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Building blocks of leadership

Building blocks of leadership

​When Hannes van Zyl became CIO at Hawkins Group, the staff were ‘screaming for IT.’ But after laying the foundations for the new business technology platform, he ponders on the next mission for ICT.

CIO Hannes Van Zyl and CEO Geoff Hunt at the Hawkins Group head office in Auckland (Photos by Tony Nyberg)
CIO Hannes Van Zyl and CEO Geoff Hunt at the Hawkins Group head office in Auckland (Photos by Tony Nyberg)

ICT is now the front end, centre and back end of the enterprise. No business can run without it.

While this adage is a given now, most CIOs have war stories on how at one point in their career, a major goal, together with their teams, was changing the perception of ICT. That is, moving from cost centres into value providers and business partners.

Hannes Van Zyl, CIO at Hawkins Group, is no stranger to this challenge. He has, however, an added advantage. In his past two CIO and IT manager roles, he has been fortunate to have the CEO making sure the ICT department achieves this goal.

Van Zyl joined Hawkins Group nearly two years ago. The CEO, Geoff Hunt, recently used ICT as a model for the changes that will be happening in the months ahead.

Hawkins Group is one of New Zealand’s largest privately-owned construction and infrastructure companies, and now operates offshore in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

Established in 1946, the group comprises four businesses: Construction, Infrastructure, Harker Underground Construction and the project management arm, the Canterbury Recovery Project.

View from the top table

Hawkins CEO Geoff Hunt explains why he uses the ICT overhaul as a model for change management.

Hunt says he went on a roadshow at the start of his term and in his meetings told staff, “We have a strategic plan, a business plan: There are some fundamental changes I have made to move the business along.

“You change the leaders in order to take the business forward,” he adds. “The people who are already there are doing things in a particular way. If you want to do it differently, you have to put new leaders in place.”

Zeroing in on the company’s IT, he says the latter needed a major software and hardware platform upgrade.

“I have found somebody who has done it before and who has assembled a great team around him,” he says, referring to his experience of working with Van Zyl.

“We have moved at speed and we have a really good network infrastructure,” he states on the ICT transformation of the past two years.

Hunt says today, Van Zyl and his team are working on broader business problems, such as getting connectivity in remote sites in Indonesia where the company is building a geothermal plant.

Geoff Hunt, Hawkins Group CEO (left): We have moved at speed and we have a really good network infrastructure.
Geoff Hunt, Hawkins Group CEO (left): We have moved at speed and we have a really good network infrastructure.


Read more: Hawkins Group upgrades communications technology with Dimension Data
‘Screaming for IT’
Hunt had tapped Van Zyl for the first CIO role at Hawkins. They have worked together at Transfield where Van Zyl was IT manager and Hunt was CEO of Alstom, one of the companies bought by the group. At Kordia, they were CEO and CIO respectively.

“What made it really easy for me was Hawkins had been underinvesting for so long, the staff were screaming for IT,” says Van Zyl. “They were quite open to any change. They said, ‘Bring it on’.” Hawkins then had two IT staff who served around 600 employees. “The only way they could survive was to lock everything down and present everything through Citrix,” says Van Zyl. This presented huge challenges for the staff who worked remotely in New Zealand and overseas. Their laptops were operating as a thin client. “You had no access to the C-drive.


“Very quickly we made a fundamental decision that everything we do will be cloud-based first – definitely first, if not only,” says Van Zyl. “It is only in extreme circumstances that we are putting stuff on-premise. And that is only, if it cannot work any other way.” There were no systems for incident management, and requests were not logged. People used to email or call the IT team, says Van Zyl. He says the next step was to implement a comprehensive Service Desk that incorporated incident, problem, and change management based on ITIL. They also implemented web filtering. Van Zyl says they also rebuilt the Active Directory domain. The group had two Active Directory domains that were not in sync. “We restructured the backup systems altogether,” he says. The systems used to be kept in a “modem closet” in a little back room. These were all relocated to the Spark data centre in Takanini in South Auckland.

The building, he notes, was built by Hawkins. Van Zyl implemented Microsoft Office 365, then followed this with Lync collaboration and Enterprise Voice. This enabled the company to get rid of all its PABX systems. “Because we have implemented Lync, Hawkins staff can now do all of their office work from anywhere in the world, literally, where there is an Internet connection.”

Van Zyl says this is critically important because Hawkins has project sites in “rather interesting places” in New Zealand and offshore. Van Zyl also implemented a software distribution platform, doing away with having everything installed manually. Procurement for both hardware and software will also be done through this system. Van Zyl says the original two IT staff are still with him but their roles have changed.

The team now includes nine people including Van Zyl. They are composed of four service people: a level three engineer, an enterprise architect, an IS office administrator and a business analyst “cum Sharepoint cum CRM person”.

“It is a very lean team but hugely effective at what they do,” he says. “We basically rebuilt the infrastructure from the bottom up so we had a platform that we can start impacting the business with.”

The transformation is ongoing, as the team continues to work on more programs including asset management and asset tracking. N


Out of South Africa

While Van Zyl holds a very strategic CIO role, and is very much entrenched in the executive leadership team, his career ascent was the result of years of intensive education and training. He broadened his deep technical experience with business management roles in offshore companies.

Van Zyl became CIO at Hawkins Group in November 2013, following eight years in the same role at Kordia. Before this, he was IT manager at Transfield Services for four years, and service delivery manager for the same number of years at Carter Holt Harvey.

His rise to CIO started in his native country South Africa, where he completed an engineering diploma at Telkom South Africa, a telecommunications company operating across the continent.

It was in the late 1970s, and in those days the engineering diploma was equivalent to a BSC honours.

“You do practical as well as a theoretical education, you go through all of the various components of a telco,” he states. This meant working on cables, microwaves, exchanges and radio.

From there he joined a forest products company where he was assigned to work on wide area networking. He then stepped up to the equivalent of operations manager. He had the networking, data centre and operations people reporting to him.

He moved to New Zealand and worked for forest products company Carter Holt Harvey. He worked on the networking area and after 18 months was promoted to the equivalent to infrastructure manager. He was responsible for all of the network systems, systems administration and the data centres. He managed a team of 50 people.

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It was an international role as CHH had offices in New Zealand and Australia.

After four years, he moved to Alstom which became Transfield. He was the group’s IT manager, and it was where he worked with Hunt as CEO for the first time.

Through the years, even when working with the same CEO, Van Zyl observed profound changes in the CIO role.

“Initially, it was purely a hardware role – just making sure you keep the infrastructure running with as little interruption as possible, with very little systems interaction.

“These days it is all about maximising business performance.” Or, as he puts it, “making the boat go faster”.

“I do everything from business optimisation to running the shop as per normal to helping set policy to deciding on which location we are going to go to.”

He says he and his team are lucky that at Hawkins there are not a lot of “big lumbering ships left”, referring to legacy systems, following the ICT overhaul.

“It is a complete refocus of the role,” he says. “It is much more integrated with the business than ever before.”

He believes the shift in the CIO focus reflects the pervasiveness of IT in the organisation, and in his case, the confidence of the CEO in the ICT leadership.

“IT is a crucial component in delivering business outcomes, you can’t run a business these days without IT, and it is equally so in the construction industry.”

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These days we are a lot more part of the conversation than we have ever been before. And, absolutely, we contribute to the bottom line.

Hannes Van Zyl, Hawkins Group


Tech evangelist

Van Zyl says the ICT revamp at Hawkins also highlighted another role of today’s CIO.

Hawkins Group was the first company in New Zealand to install Polycom’s latest videoconferencing system running Microsoft Lync.

Thus, Van Zyl was asked to explain the project in a promotional video for Dimension Data, which implemented the system.

“It is part of what you do as CIO,” he says. “You are the technology spokesperson and salesperson as well.”

Being in front of a camera, however, was not a new experience for Van Zyl.

When he was CEO at Kordia, Hunt started the Kordia Business School, where internal and external people presented on a raft of business topics and technology trends. Van Zyl was among the executives who recorded these presentations which were webcast across the group.

His presentations ranged from new IT projects to explaining the information security policies and procedures.

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Hawkins also started its own business school last year. “My role is to make sure that technology works and operates properly and to contribute to the content from time to time.”

He contributes “varied” webcasts on leadership thinking, and new technologies that are coming up and how these can help the businesses.

