Tony Butler, industry heavyweight and founder of what became Ingram Micro NZ, analyses the country’s distribution industry that he has helped to shape.
When did you first begin to work in IT and how did it come about?
When I left university in the mid ’70s I had no idea what I was going to do. My first job was as a salesperson for Penguin Books; absolute heaven for me, as I love books and reading. This job introduced me to the wonderful world of sales and marketing. Two years later I decided to use my science training and took a job as Sales Engineer for Fountain Corporation, selling electronic components. A promotion to Product Manager quickly followed and a year later we started selling Commodore home computers.
Tell us a bit about your career so far.
I bought a 25% share in a company that owned Bites and Bytes magazine and an advertising agency. I worked in the advertising part of the business, but I quickly realised that I greatly preferred the distribution industry. In 1987 I joined up with a friend of mine to start our own business importing computer components and building our own PCs. At the time a small Australian company called Tech Pacific (owned by First Pacific) was our supplier and they asked me to set up Tech Pacific in Auckland. So we sold them our small company, renamed it Tech Pacific NZ Ltd and it grew rapidly.
In 1990 I was asked by First Pacific to set up a video and computer game distributor, but after a year they asked me to return to Tech Pacific as Managing Director to boost its flagging performance. I restructured the business extensively, and we focused on gaining new agencies, retaining existing agencies and increasing customer satisfaction through continuous service improvement.
We broke even in the second quarter of 1992 and there was no looking back. During most of 1994 I also ran the largest photocopier and telephone distributor in Malaysia (Tele Dynamics), which had made very significant losses in the previous two years. Its major agency was Toshiba, which was then very dissatisfied with the company’s performance. My brief was to retain the agency, gain improved terms of supply to fund the business, return the company to profitability within two quarters, and to decide whether to retain the company within the group or to sell it. By 2002 Tech Pacific NZ had become the largest and most profitable computer products distributor in New Zealand, with sales exceeding $400 million, and the largest computer company in New Zealand by turnover.
In 2002 CVC and the management team of Tech Pacific (including me) purchased 75% of Tech Pacific (all countries in APAC) and we sold the business to Ingram Micro in September 2004.
As part of the sale of Tech Pacific I was contracted to complete two years as Managing Director in New Zealand and a further year as either Managing Director or as a non-executive director. I chose the latter and in 2007, my last year as a non-executive director and consultant, the New Zealand country sales exceeded $500 million and it once again won the Ingram Micro world profit cup.
During the two years of my non- compete agreement (with Ingram) I’ve worked on a number of company and charitable boards. I’m still involved with all of these, but am now back in the IT industry as a director of Exeed.
What is the most memorable moment of your ICT career so far?
Winning the Microsoft agency in 1991: I’d decided that the strategy for Tech Pacific had to be in broad-base multi-vendor distribution. Broad-base seems obvious now, but back in those days each distributor had only one agency in each product segment. Microsoft was the one to crack; if they went with multiple distributors, we believed many others would follow.
What projects are you working on at present that particularly excite you?
I’m focused on growing Exeed to the next stage of its development. Growth is always exciting and challenging.
I’m also a Director and Trustee of The Pacific Cooperation Foundation and I’m very excited by our new strategy to develop a Pacific brand.
What do you see the future of cloud computing being?
There’s nothing like a good recession to make business people look hard at ways of turning fixed costs into variable costs.
This will become a key driver of cloud computing for the next year and will speed up its growth. Mobility is another key cloud driver; to be truly mobile still means relatively low power in the device, thereby putting a premium on powerful remotely running applications.
Apart from the internet, what do you think is the most important or exciting piece of technology to be invented in the last 100 years and why?
The humble microprocessor doesn’t get the press it deserves. Without its invention none of the things we take for granted today would be occurring.
Apart from what your company produces, what is the most exciting technology out there today and why?
The science of man-made materials has suddenly leapt ahead. The sailing record has been pushed out to 900 nautical miles in a day by a trimaran that couldn’t have even been built only five years ago. The huge multi-hulls that are about to contest the America’s Cup represent incredible steps forward in material science.
How have your studies prepared you for a career in the ICT industry?
The most important thing I learnt in my studies was how to learn. The speed of this industry is such that continuous learning is vital to success.
Would you suggest that others follow your example?
Absolutely! I’m convinced that a solid grounding in a customer-facing role, such as sales, builds an appreciation of the most important thing in business: the customer.
I’m unreasonably proud of the achievements of the people who have worked for me over the years: Gary, Scott, Martyn and Des at Ingram, Richard at Synnex, Paul at ED, Wendy at Westcon, Rick at Dove , just to name a few that have become leaders in the IT distribution industry.
Who do you most admire in the technological world and why?
The one great product that I never distributed in New Zealand was Apple, but I still have to answer: “Steve Jobs”. His ability to combine creative flair with fantastic business acumen is unequalled. He effectively built Apple twice, once on Macs and again on iPhones.
If you could work in any other field apart from ICT, what would it be and why?
As an independent director of a number of companies, I’m lucky enough to work in a lot of different industries. My favourite is Blue Wing Honda, the New Zealand distributor of Honda motorbikes, outboards and power equipment. Now that’s a great range of toys to be looking after!
What do you like to do in your spare time?
For relaxation I read; I normally average more than five books a week. For excitement I race motorcars. My wife Jo and I just finished Targa New Zealand, and won the Classic Series Competition for the year and came second in Classics in the final six-day event. I fit in bicycle road riding and sailing as I can.
Do you find it difficult to maintain the work/life balance in the modern world (where technology has become quite intrusive)? How do you manage it?
In my role I mainly work on strategy, so I’m very much in control of my own timetable, apart from monthly board meetings. I’ve always said that you can tell how senior you are in a company by how long it would take them to miss you if you disappeared. If the answer is in seconds, you’re probably the receptionist. If you think you’re senior, and they’d miss you in a month, you’re working on the wrong things.
What is your favourite technology gadget at present and why?
That’s a hard one! Does the new Honda VFR1200 motorbike qualify? 120kw, shaft drive, twin clutch semi-automatic gearbox – lovely. Otherwise it’s my Cisco iPhone. Yes, Cisco does use the iPhone name. With this Cisco iPhone my Auckland DDI follows me all around the world with zero roaming costs.
And your favourite website?
www.bike-dreams.com My wife Jo and I are planning to do La Bella Italia in 2010: the length of Italy, 3000km, on one-person power bicycles instead of race cars.
What are you reading at present?
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf.