Face To Face: Frank Owen On failing intelligently

An engineer’s curiosity still beats at the heart of Frank Owen. Tait Communications’ managing director has come long way from his early days in Bromley, south London. Or ‘sarf’ London, as he repeats, laying on thick the local accent. He’s keen to share his understanding that testing ideas and “failing intelligently” are good, if not great, for business.
In his early London days, Owen studied electronic engineering at Queen Mary College. The subject, he says, was always in his blood. “That’s possibly because engineering was interesting technically so it appeals to my sense of curiosity. But it’s also because engineers make stuff happen.”
Since then, he’s been busy making stuff happen in multitude of different ways. As an electronics engineer, he worked for Philips in the UK, France, the Netherlands and Austria. He moved to the US, initially with leading electronics company Raychem, then on to Tyco, where he had responsibility for power components division with staff of over 4000 spread around the world. From there, Owen shifted to Christchurch as CEO of design and manufacturing company GPC.
When some three years ago he made his most recent move to Tait, he took over an iconic 900-person Kiwi company, and the legacy of the much-admired Sir Angus Tait who had founded local company back in 1969 with just 12 staff, and what was to prove to be lifelong love affair with mobile communications.
Owen says he’s been very fortunate in being able to contribute in his career to making stuff happen “whether that be technically early on, later within markets, and now through businesses”.
As Tait’s MD, he sees his role as contributing through other people. “At some point, you move on to leveraging. I’m great believer in helping other people become the best they can be in whatever line of work they choose, because through that you’re able to harness their full force and have greater impact, and that shows through in terms of competitive success in the market place.”
For Owen, business – like engineering in many ways – is about being curious and willing to innovate. It’s about recognising that not everything will be successful. Increasingly, it’s about making commensurate investment that quickly trials an idea in the customer’s domain.
It’s about accepting and understanding the need to sometimes fail intelligently, as he puts it. To Owen’s mind, that’s about more than learning from mistakes. “It’s also about being courageous and bold.”
In Tait’s world that means rapid prototyping – quickly sitting ideas on the table in front of the customer – and being comfortable that these early notions may be very left field, very far away from finished idea.
“Not everything will fly,” says Owen. “You need to be bold and then move on to the next thing if one is not appropriate. You haven’t bet the farm.”
The concept, he says, can carry wider significance for New Zealand as whole.
“We often talk about how, as nation, we come up with great products or ideas but we’re not good at commercialising them. We need to peel that concept back bit to understand it. What we mean is that customers aren’t actually buying what we’ve thought of or done. And that’s not surprise if the idea or product isn’t well-tuned to their need: whether that be latent or true need.”
For Owen, the key to business success today is to invite and enable customers to co-craft their product. “Then you know you’ve got something that will sell, be useful and add value to the customer.”
It all comes back to the importance of interconnectedness, he says. Great business is about leveraging the linkages that we have as individuals and organisations. All of which suggests it’s time for Kiwis to ditch the drama around failure.
“New Zealanders’ expectations, typically, can be bit staid,” says Owen. “If something doesn’t work, there’s stigma associated with it which is far from the case at all.”
Owen concedes he may have picked up on some of the freshness and optimism that is often characteristic of American thinking. He counters, however, that while he thoroughly enjoyed seeing the world through American eyes while in the US, many expat Kiwis find top spots on the senior management teams of very big global companies.
“The reason for that is Kiwis have this ‘get it done’ attitude. There’s experience that comes from being in New Zealand where you develop confidence quickly. It’s very open environment where you can be yourself and then go out on to the world stage. So you get well-rounded personality characteristics in people who come from New Zealand.”
Owen tapped big-time into such Kiwi thinking, and lot of co-creation, when spearheading Tait’s recent rebranding which, significantly, dropped the long-hallowed ‘radio’ word from the company name.
Announcing the change at the tail end of January this year, chief marketing officer James Kyd said radio remains core element of Tait’s offerings, “but our solutions today include much more than just radios… Our customers turn to us for the complete communications system, sourced, deployed, supported and managed in fully integrated way, demonstrating an intimate understanding of their needs.”
Morphing Tait Radio Communications into Tait Communications was “reflective of the broader space that Tait is now engaging with its global customers”.
Owen had joined the company at time when the idea of shifting its approach had already been well seeded by outdoing MD Michael Crick and his team. And he’s concerned to note such efforts, and any achievements, are more reflection of the team than of himself as an individual.
“I came into an environment where the restriction of the boulder was already removed.
“But which direction we were going to roll the boulder and how we were going to get there, that was all to play for.” It was, he says, fantastic opportunity.
“It’s not through accident that you get successful radio communications companies coming out of small isolated countries with small populations and small infrastructure. That’s how Nokia in Finland, Ericsson in Sweden and even Motorola in the Midwest US came about. It’s case of needs must.
“Tait is now entering its 43rd year,” he points out. “We’d reached point of inflection where the company needed to ensure it would have another successful 40 years and the important point was to compete on the basis of something that was going to continue to be sustainable and allow us to grow.
“The most important part of our strategy is being intimate with our customers in some very targeted markets such as public safety and utilities… We’re moving the company from being the provider of better box, to provider of service solutions.”
Those services, he says, “keep communities safe and keep the lights on”.
Like much of the New Zealand economy, Tait’s transition into services-focused entity has set it on long journey of change. As with many mature and successful companies, there’s lot at stake.
From its small beginnings, the company now spreads its tentacles across 150 countries. Recent projects have seen Tait hi-tech digital mobile radios help back up military police fighting organised crime in Brazil. Over in the UK, Nottingham City Transport is using Tait voice and data system to keep passengers informed, and provide voice and data communication between its 340 buses and control-room staff. In the US, Tait technology provides 24/7 reliable communication in extreme winters for electricity utility company Black Hills Power.
So when contemplating any change of direction, Owen says he knew he had to get it right. Tait spent many months looking internally before attempting to signal any rebranding to the wider external world. (See box story “From the inside out: reinventing an icon”.)
Owen says he’s great believer in the idea of “involving and immersing” and that he expect

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