He agrees not all CIOs are given these opportunities, but as he explains, part of the role is to “influence” people on leadership thinking.

One of his roles is also to look at a raft of new technologies. Drones and 3D printers are on top of the list.

The drone will be piloted soon to be used for surveying buildings and construction sites, he states.

3D printers have the potential to have massive use as the construction industry moves to prefabricated materials, he explains. “We will be building Lego blocks rather than having to do it all on site.”

The company, therefore, is investigating whether 3D printing is an option when people are working in a remote site.

“If you do not have a particular part you can print it right there and then,” he states. The printers can also make prototypes. “These will speed up construction but time will tell if it could be a lot more efficient.”

Hannes Van Zyl
Hannes Van Zyl


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IT reaches out

The revamp also extends to programs involving other business units in information technology and security issues.

Hawkins now has an IS user group comprised of volunteers from across the organisation. The user group is the “eyes and ears” for business technology issues on the site, says Van Zyl.

“They get to know what happens in IT first and will typically be the first users of new technology and have the option to be on the pilot group for these projects.”

Van Zyl also believes corporate initiatives need to be balanced with activities for the communities they work in.

Some of the projects he and his team work on are programs offering training in construction for Maori and Pacific Island youth.

“It is a different form of internship,” he says. “While they are doing the work they are getting training and from there they can go and do a proper apprenticeship.”

Read the fine print

A piece of key advice Van Zyl would like to share with CIOs is this: Review your contracts well.

“As a business we are also seriously focused on growth and EBIT [Earnings Before Interest and Tax],” he says.

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“Typically, ICT is seen as a cost centre, so what we set out is to relook at suppliers’ and vendors’ contracts and see where we can refocus, and to be quite blunt, cut costs.”

He says the review and renegotiation of the contracts in other areas will save the company a seven figure sum every year, “not a one-off”.

The review, among others, led to the renegotiation of fixed line and mobile contracts, as well as with the printer provider.

The company now only pays for copies printed with ‘follow me’ printing, where a print job is collected after the user has authenticated the device, and also auto deletes jobs that are not collected within a specified time. This is both for security reasons and to reduce wastage, he says.

He advises looking particularly at contracts with telecommunications providers. “Make sure you have the tools so that you can monitor and manage your telco contacts properly and at any point in time you know what is happening… Don’t rely on your telco providers. They will tell you what they want you to know.”

‘Everything is digital’

The move towards digital platforms is top of the agenda for Van Zyl and his team.

He explains the group does not have a chief digital officer because for ICT, “everything for us is digital”.

He states: “If you are driving mobility, you are driving digital.”

Van Zyl says Hawkins is reformulating and rewriting its policies and procedures, “the blueprint of how we do processes”.

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These will all be on SharePoint and can be accessed on mobile devices. The new health and safety system will be digitised as well.

“Instead of having volumes and volumes of printed manuals it will now all be electronic.”

He says the company is also foraying into social media, using Facebook and LinkedIn for recruiting staff.

The brand and communications team, meanwhile, is monitoring social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn for comments that affect the company or their sector.

Collaboration across different groups is also on the rise, following the rollout of Yammer and Lync.

“Yammer is in infancy at the moment but construction teams are using it so they can gather information and disseminate information a lot quicker.”

The company has “a very dated implementation” of CRM, which is being used in the infrastructure business.

The idea is to implement the cloud-based Microsoft Dynamics CRM, says Van Zyl. The financial system is also being reviewed in the wake of the company’s international expansion.

“We have been really focused last year on getting the foundations right, so we made sure the infrastructure is rock solid and that we can now connect people from literally anywhere in the world to the mother ship.

“This year is more about building on the system’s profiles.

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“We will have team sites for every project. With the predefined structure, they can file their documentation properly and will be able to retrieve it a whole lot easier.

“We are on a journey to becoming a partner in the business. I don’t think we are there yet,” he concludes.

“These days we are a lot more part of the conversation than we have ever been before. And, absolutely, we contribute to the bottom line.” Photos by Tony Nyberg


This article is the cover story of the 2015 Spring edition of CIO New Zealand.

Send news tips and comments to divina_paredes@idg.co.nz

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