Networking the NT

When Denis Mackenzie, finance director of Darwin-based Connected Solutions Group, saw a Xerox shop and service centre up for sale in his home town, it was a chance to return to his roots and get involved in the IT industry. However, he soon learnt that there is more to running a business in Darwin than having a strong academic background and experience in the big smoke.

Despite the café culture and flash new developments springing up around Cullen Bay, Darwin remains a laidback city. Locals explain that Darwinian social life centres around dry season BBQs, sailing and the annual Darwin Cup Carnival run in August.

Darwin still survives as a fairly close knit community despite the growing population. The struggle to rebuild the city after the devastation caused by Cyclone Tracy still weighs heavily on the local character. The measure of a true Darwinian is reportedly whether or not they lived through the catastrophe, and participated in the rebuilding process.

"I always wanted to come back to Darwin. It's that sort of place. I was born here, my family and many of my friends are here. We went through Tracy together. There are a lot of connections between the city and who I am," explained Mackenzie.

After spending hos childhood in Darwin, Mackenzie left the city to study, first at boarding school and then at university in Brisbane.

After completing a commerce degree and an honours year in finance, Mackenzie found work in the banking sector. "I worked for banks in Sydney and Brisbane, but I was always looking for a chance to return to Darwin, especially once I had a family of my own. I wanted to bring them back here."Unlike friends who returned to the city to work in family businesses, after studying or working in other parts of Australia, Mackenzie said that wasn't really an option. Before returning to live in Darwin he would have to find a business to call his own.

"There are a couple of international companies that have their headquarters here, so there is a chance to get work with them, but you really have to be working for your own company to make it worthwhile."Although he had no formal training in computing, Mackenzie saw potential for growth in the IT sector and was on the lookout for a bargain.

"I almost bought a small reseller in about 1996 - we got through to the final stages of negotiations and it fell through. It's a good thing because later I found a company trading as the Xerox shop and communications centre. It sold and serviced Xerox copiers, mobile phones and PABX systems.

"It was a larger company and represented a much bigger opportunity. I was not the only owner, but I could see the business growing and diversifying, so I went for it."The Xerox shop and communications centre underwent a facelift and was trading healthily when Mackenzie came across a small box-selling computer reseller.

"I knew that the IT element was crucial, we wanted to be a one-stop, business solutions shop. The turning point came when I managed to structure the deal to buy the small reseller and convert it into a much bigger business. The acquisition of this computer business effectively doubled our turnover in a very small space of time.

"Networking means that all these different elements, phones, photocopiers, faxes and computers, are all connected. Or at least they are becoming connected, so it makes sense to be able to offer businesses a complete service.

We are gradually changing the strategy of the business so that we have more of a services focus; we want to offer first-class IT services to the Northern Territory," Mackenzie said.

The group of companies trades under the name Connected Solutions Group (CSG), and according to Mackenzie, it is the largest NT-based channel company to depend almost entirely on the private sector for their business.

"As a proportion of our overall business the work we are doing for the Government is growing, but we have managed to foster the business relationships the companies that make up CSG already had. We also have a team of people who have been here for a long time and they know a lot of people. In Darwin that is important."According to Mackenzie, there are some important differences between doing business in Darwin and in the larger centres like Sydney and Brisbane.

"Here, you really have to become proactive with your community contacts. We sponsor all sorts of community events, and try to become involved. The MD of CSG, Barry Phillips, has really been my business mentor here. He knows how to build up a good rapport with people, and he is well known throughout the community. He knows how to develop and maintain those contacts.

"Business in Darwin is all about relationship selling. While I had the academic background and the experience in finance, managing business relationships in a place like Darwin isn't something you can learn from a book. You have to get involved and really get to know the community."While the more traditional product selling side of the business continues to be important, Mackenzie is focused on developing the services aspect of CSG.

"However, clients don't just walk through the door and ask you to manage their network. We have found we have to be very proactive when it comes to selling services."Mackenzie is adamant that the key to CSG's success lies in the company's commitment to business relationships and quality service.

For CSG, that means providing first-class IT services to the NT community without losing touch with the relationships on which much of its business is based.

"A lot of people up here have lived and worked in the southern states and they know what they want; they don't expect any less just because they happen to run a business in Darwin rather than in Sydney or Melbourne. I am part of this community and I wouldn't want to insult anyone by offering them sub-standard service or technology."

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