The fabulous Fisk boys

The grandsons of radio pioneer Sir Ernest Fisk, Jonathan and Martin Fisk share a passion for technology, an entrepreneurial spirit and a love of the wilderness. Caitlin Fitzsimmons reports that, while both brothers have founded highly successful IT companies, they have chosen to specialise in very different areasWhile most young boys learn their love of mechanics from Transformer cartoons and robot Lego, brothers Jonathan and Martin Fisk learnt from a professional.

Indeed their grandfather, AWA founder Sir Ernest Fisk, pioneered the first radio transmission from England to Australia during World War One. It comes as no surprise then that the brothers grew up to found and run their own IT companies, based in Sydney.

Jonathan is founder and CEO of systems integrator Senteq Information Systems, while Martin is founder and managing director of e-commerce software company Streamlink, but while the brothers work in very different fields within IT, they do have a lot in common.

"We're mad keen bushwalkers," Martin revealed. "We go walking in the wilderness down the Snowy Mountains. There's a walk from Melbourne to Canberra and we've done about 500 kilometres in the last few years. It's a bit of a project."Indirectly, it's Martin's love for the wilderness that has led to a career in e-commerce procurement. "I'm a card-carrying Greenpeace member and I saw an opportunity wherever possible to create a paperless office through e-procurement. I had one client who, for every purchase, had a huge manila folder brimming with paper and that was probably all duplicated at the other end. My objective is to get rid of all that."Jonathan, who founded Senteq at the age of 26, explains that he went into business because he thought it would be "fun and challenging".

After 13 years in the business, he says he has never been bored because the fact that technology and market demands are constantly changing means he has to reinvent the business every few years.

Although in the early days Senteq simply sold products, the focus expanded over time to encompass both products and services, and now the company designs, implements and manages solutions for customers ranging from simple infrastructure like networks and desktops through to Web-enabling existing data or applications.

"The days of being a reactive supplier of a very low-value task are over - we have to help our customers implement their business solutions," Jonathan said.

"I get excited about helping customers change. I get excited about watching our team succeed and grow. I get excited about what technology is capable of doing.

Thirteen years ago it was a very different world and [the rate of change] is going to get faster and faster."The youngest of the three Fisk brothers, Martin founded Sentor, a software development and consultancy company in 1993, after nearly 10 years of experience spanning from IT consulting to software development.

When he left high school Martin was quite determined not to work in IT, instead electing to pursue a career in graphic design. Fate got the better of him, when his first graphics job turned out to be working on the precursor to the Internet, Videotex, a big system run by what was then Telecom Australia.

Sentor's first software project back in 1993 was an electronic procurement system for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, known as Streamlink.

"We started the project and very quickly realised it was a huge opportunity," Martin recalled. "We did a deal where PriceWaterhouseCoopers would get the software very cheaply and our company retained intellectual property rights to Streamlink."Streamlink was a division of Sentor until 1999, when Martin sold Sentor to Independent Systems Integrators (ISI) and spun off Streamlink as a separate company.

Martin explains that this decision was made because Sentor and Streamlink had very divergent strategies and the sale of Sentor meant he and the executive team could focus on Streamlink.

"Sentor was a well-established service business that was very successful," Martin explained. "But the opportunity for real growth lay in Streamlink - and Streamlink needed my full attention, energy and focus to really make it a force in the e-procurement marketplace."While Sentor's growth was entirely organic, Martin intends to leverage venture capital funding to grow and expand Streamlink much more quickly this time round.

His decision to grow Sentor organically was due to his scepticism about the value of investment funding in a services company due to the potential problems of massive growth. However, he believes that, with a product business like Streamlink, rapid growth can be managed a lot more easily.

"Streamlink is going from strength to strength - it's through the roof!" Martin claimed. "We've had a capital raising of about $12 million, one of the largest funds raised for an Internet company in Australia. A publishing company, Ausdoc, has taken a 15 per cent stake worth $4.5 million."Martin is clearly keen to harness the potential of e-commerce, but he is adamant that his company has a solid business model.

"When the hype dies away and the Internet stocks are valued down, the companies that survive will be the ones with a core business," Martin said. "Companies should start with the customer in mind and not the share price. It worries me that so many companies are run by people focused on their own wealth. I don't think that's a sound business model."Jonathan puts it more bluntly: "There's a lot of bullshit and the focus is moving from good Australian companies to popcorn businesses."Jonathan believes his greatest achievement has been building his company from scratch, while still hanging on to his ethics.

He recalls that the concept for the first couple of years was simply to "stay alive", but after three years the company was already turning over $10-12 million per year. Now Senteq employs 200 staff across Australia and turns over $120 million annually.

"Building a business in this marketplace is tough because you've got to compete with the multinationals, yet at times we've grown 50 per cent or more in a year," Jonathan said. "Multinationals are inflating the cost of IT by paying untenable salaries to unqualified people. They do it because it's the only way they can get staff, but fundamentally, it's creating a spiral effect and the end result is bad for business. The skills shortage exists big time." Although they work at opposite ends of the market, both Jonathan and Martin agree that the answer lies in customer issues: " It's all about delivering business benefits to customers backed up with excellence in delivery - what we say we do, we do really well," Jonathan said.

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