Spark Digital CEO “fired up” about digital future…

Tim Miles is fired up about Gen-i’s rebrand. He talks to Heather Wright about the genesis of Spark and leadership.

Tim Miles can’t hide his enthusiasm as he talks about the recently announced rebrand of Gen-i and Telecom.

It is, says the chief executive of Gen-i – today announced as Spark Digital – much more than a brand change. Instead, he says it’s about showcasing how far the two companies have come, and the future that lies ahead.

“In ICT there are two broad groups. The IT companies who focus on the IT sector and are not doing telco, and the telcos who don’t have the real IT side.

“If you believe in the world of convergence, there is a big advantage for Gen-i because we have the telco credibility via Telecom, but are also one of the biggest IT companies.”

Miles, who has headed Gen-i since February 2013, says the separation of Chorus provided ‘a huge opportunity for Telecom Group’.

“A big part of what we had done was gone. And there was the opportunity to really talk about who we were going to be and what we were going to stand for.”

Miles says two key decisions were made: to ‘stand for New Zealand’, hence the exiting of AAPT and discussion around exiting Telecom Cook Islands, and to bring the money – around half a billion in cash – back into New Zealand.

Second was to ‘stand for enabling our customers to take advantage of digital’.

“Everyone we speak to is wrestling with how to take advantage of digital. It’s really, really important for New Zealand.

“For some it means lowering costs, or being able to innovate and change, to be flexible and agile. It can be about any or all of those things.”

Miles says Telecom Group, and Gen-i as part of that, has been through a ‘massive’ change programme over the past 18 months in preparation for its new future, with critical infrastructure builds, acquisitions of Revera and AppServe, new data centre builds and the $158 million purchase of 700MHz 4G spectrum.

“In the last 18 to 24 months we’ve made an enormous investment, in excess of a billion, to create the best digital platform in New Zealand.

“The changes have also seen ‘streamlining’ of Gen-i, with Miles saying ‘layers’ were taken out to speed the business up.

“There’s been a huge amount of change in the past 18 months, and most of it was good.

“I’m not saying we’ve got it 100% right, but we are a hell of a lot more nimble and fleet footed than we were.

“On August 08 when we become Spark, or Spark Digital in my case, we can say to customers and the community, here are the things we have done, the proof points of our place in the digital world, and here are the things we are doing.

“And it will all be grounded in fact. Part will be things we have already done, and part aspirational.

“We needed to adopt a name that reflected that.” Miles says the biggest stretch in his promise to customers to ‘be the best provider of the digital platform’ isn’t the platform itself, but getting to know customers’ businesses, and understanding – and being able to speak with them – at a business level, rather than on technology terms.

“If our customer is in financial services, we have to understand financial services and how digital capabilities can help the industry, can help them change to be more effective with their business.

“The magic is in helping a client solve business problems using some of the technologies we can offer.”

Defining moments in leadership

It’s clear more than 25 years in ICT – he started with IBM and has held senior roles with companies including Data General, Unisys (including at HQ), Vodafone UK and NZ, plus a stint outside ICT with PGG Wrightson – haven’t dented his enthusiasm for an industry he believes has the potential to make real difference in New Zealander’s lives, and businesses.

“One of the things I like about IT is it’s one of the places you can make a real contribution.

“The greatest thing about New Zealand is we are a long way from the rest of the world. And the worst thing about New Zealand is we are a long way from the rest of the world.

“Telecommunications and ITC has a huge part to play in bringing New Zealand closer to the rest of the world and allowing us to make our place in the world, as part of a global community.

“I love it. It’s fast moving and has real importance to New Zealand, and you really get to know customers very well. You have to understand their business to help them.”

As a long-standing advisory trustee for Leadership New Zealand, Miles is also passionate about leadership.

Leadership New Zealand aims to ensure that Kiwi leaders understand and are equipped for leadership not just in business, but in the community.

“Sometimes I think people in business see themselves almost in isolation to everything. “But businesses are part of the community. We’re part of the New Zealand community, but also part of all sorts of sub communities.

“I think going off and learning about your own industry is a very narrow definition of leadership.”

Instead, Leadership New Zealand brings together leaders from across society, connecting them and challenging them to make a difference through leadership development programmes, community service programmes and thought-leadership events.

When it comes to his own leadership style, Miles says: “I don’t have a mortgage on good leadership. Sometimes I cringe when I think about things I’ve done.

“I’m straight up and tell people how it is, how I see it, whether they like it or not. ‘Here’s the truth as I see it. If you don’t agree, tell me I’ve got it wrong.

“I try to be authentic when things are going well and when things aren’t going well.

“I’m very upfront and take responsibility, I don’t hide behind people. What you see is what you get. I’ve got no interest in politics. I don’t have the time for it. And I can get really passionate about things!”

He says having the privilege of growing up on a farm in a tiny rural community, where everyone knew everyone and you couldn’t afford to get offside with others, then being shipped off to boarding school where he learned ‘pretty quick’ to be flexible in his dealings with others, stood him in good stead.

He also credits plenty of what he calls his ‘oh shit’ moments – those moments when you’re taken completely out of your comfort zone – with helping him develop and grow over the years.

“I’ve been lucky to have a disproportionate number of oh shit moments. People ask me to do things that take me out of my comfort zone and I’m crazy enough to do them.

“Going to Singapore [with Data General] was one of those – setting up manufacturing, dealing with subsidiaries in China… “Being asked to run Unisys was another. I was absolutely terrified and didn’t know why they had asked me.”

Three years later, when he was asked to go to Unisys HQ to change the whole marketing and sales for the company – ‘and then they stitched me up with implementing it as well!’ – running Vodafone NZ, working with Vodafone UK… Miles says all were defining moments that shaped not just his career, but him as a man.

“Now I’m old, no one asks me to do anything tricky anymore,” he quips.

Except, maybe for reshaping Gen-i as it heads into its future.

This article was originally published in the August issue of The Channel magazine – available by clicking here

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