Ken: CMI came into existence in its current form in October 2009, following the merger of two IT companies, SLA networks and Ethos Information Solutions. Stephen Gillespie and I, who had worked together for many years in a previous incarnation of CMI, which latterly became Aurora and then Sx3, and most recently Northgate, decided we’d like to create an organization that had the same culture & ethos of the original CMI, which was one of excellent customer service, partner relationships with our customers and, indeed, with our staff, and to have an environment where people could work hard and play hard, and feel part of an overall team. And we’d both seen that ethos had got lost somewhat in bigger organisations and we felt that we wanted to recreate something more akin to the earlier days where work was a lot more enjoyable and fun.
So we raided our piggy banks, got some investment, acquired the two businesses, merged them together and that gave us a base from which to operate. The company is a provider of infrastructure solutions to the Northern Irish marketplace and to date our markets have been primarily the private and voluntary sector, although we’re now starting to make some inroads into some parts of the public sector. Our solutions vary from very traditional IT infrastructure through to the current flavours of virtualization, and, we’re just now launching our take on the Cloud, which is a big subject currently. We believe that the Cloud has a lot of advantages but it’s not yet fully developed to a point where every organization can necessarily avail of without considerable issues.
So we believe that on-premise – the traditional environment – is going to be around for many years yet. But we do believe that the Cloud will start to have a role for certain functions and the outcome of that over the next numbers of years is that we’ll see an environment of what is termed hybrid IT – linking together on-premise and Cloud offerings, be it private or public Cloud. So that’s very much what we’re seeing now and we see that transition coming about as a result of the technological advances in IT but also because of the economic pressures, where organizations have reduced levels of capital expenditure available to them, because of the credit crunch and the impacts of that.
We currently have around 200 customers here in NI. We have 23 staff and our customers range from relatively small organizations with sub-10 users to customers that have over 200. Through the investment we made in a service management system called Kaseya, which is a market-leading product for managed services providers – we have the ability to reach way beyond the geographic boundaries of NI, so we’re able to support sites the length and breadth of Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland, and indeed, across continental Europe. We can support customers that are based in NI, but have remote workers or workers in different geographical regions.
Gary: Presumably going outside NI is where the future is for CMI?
Ken: We believe there are still good opportunities within Northern Ireland. The area in which we operate along with our particular blend of skills, services and products is such that we can increase our market share. It’s true that this market isn’t really growing so that market share will come because of competing against our competitors. But of course, we are looking beyond Northern Ireland – through an investment we’re hoping to secure from Invest NI, we can develop a hybrid Cloud offering that will be suitable for communities of interest such as housing associations, charities and so on, and we’re already hooking up with a partner, Montal, in GB, to look at how to roll that hybrid Cloud solution out to their customers. We have an interest in the south of Ireland as well – it’s on our doorstep and there are lots of economic and logistical reasons why it makes sense to look down there. The reality is that it’s going to be better served by finding good people to partner with, rather than trying to establish a position in our own right.
So our way to market, whether locally or externally, is primarily through partnership and alliances, rather than simply doing things in our own right, because that can be highly capital intensive.
Gary: What are the key things you bring to a relationship with a partner?
Ken: What we have in terms of the systems we have developed and customised is the ability for us to manage customers’ IT very proactively, monitor it and deal with issues as they arise. This has tended to be the domain of the large organizations, using very expensive solutions. But we took the decision when we made this investment that we needed to use state of the art systems and we needed to make a long term commitment to the technology of the future, so we believe that technology gives us a significant advantage over other comparable organisations with similar overheads to ours. That needs to be complemented by a service ethos that is very much about working with the customer in a long term relationship. Now, most organizations will claim that that’s what they do and many do it – so in some ways we’re not unique in that respect – but I think it’s that combination of service culture, a happy workforce and the investment in systems that we’ve made that means we have satisfied customers. And that’s what this business is all about. Because the best way to generate business is through referrals – and if you’ve happy customers, they will do that for you.
Gary: You mentioned about hybrid Cloud solutions – firstly, are you finding that your customers are talking to you about the Cloud, or do you initiate that conversation? What level of interest do you see in the marketplace?
Ken: Cloud as a term has been bandied about for quite a while. Ever since we made the investment in 2009, it’s been on the radar. And increasingly it’s becoming a much hyped subject. And the reality is, it’s like years ago, when people talked about e-this and e-that, and if you go right the way back it’s really bureau IT. However, it is gaining ground because there are a lot of major organizations that are putting a lot of marketing dollars into it – Microsoft, Google, Amazon, HP and so on. So there is a momentum there which is being driven and which needs to be embraced.
I think it’s not so much being driven by technology per se and the marketing dollars behind it, it’s more about the whole issue of capital expenditure. Organisations are increasingly reluctant to invest large amounts of capital in IT. But if they believe that they can pay on the basis of pay-as-you-go, even if it works out more expensive in the long run, that is very attractive. However, we have found that many organizations have considered it, but once they examine it closely, and look at the communications, security, management and integration issues associated with it, the cost advantage is not as appealing as it first looked.
