability to fund growth, you don’t have a business,” Tye says simply.
Get it right, first time
Tye says Exeed has been lucky to attract ‘really, really good staff’ and has ‘incredibly low’ staff turnover. He says it’s important to find people who fit a company’s culture as well as having the best skills fit.
Managers have a role to play in helping staff settle into the company, too, he says. “You’ve got to make them feel welcome and give them an environment where they can do their best.”
He subscribes to the belief that if you hire right, set the right objectives consistently, and allow staff to achieve, everything takes care of itself.
Integrating 20 Renaissance staff with Exeed’s team of 40 has proved ‘challenging’. “It was always going to be interesting, bringing in a different culture, and the ongoing upheavals at Renaissance weren’t secret.
"People were pretty over it and I think it’s been a relief for them to be part of a team just focusing on distribution.”
Tye says it’s important to understand what staff members are seeking in their career.
“Some people may just be in it for the money, but more often than not they’re looking for growth in the job, more responsibility, new areas to move into.
“We have a formal process where we go over objectives, what they want to be doing, whether that’s consistent with where the business is heading, and on some occasions we’re written a completely new plan for people because of that.”
The father of three – aged 14, 12 and five – takes time out with running, skiing and family time, but admits finding a good work life balance can be hard at times.
He actively encourages staff to get involved with sports and social activities, of which the company has ‘a good balance’, he says. Ten staff, including Tye, will be taking part in this year’s Auckland Marathon.
“We try to make [the office] a fun place to work. It can be a pressure cooker at times.” An in-office bar ensures Friday afternoons can be ‘good fun’.