Allstate’s Bro McFerran: Prepared to take anything on. Part 1 of 2.

Gary: Bro, tell us a bit about your previous history before Allstate. You and I met many years ago, I think, in ICL? I know you didn’t stay there very long and you went on to run a small IT company for a number of years. So what’s the contrast between what you did there, managing that, and now managing the Allstate operation?

Bro: It’s funny, I’ve been through all sorts of evolutions…I’ve been a teacher, a civil servant, done clerical work, moved into sales. That was the big breakthrough for me and at that time I was selling for Rank Xerox – that really was a metamorphosis for me. They did great sales training, you got visiting a lot of different businesses and you were able to pick up business experience along the way. You got rid of all your self-doubt and started to build up confidence. So that was a great training ground. I did that for about seven years and worked here and down south – Dublin, Cork, Belfast.

Great training, but then, my father’s words were ringing in my ears – “get into the computer business son!” So I decided to try and get into computer sales. I applied for jobs with ICL and Memory Computers and ICS – they were the big hitters at that stage. ICL was setting up the small business, System Ten range, and I fast realized that the only way you could sell these things was if you had really good applications to run on them. So I wasn’t their best salesman! In fact it took me all of 9 months to sell my first System Ten – it was a £60,000 sale, which I suppose in those days was pretty good! But that was for a machine with a 40K processor and a 2.5Mb removable and 2.5Mb fixed disk system. That was the total of my success at ICL!

I was then approached by my erstwhile Xerox colleagues who had secured the franchise for Wang in Northern Ireland. Wang was an up-and-coming word-processing and minicomputer company. They had a very exciting range of products and I got involved and eventually one of my ex-colleagues and I set up Logicom.

And Logicom went for about 20 years. We grew it to about 60 people and we were doing sales, servicing, software development, training…and it was very successful. But Wang’s star rose and subsequently fell – with the advent of the IBM PC, word processing took on an entirely new image and, whilst we still had a very good installed base, it was obvious that we were plateau-ing and in danger of becoming extinct. At stage we took the decision to sell off various elements of the company and we sold part of the company to a Nasdaq company called IMR. They bought that as the nucleus of a software development division in Northern Ireland which they asked me to head up.

We delivered about 120 jobs and then they suggested to me that I came and worked for them in the US as Vice-President of Global Sales and Marketing. Which sounds very grand, but effectively we were selling mostly Y2K solutions into the big corporates in the US. And IMR had a big development potential in India as well as Northern Ireland. So I spent about 18 months doing that.

Gary: So how did you find doing that sales job in the US?

Bro: It was a lot different. It was a seven-day-a-week, 14-hour-a-day job, and you had to do everything , from sales situations to presentations to market analysis. Which was tough and you did a lot of travelling. We grew sales substantially while I was involved, but I found it increasingly difficult to punch in the  hours and I wasn’t enjoying it. So whenever Allstate announced they were going to set up in Northern Ireland, I thought that was an ideal opportunity for me to get back and involved in probably what I know best. So I threw my hat in the ring and was very glad they offered me the job. And that was in January 1999.

So I got embroiled in this, enjoyed the company, enjoyed what we were trying to do – and to this day I’m still enjoying it very much. Because, if you can’t enjoy what you’re doing – and at IMR I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing and, no matter how much I was earning, it didn’t compensate me for the fact that I wasn’t getting the same job satisfaction out of it that I do with this job. I love this job – job satisfaction would be number one for me…money’s secondary.

Gary: How would you compare the job you are doing now with managing Logicom. Are the same skills required?

Bro: Yes, very much so – the scale is different. But you’re managing people, managing people’s expectations, trying to get the most out of people, trying to broker deals. It’s not any different from when there were ten of us in Logicom and when there’s 1,000 or 2,000 in Allstate – you still have to manage people, get the best out of them, broker the deals; you have to create an environment where innovation can flourish. And you also have to make sure that it’s fun for everybody. So, y’know, I don’t want people coming into this organization with clenched fists on a Monday morning, thinking “this is an awful job I have to do”; we try & make it a nice place to work and we’ve got lots of examples of people who’ve left here for more money and allegedly for more opportunities, but they’ve come back because they like the organization.

And you want to work with people who want to work with you…and it’s not that everybody thinks I’m a fabulous boss to work for… this company is everybody that works for it, it’s all the interactions of everybody in the business. And I think we’ve created something of a template for potential inward investors. You only have to look at the number of awards we’ve won over the years for things like work-life balance, corporate social responsibility, training and development of staff, best place to work…they’re all important components, they’re all as important as the outputs we have for some of the fabulous projects we’ve delivered.

We do some very mission-critical projects for Allstate, very complex projects, and do a fabulous job…and the biggest kick for me is that they are now looking upon us as being leaders in creating things and it’s no longer a subservient relationship. We’ve been going through an exercise recently where we’re trying to grow the effectiveness, the value of the work that we do…we don’t have any vested interest in continuing to grow purely the numbers in this company. I’d far rather leave this company knowing that we’ve increased the value of the work that we do, rather than simply that we’ve increased the headcount.

Gary: So how would you characterize your own personal leadership style?

Bro: I think it’s  quiet. One of the best definitions I read recently of a leader was, a leader is someone who gets people into the situation where they accomplish things by themselves and they don’t even understand that a leader’s been involved. That’s the characteristic of the sort of leadership style we have here. Everybody’s got initiative – that’s why we hired them – and we expect them to make decisions, we expect them to be innovative, to automate processes, eliminate waste.

