The Management Interview Postman Wes Brown: Stamping his Vision on Datamail

Datamail chief executive Wes Brown reckons stories are more powerful medium than static corporate statements when it comes to explaining what company is about – its values and priorities, how it thinks, and the way it does things. It’s not that Brown sees himself as particularly charismatic storyteller – it’s simply that he’s interested in exploring all the various elements that go into building and maintaining strong sense of common purpose and direction in the company he set up and has headed for the past 15 years. “The longer we go, the more we understand what matters to us and the things that work. One of the things I’m trying to do is to see the threads that run through it all and build picture around that which says ‘this is the way we are’.”
The challenge for Wes Brown was to identify and hold onto those threads as the company went through recent restructuring process designed to gear it for new growth push. “For our culture that was quite dramatic thing because we’ve always been expanding. So it was quite counter-cultural, to have to unpack the business and put it back together without some of its key people. We had to change the focus, change the business model and change the structure for the way we wanted to go.” All of that without damaging what Brown refers to as the heart and soul of the business – its values and culture.

Big ideas
One important thread in the company’s history has been the ability to see and develop new business directions, says Brown. He reckons that is contained in the story of Datamail’s beginnings as joint venture start up between New Zealand Post and Datamail Pty Australia. Its goal at the time was to improve database management and help increase mail volumes to better safeguard NZ Post’s future in deregulated market.
“Rightly or wrongly we formed the view that we should develop the business in product area already well served in the market – that was the generation of mail. We didn’t want to go into that market and do the same as everyone else so it was case of asking what we could do that was different.”
From that stemmed the decision to take data from customers electronically which in turn opened up range of possible new services such as personalised mailouts. Since then, it’s been matter of constantly exploring how and where the company can build on new services or technology solutions, says Brown.
“We’re driven by the idea of always thinking ahead, looking at what we can do for our customers – what are the value propositions, what is the next stage of that proposition. So we just keep adding to the solutions.”
It’s an aspect of the organisational culture that to some extent has been defined by the company’s personnel.
“When I took on the job of starting up the company, I had to employ people to join me to become managers of environments that didn’t yet exist – but that they could help create. It takes certain sort of person to leave an existing job to do that.”
That need to look to the future, generate big ideas, explore potential new services and develop different business streams helped build the company into one that now employs more than 400 staff and has an annual turnover of $80 million.
What has been an almost intuitive aspect of the company’s growth is now more iterative one, says Brown. That’s because the business is larger, more complex and needed focus around which to restructure following few market setbacks.
These started in mid-2000 when the Government decided to abolish the broadcasting fee which, at the time, represented big chunk of Datamail business. That coincided with market recession and some premature ventures into new technologies like smartcard.
“The risk you have in business when investing in the future is keeping balance between money invested without current return and the returns you’re getting from existing business. That can be fine balance and we got it bit out of kilter.”
The smartcard venture was symptom of the company being bit too smart, says Brown.
“We all know now that lot of businesses collapsed believing the new world had come on them and they had to embrace it – but the reality was that it wasn’t making money. Now we’ve got to place where you can see the convergence of technologies happening as much more orderly process.”
This over-eager rush to the future was salutary lesson about not forgetting such fundamental business principles as the need for return on investment, says Brown.
“There’s more technology out there than you can poke stick at but until you can convert it to something that customers want and can pay for, then it’s not worth anything.”
While the company wasn’t too badly burned, the downturn in its circumstances was used to tidy up the business, says Brown.
“We wanted to restructure in the context of vision going forward. So while we can take cost out of the business, we have to do that in way that is going to take us somewhere. One of the things you read about change that is both profoundly obvious and important is that people will accept change – accept things being done that they may not want to be done – as long as they know it’s being done in the context of journey.
“You’ll always find some people in the company who are naturally disposed to being the hopeful ones, the optimistic ones and you look to those people because they capture the vision and actually help to bring others with them.”
The vision in this case is for Datamail to become $200 million company by the year 2006. That means more than doubling its size in three years.

Redefining the core
A first step was redefining the company’s core business which, says Brown, is providing document solutions for its customers, and then identifying the “naturally adjacent” areas for growth.
“Most companies that succeed in growing exponentially expand somewhere close to their core business. So we’ve created clock face that represents the opportunities for expansion around that core.”
Five potential areas for growth have been identified:
• through strategic acquisitions;
• new products that fit into the core business;
• expansion into new geographic territories such as Australia and the Pacific;
• going into new market areas with existing products; or
• forming partnerships or relationships with organisations that might deliver new distribution channels for some of the company’s services.
“Having identified those, we put in some numbers, built them into plan and there are now lot of new things happening because of it,” says Brown. “It’s quite exciting to see we now have work in progress in six or seven areas that grew from putting an iterative process around what we’d done intuitively before.”

They’re always right
Customer focus is another vital thread in the corporate ethos.
“I think it’s hugely important – it’s something you build into the culture like mantra with endless practice. You have to respect and revere the feedback you get from your customers – even to the extent of canning the sort of negative or destructive chat that you sometimes hear.”
So there are stories that can be told around customer events. Then there are the stories about Datamail personnel. One Brown relates is of an applications developer who came back from the US absolutely buzzing about the potential of new online product the company has licensed which provides instant response to email queries going into call centres.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so excited. It reminds you about the power, energy and passion you have in the organisation if you can find ways of unleashing it.”

Heart and soul
Another thread is corporate responsibility – sustainable development in social sense. It’s part of personal value set now reflected in the company’s ethos.
“It is based on the way I see life – the things that are important to me, what I esteem, the behaviours that I practise – that have unwittingly embedded themselves in the place and that is privilege of leadership.”
Along with privileg

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