Now, we are of the view that this is just a stage of maturation that the market is going through at the moment, and in 3-5 years it’ll be significantly further developed. And that’s why we believe that, while there’s a high level of interest in the Cloud, organizations need to really look at their business and all the issues before jumping into some of the public Cloud offerings. So there is a consultation exercise to be gone through with customers to work all this out. But in Northern Ireland, where we operate primarily in the SME sector, and because of the impact of the recession here, it is being discussed more openly than in other parts of the UK, particularly the South East of England.
Gary: So when you talk about these hybrid Cloud solutions, Ken – what are the things that Cloud is particularly suited for?
Ken: Cloud can be very good for providing flexible access to email and products such as Microsoft Office 365. We’ve been very involved in rolling that out for customers. The contract we have with what is the old Nortel Networks organization has about 80 users all around Europe and they are all using Office 365 supplied by ourselves and they find it an ideal way of working. But line of business applications, whether accounting systems, ERP systems – they are much more difficult to put in the Cloud. There tend to be problems with that sort of environment. So the reality is that those sort of systems really have to remain either on-premise or in some sort of private Cloud environment.
So it depends on security, performance, flexibility as to what works best in a Cloud and what doesn’t. And every organization has different needs.
One thing that we’re seeing is the Cloud is very good for is disaster recovery. It’s a lower cost way of implementing disaster recovery. And we’ve seen a big uptake of this over the last couple of years. For many years, and I never understood why – there seemed to be very little uptake for disaster recovery – when we were going through the worst of the troubles, e.g. Now that that’s hopefully behind us, DR is on the ascendency! But I think it’s perhaps down to organizations becoming increasingly concerned that they may be exposed in terms of their IT in the event of there being problems, not necessarily as we might traditionally have thought of this, but more in terms of viruses and hacking and internal issues.
Gary: And companies are more aware than ever that they are very dependent on their IT.
Ken: Yes. And if cap-ex constraints are inhibiting their potential to upgrade to newer, more reliable, more robust solutions, they have to eke out time with older systems. So rather than being totally exposed by one of those systems going down, they’re looking to putting contingency arrangements in place.
I also think there’s a governance issue being driven in the background by the wider market place, whether it’s auditors, insurance organizations, accountants…And also the supply chain is getting tighter and organizations are asking their suppliers – do you have contingency in place, in the event of something going wrong with your IT? So governance, compliance, commercial reasons, all play their part.
Gary: Well, tell us a bit about how you got to where you are right now Ken.
Ken: I started off as an IT engineer, working on calculators that cost £2,500 and had maintenance contracts back in 1979. That was for Burroughs. I then moved to the other end of the spectrum and worked on mainframes and eventually settled on the mini-computer range. And at that point – early 80s – the PC was making its appearance and I moved into a sales-engineer role with Burroughs, which then led to me moving into a break-away company called NIBS, Northern Ireland Business Systems.
We were really the PC reseller for Burroughs and other product offerings like Data General, Onyx and Osborne, which was one of the first portable computer systems. So I was the service engineering manager for that company, which got me involved in many interesting assignments, travelling around Ireland and then ending up in Libya, implementing IT systems in the Sahara desert! This happened about 3 months after Yvonne Fletcher was shot in London, so it was a particularly challenging time to be in that part of the world. In fact I almost got imprisoned in one of Gadhafi’s jails because – very long story – but essentially they stopped me from leaving the country because the IT supplied hadn’t met their requirements. When I eventually did get the chance to leave, Gaddafi closed the airports and I had to spend time in Tripoli with no money and nowhere to stay. He’d closed the airports to keep all the foreigners in the country to help celebrate the anniversary of the green revolution. So it was a scary time!
That company went bust, because it grew too fast and there were issues with the payment from Libya. I then moved into an engineering role in CEM computers before moving into a sales environment in CMI in 1986. I was the first sales person CMI employed. It was an interesting opportunity to take my engineering skill and the time I’d spent with sales people and to try and link the two together and break down the traditional barriers between sales & service. So it was a very services- oriented organization and thru’ the late 80s we grew primarily organically and then we were acquired by a US organization called Unicomp in the early 90s, which then meant we had the funds to grow by acquisition.
So we grew through the 90s with a number of acquisitions, finally culminating in the acquisition of CEM Computers. And we then created a new identity which was Aurora. At that stage we had over 230 staff and we were probably the largest independent IT infrastructure provider in the province. That organization was then acquired by Viridian and merged in with its Sx3 business, and having done a brief spell in the telecoms world on behalf of Viridian, I re-joined the business in Sx3 in 2000 and became Business Development Director. And, in a number of different roles there, I operated until 2004, when, because of the big company environment I was no longer enjoying what I was doing and I knew I was going to have to travel round the UK every week, so I decided to leave.
And I ended up becoming a minority shareholder in a business I’d formed a number of years earlier – an Internet business, called Finisco, at that stage. So I did a couple of years in the Internet world, because I felt I’d by-passed that a bit and I wanted to understand more about it. And when I left that, it was to do some consultancy work on behalf of the government, working on the DETI broadband content initiative, reviewing submissions of applications for funding. That was a very enjoyable period and I worked on that and other IT projects or a couple of years.