And if we get an opportunity to highlight and laud people’s success, we very much do that. Recognition forms a very large part of what we do here. Every 3, 4 weeks people come to my office and I personally recognize them for things they’ve done, or good comments we’ve got from our client base in the US. That’s important  – people understanding they are appreciated, that they’re making a difference and it’s not just a case of coming in, getting the job done and leaving at night.

So, I don’t impose a rigorous leadership style on the business, other than you’re expected to get the work done. Obviously you have to create the vision for the company,. You have to keep everybody enthused about that, believing that vision can be a reality…. and you continually have to keep emphasizing that vision, making sure everybody’s bought into it.

In the early days, I did create the vision that we could have a very large company here and be doing a lot of diverse projects. That’s come to pass. The vision now is to sure all our systems have high levels of availability and quality. And at the same time, seeing if we can bring higher quality jobs to the table. And we’ve been looking at a number of models here, where we can become centres of excellence for particular technologies here that are going to add a lot of value back into the business in the US.

Increasingly we’re getting involved in the R&D stage of projects now, which is a vindication of everything we’ve done so far. They’re coming to us at the beginning of projects now and asking for advice, rather than half way through and saying, “can you help us out?” That’s great.

As well as that, we’ve diversified the business substantially. We started off in a software maintenance, support role, then we got into the whole software lifecycle, and we’ve done that very well.  But now, in addition to some helpdesk and call-centre activities, we’re providing accounting expertise back to the parent company, actuarial expertise, doing analytical work, providing telecoms specialism. Now it’s great that we can do that from Belfast, from Strabane, those are all good signs.

And if we look across the whole Allstate enterprise, there are very few elements that we are not touching in some way. In some cases, we own the whole piece; in other cases we make a big contribution. So, with our 2,000 people here, against the whole IT organization in Allstate of around 5,000, we’re a substantial proportion of that.

Gary: Does being part of a US company have positive effects on you, on the company here?

Bro: We took the template of a US organization and we shaped it into a Northern Ireland based, US organization. We’ve taken the best of what was created there and we’ve used it to good effect. But we haven’t been afraid to change things that need changing. We’ve been substantially left to our own devices; we’ve taken a blueprint and made it our own flavour. We went through a big education exercise early on to help people understand they weren’t working for an IT company, but rather an insurance company. So we’ve started thinking about the end-customer – the people buying insurance – so that we can think about how to develop systems better and improve our existing systems.

And the US folks also see that we have a big role to play in certain technologies, e.g. mobile, where we in Europe would be perceived to be ahead of the curve. So we’ve got involved in a lot of mobile R&D projects; we’ve delivered some of the first mobile apps for Allstate. So that is something where Allstate sees us a having a key strategic advantage.

But there is a North American culture which runs throughout the organization here. That is, yes, it’s an easy company to work for, but at the same time, we set fairly exacting standards. But we’ve a beating heart at the same time.

Gary: Is what you’ve done here the thing you’re most proud of, looking back on your career?

Bro: It’s very hard to point your finger on a single thing. I remember always harbouring a notion, going back into the ‘70s, that Northern Ireland was a place that was ripe for the development of the right sort of IT projects, particularly inward investment IT projects. I suppose, being part of the 1st major inward investment here after the Good Friday Agreement, which has turned out to be an outstanding success – and it’s not me who did that – it’s everybody who has worked for this organization – and being part of that band-wagon – does give me a warm glow. It’s something I can look back on with satisfaction.

But that’s not a personal achievement, that’s a collective achievement. I could look back on my career and ask, what is the most formative thing that happened along the way? – there have been so many things, a collection of serendipitous events that put me here. And there’s nobody that would be more surprised than my mother and father, if they were here now and saw the position I was in.

I remember looking for a bit a career advice from my father and he said, “It’s like this son – you pass your Junior, you’ll be a bookie’s clerk; you fail your Junior, you’ll be a bookie!” And to a certain extent, I’ve made it being a bookie, I’ve done the bookie’s clerk bit and I’m now the bookie. Or whatever the analogy would be in the IT business, whether you’ve been the computer salesman and now you’re running the shop, so to speak! But it’s been great, and as long as I keep enjoying it, I’m going to keep doing it. Whenever the fizz goes out of it, I’ll hang up the boots!

Gary: What are you best at?

Bro: Maybe, being a bit of a fixer. In some ways that’s what you need in a business like this. You have to see everything as a
challenge and everything as possible. That there is no obstacle that stands in the way of you accomplishing what you need to do. That is, being capable of doing every job in the place and being capable of engaging with anybody you have to, to make sure things get done. So, I suppose, being able to do all of the above is what I’m best at. And not being afraid to do it. I wouldn’t say I’m a great leader, apart from the fact that I’m prepared to take anything on.

A guy I used to work with, used to talk about the inevitability of gradualness! This is what has basically characterized my whole career – a very gradual process, but with a certain inevitability. And that’s just that you have to believe that no matter how big the obstacle is you can fix it somehow.

In PART II, Bro will be talking about the IT skills situation in Northern Ireland and the education system.

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About Gary Burnett

Fabrio's Gary Burnett has many years experience in the ICT industry, working in Ireland, the UK, Europe, India and the US. He helps technology companies change and grow.
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One Response to Allstate’s Bro McFerran: Prepared to take anything on. Part 1 of 2.

  1. Pingback: From Ship Building to 3D printing: Belfast’s Future Classrooms 2013 | HALOGENIC

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