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Leadership equity, unlocked

Simon Casey has a very different experience with his colleagues on two major trends impacting the ICT department -- bring your own device and the growing need to work with the marketing team.

"The 'bring your own device' story has not been difficult for our business," says the Barfoot & Thompson CIO. "We had BYOD even before the term existed."

Casey, who joined the real estate group more than four years ago, says the company has always run a traditional network in each branch so that the salespeople could bring their own device and connect to that.

"Our approach for internet access means the salespeople can work from home or work from work. We did not have too many challenges around that when we looked at network architecture changes. It is just in bred in us to consider that.""

On the clarion call of analysts for CIOs to partner more closely with the chief marketing officer, Casey says he has been doing that from day one. When the company moved in October last year to the new headquarters on Auckland's Shortland Street, Casey "insisted" the two departments should be located on the same floor. "

This way, they can continuously and simultaneously work on a raft of projects around mobile devices, social media and the company website.

Casey explains that while residential sales are the dominant part of the business, Barfoot & Thompson is also into property management, with around 10,000 properties under management. "There are plenty of business aspects to understand and contribute to from an IT perspective."

One of the major projects the two departments have worked on was building a sales kit that the salespeople can use to quickly prepare a professional proposal. "When they are visiting someone who is considering selling the house, they can impress them with being well organised, and presenting a thorough and comprehensive sales plan.

He says this project was driven by the marketing team which wanted certain standards and templates the sales people can put together.

Two years ago, he says he had a discussion with the marketing manager to build an online strategy for social media channels.

First, they encouraged the salespeople to update their profiles on the website, and create a profile on LinkedIn and the industry website www.realestate.co.nz.

"We thought that was the first step of the ladder for social media," he says. They then conducted training for the salespeople on how to set up a Facebook page. "You can imagine with 1300 sales people the level of interest or motivation around that varies greatly," he says. He says it is important that marketing team "owns the brand activity" around social media at Barfoot & Thompson.

Relocation

Prior to his current role, Casey has worked for over 20 years in telecommunications, with Telecom New Zealand, where he rose to national telco operations manager; Telecom Directories (Yellow Pages) as IS manager, and Zintel, as CIO.

As head of ICT at Yellow Pages, he worked with different business units including marketing and sales, "really delivering the benefits of IT through trying to solve business problems or advanced opportunities for some of the businesses".

This period marked an evolution in his career, where he shifted from "just thinking about technology to thinking more about the business".

He had already been working there for six years as CIO when he decided to take a sabbatical. "I have worked for 24 years without a reasonable break so I had seven months off," says Casey. He went to Europe and also spent a lot of time on Takapuna beach, sailing.

"Once I had cleared my head, I did not want to get into a high level corporate role," says Casey. "I was quite keen to do something smaller and get my hands involved again." He says he found this environment at Barfoot & Thompson. "This role is perfect for me," says Casey. "Having a smaller team, I have more influence in a company, where I was dealing with board members and the executive team."

Team up

Casey says spends a fair amount of his time organising the team and the response to operations.

"I see one of my roles as CIO is to get the most out of people," he says.

The IT team at Barfoot & Thompson has a low turnover and he "effectively inherited a team" when he joined the company.

His team includes four people on the service desk, which provide support for the apps for the salespeople; a web manager; two to three software developers; a software development manager and a senior business analyst.

He says a priority around staff is to make sure they have performance plans focused around their own development. "Communicating with his team and as well as with stakeholders in the business is an important aspect of being a good CIO.

"The more you delegate [work], you can start to see who is going to thrive in the tough environment," he says. "Work out who your key players are, make sure they know if the systems are down, it is their key job" to work on them.

While he does not believe in micromanaging, he says, "You must be very clear on what they must do correctly and they must run projects in a methodical way. They must follow change control."

"Our projects are always focused on business outcomes," he stresses. "You have got to treat customers well. They are paying us, we must have business focus around everything we do."

Having this deep leadership bench is essential, he says. "It leaves you time to think. I can leverage that strength of this that can free me up from focusing on technology and I can have a real business focus."

The past two years have seen him and his team working in the mobile space, developing apps for the smartphone and tablets of the sales team, and providing the network environment for these.

These include the Property Management tool that allows the rental team to appraise properties through their iPhones, and then send the information to the office through a secure wireless or wired network.

The vision for their app was that it would be very simple and easy to use. It should be "very intuitive" with no need for a keyboard or instruction manual, "but deliver on high value features".

"There is a big difference between talking about it and even planning it to actually doing it," says Casey.

Last year, however, has been "transformational" for the group's sales team as they all have to get smartphones, and IT has to support this. "They need that or they can not access our property, so that is a big step," he says.

Barfoot & Thompson worked with Fortinet security and Aerohive for a wi-fi system that could help it manage the growing uptake of a portfolio of mobile devices, both personally owned and corporate issued.

The new network allowed the company to install electronic lockboxes, the first property group in New Zealand to do so. The Supra lockbox contains the key to the property, and can be opened using a smartphone app in combination with the wi-fi network.

The benefit is that the salesperson dealing with the customer can provide the reports to the customer about the level of activity and the number of visits to the property and also it also improves security of our customers' properties.

Casey says while the previous process used has always been secure, "now we have an electronic audit trail which means we know who last accessed this place and what time of day it was. It is very valuable to know the level of activity on the properties."

Face to face

Casey says that every two months, he would attend a round of meetings where he would meet the branch managers across the region. He says he normally talks for 10 minutes during those meetings. "I just cover the top three issues of the day, then provide a back up of communications with email."

"Face to face communication is the most powerful," he says. "It is critical so the managers in these companies see me regularly, and they call or email me if they want."

More importantly, he says, he has a strong team who can answer queries from the managers.

He also shares insights on how his team works with external partners. Software development is done in-house to protect the company's intellectual property. "When we outsource work we are always part of a team. Sometimes we project manage it and we really are just getting resources from our suppliers or they are project managing it but we are running [the] project here."

"We never outsource responsibility," he says. "If a supplier is going astray, we take ownership of that. We meet with them and try to work out what we need to do. Should we de-scope? Whatever it is, it is our problem; it is never theirs, regardless of the problems that have caused it."

As someone who has seen various shifts in the business technology, he finds certain themes recurring in the CIO role. "As CIO you obviously focus on delivering technology solutions to solve problems and create opportunity for the business and that has always been the case."

"My focus when I start as a CIO is to get the basics right around IT, and that is making sure you have sound IT operations, your platforms are reliable. You have got to remove the reasons why people will complain about IT in your business." Photography by Marcel Tromp

More about: Aerohive, Facebook, Fortinet, Telecom New Zealand, Yellow Pages
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