And then I got involved running the MS Society in Northern Ireland for 3 months as an interim manager. For many years I’d been a volunteer for Disability Action and was the chairman for 6 years. So when the MS Society ran into governance issues which resulted in the local director being suspended, I was asked to get involved. That was a very interesting and challenging period, though nothing to do with IT at all.
But during that period I was asked if I’d be interested in running Parity in Ireland and I wasn’t sure it was what I really wanted to do – but after a few conversations with the guy I would be working with, who was a Geordie, I could see a lot of synergies. I would be heading up a business in the IT arena, providing SharePoint-based solutions for the public sector and also working in the private sector through its graduate placement programmes and other management consultancy elements. And that blend appealed to me – so I spent a couple of good years there. Unfortunately, Parity hit problems due to the recession and there was a change of priorities in the direction of the organization. And Northern Ireland was subsumed into the GB organisation as opposed to having its own autonomy. At that stage it didn’t make sense to stay – and that’s when I left to form CMI.
Gary: You’ve have a very interesting & varied career, Ken. You’ve got a very unusual combination of experiences and skills – strong in technology, sales, marketing, management, business start-up – that’s all there in what you’ve done. That’s pretty unusual in the IT business, to have all of that in one person. What is it that you’re best at, really good at?
Ken: Maybe it’s for others to say what I’m really good at.What I really enjoy the most is business development and the whole sales process. Sales is a much underrated profession. It’s one of the best professions to be in – it’s all about customer contact, about trying to understand the customer’s needs and then helping them buy a solution from you. I wouldn’t say I’m the world’s best technology person – technology is so fast moving I would always surround myself with people who are stronger than me in that respect. For me, it’s – how do you use technology for business benefit? And that’s more about understanding the requirements of a business, growing revenues, controlling costs or improving service. I’ve spent a lot of time in roles where I’ve been managing reasonable numbers of staff – that’s something which comes with the territory. It’s OK when things are going well but when things are tighter and you’re having to control costs and maybe reduce costs – I would gladly give up man-management because of that aspect of it.
But I’m at my happiest when I’m with a customer and when I’m talking business and how technology fits within that.
Gary: Whenever you and I started out Ken, companies like Burroughs or IBM or ICL all had extended sales training and development programmes. We don’t have that these days. Do you think the sales skills for the IT business are still around?
Ken: I’m often asked where do I see the skills shortages in NI. We’re not a software development house, so that’s not where our problems lie. There are sufficient numbers of people out there for the sort of skills we need – infrastructure engineers and technical architects and so on – but where there is a real shortage is good sales people. Part of the problem is training – like you in the early days I got proper sales training. I don’t think there is the same professionalism today about sales and there’s not the same investment in bringing that talent through. There needs to be a more structured approach, backed by the government that develops the IT sales people/entrepreneurs of the future.
Gary: You said that personnel management is not your favourite job, but you’ve had to do a fair amount of that over the years, Ken. And in leading organisations, you’ve had to create a culture, an environment. What sort of environment makes for a successful organization?
Ken: When you have an open environment where all employees feel they each play an important role – they may be different, I might be MD, someone else is a junior engineer and neither of us could do the other’s job – so we play different roles. So it’s an ethos of all working together, everybody contributing their bit of the equation, everyone being willing and able to work outside their comfort zones on occasion on behalf of the customer. For Stephen and me, that was the norm in days gone by, but what I see now more and more is people wanting to stay within their boundaries. But I believe that good employees are those who are prepared to work outside of those, along with their colleagues, to get the deal done, the job finished, the problem fixed – whatever it takes. The customer comes first. After that it’s up to me and Stephen and the other directors of the business to reward our staff by paying a decent salary and by encouraging them, giving them the training and investment in their careers that they need. So it’s a two way process.
Gary: Ken, as you’ve talked about your career, you clearly haven’t been afraid to make a change, take a risk, start something completely new – that challenge is obviously something you enjoy doing. Is that right and is it the same as you get older?
Ken: I get bored if I’m not continually challenged. I have this feeling that if you’re not going forward you’re moving backwards. People might say I’m a risk taker. Maybe a conservative risk taker – I know my strengths, so I don’t go anywhere unless I know I have the skills to do it. Of course at my age, I’ll probably not be taking too many more leaps! And where I am now, I’ve invested too much time, energy and money in this business to be making any change. So what I want to do is to make CMI a success over the next 5 years and then increasingly take a back-seat role and maybe do a few other things elsewhere.
Gary: If you were to give some advice to a younger person who’s thinking about being an entrepreneur, starting a new business, what would it be?
Ken: They should look at what motivate them, what excites them – you’re always going to be better doing something you enjoy doing. Find out what it is and plot your way forward from there. And seek out people who have achieved what you’re heading towards and try and get yourself involved with those people. Get into an organization where you can learn. Just going out and making a fortune very quickly is very difficult – so learn your trade, build experience and get involved with people who have the expertise you want to build. But also, if you’re doing something and you’re not enjoying it – stop it and change. Don’t be frightened of doing that. Work is too big a part of someone’s life for you not to enjoy it.