The main game

Australia’s IT leaders are big-game players. Challenged and excited by the technology, they know the wooden spoon awaits those who forget what their businesses or organisations are all about.

The seven leaders featured here have origins in government, services, manufacturing, retail, logistics, and banking. This seven represents the many: Michael Vinter is the customer-focused CIO for tourism and entertainment group Amalgamated Holdings. Steve Matthews, the Ford Australia IT veteran, has seen supply chain initiatives drive manufacturing inventory down from days to hours. The first CIO of the Australian Department of Defence, Patrick Hannan, thrives on bringing order to the complexity which is military command and control, communications, intelligence, management and logistics operations. Jennifer Heffernan at the Bank of Queensland and Brian Parker from ING Direct are each finding profit in nimble IT management. With each of Bunnings’ warehouse-sized hardware shops stocking goods from upwards of 2500 suppliers across Australia, Mark Ridley, executive director, information technology, is on a mission to improve trading relationships and remove costly inefficiencies. As global CIO of cargo and logistics giant, P&O Ports, Jonathan Ladd knows if you want something done properly, sometimes you have to do it yourself.

As with many Australian success stories, those who achieve often do so quietly and without much fuss, content within themselves they are delivering benefits to both their enterprise and the community at large.

From Hollywood to harbourside

Michael Vinter, CIO, Amalgamated Holdings

FEW Australian companies have as many fingers in the different slices of the services sector pie as Amalgamated Holdings Limited (AHL). An ASX-listed company, AHL, with revenues of around $350 million, started out in 1910 as Spencers Pictures. It went on to become Greater Union in 1937 and has since grown and developed into the parent company of a range of brands and joint ventures spanning the length and breadth of the entertainment, hospitality and leisure industries.

Businesses and brands under the Amalgamated umbrella include Greater Union and Birch Carroll Cinemas, Atlab and FilmLab, Rydges Hotels, Thredbo Alpine Village, The State Theatre in Sydney, (NSW) Featherdale Wildlife Park, Blue Rock Catering and Matilda Cruises. Joint venture interests include Movieline (online cinema ticketing), Village Roadshow cinema distributors and Val Morgan Cinema Advertising.

“It’s pretty diverse” laughs AHL CIO Michael Vinter, who has just completed consolidating more than a dozen siloed IT shops across the company into a single IT services department, reporting directly into head office. Sweeping changes were instituted around 18 months ago in line with an extensive executive management restructure.

The changes are about allowing management to form a single view of a complex enterprise that leverages its diversity as a strategy to ensure revenue stability. While leisure and hospitality remain subdued by global uncertainty, cinemas are booming thanks to blockbusters like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. People either go on holidays or go to the movies it seems. Sometimes they do both.

Vinter’s IT services department is in charge of around 2000 desktops, many in shared environments with around 3500 users. Major recent projects include the standardisation of e-mail and document management onto Lotus Notes coupled with the gradual upgrade of hardware and operating systems as they come to the end of their natural life.

“They had totally different wide area networks [and] e-mail platforms, different versions of everything. It looked like wherever an alternative could be taken, it was. They were totally separated, and we are still working on getting them together. We’ve managed to get e-mail [unified] across most of the platform,” Vinter says.

A core part of this strategy has been an initiative to recruit and train IT staff from within the enterprise rather than outside it to impart ownership, skills, knowledge and a return on investment.

“The best ROI I’ve had is the investment in our IT people. We’ve had a strategy for a long time of making a good mix of IT professionals [and] getting people out of the businesses...getting ownership back into the businesses.

“We pull people out of the cinemas and out of the hotels — people who are interested in technology — train them up and turn them into full-time IT staff,” Vinter says.

“We feel we get the best benefit and they bring a lot of credence. They get the ear of people very quickly because they have been there, done that. They know the business very well. With a lot of technology, we can train them [but] it’s really hard to train people the other way around. If I look around the office, 50 per cent or more of our staff have come into IT that way.”

This self-managed approach has yielded considerable savings by both reducing the dependence on support and allowing users to know what they need — and how to get it. So-called super-users now provide the first level of support to their peers, with an operational knowledge that would be impossible from an external provider. Accountability is increased, users take responsibility for their areas and management listens to what they say.

Other major IT initiatives for Amalgamated include upgrading communications and rolling out Citrix-based applications to get around a data bottleneck for Matilda Cruises which faces “near unworkable” speeds at remote locations. Atlab and Filmlab are also moving to Citrix for reporting while continuing to develop their own high-end technologies for computation-intensive work such as digitising films.

Rydges Hotels is contemplating wireless hotspots, although Vinter sees more near-term benefits from the development of an Oracle-based booking engine in line with an upgrade of the property management system.

“The hardest thing has always been to get a single inventory picture for the group, so it’s about having the right applications there sitting on top of Oracle to get that single view for all the hotels. Once we had that, the booking engine was relatively straightforward,” Vinter says, adding that wireless take-up by guests will only come gradually as guests start to buy new notebooks.

Online booking and purchasing has also come of age across the group, although the primary purpose of Movieline and Greater Union sites is actually to sell choc-tops and popcorn. Vinter says the sites are a stealth “queue-busting” technology.

“At the end of the day we make much more profit or return from the candy bar, so the idea is to get people through quickly so they have enough time to go to the candy bar. If you’re running late, you’re just going to skip the candy bar. Nobody turns up to the movies early.”

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