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Exit interview: Kevin Ackhurst of Microsoft NZ

Exit interview: Kevin Ackhurst of Microsoft NZ

On the eve of his move to Singapore, Ackhurst talks about the successes and unfinished business during his term.

Microsoft’s Kevin Ackhurst is moving to Singapore next week to become the vendor’s vice president of sales and marketing for Asia Pacific. Ackhurst says the local business has been successful in the past couple of years, but admits strong relationship building was needed at the outset of his term and there is more work to be done.

He is frank about the initial challenges he faced when he took over the New Zealand operations in 2007.

“When I first got here, a lot of people called me – CIOs and a variety of different business partners - and they said, ‘Look, the only thing Microsoft cares about is the money that they earn.’ Now, the conversations I have with these same people are very complimentary of the relationship and the value that they see and what they get from Microsoft.

“I also think Microsoft in New Zealand did not have the reputation that we are starting to have today,” he says.

However, he attributes this shift to the calibre of his team. “I am not sure I did anything as much as the team that I work with.”

Ackhurst prefers to describe the years he has led the local Microsoft office as a time of a “shifting economic situation and the way Microsoft is changing the way it delivers service” – a reference to the global financial crisis and Microsoft’s push into cloud-based services.

Looking back on his time here, he says, “I think our business in New Zealand has been quite successful in the past couple of years and that was because we have been honest in terms of our dealings with customers and partners, and we work hard to make sure we build strong relationships. I hope to establish the same sort of approach across the Asia Pacific.

“The thing New Zealand probably reinforced to me was how important it was to make sure you develop, cultivate and grow these relationships and help the customers and partners you are working with.”

Asked if there was anything he would have done differently, he says, “lots of things”.

One of them, he says, is starting his engagements with government earlier. “It probably took me about a year before I started focusing on our government engagements [and] relationships.”

He acknowledges Microsoft has a lot of work to do in its relationships with Kiwi firms.

“I think we have made improvements in terms of how we do our licensing,” he says, adding Microsoft “is willing to try new things within New Zealand which it wasn’t before”.

Kevin Ackhurst admits to succumbing to the same error expatriate executives often fall into – assuming New Zealand would have a similar culture to Australia.

“Having lived in Australia for a long time, I came to New Zealand [and] I thought it would be the same,” says Ackhurst, who had spent seven years in Microsoft’s operations across the Tasman. “But the people in New Zealand are completely different to Australia,” says Ackhurst, who is winding up his role as managing director of Microsoft New Zealand after nearly three years.

“One of the first things I did was actually focus on learning about the culture, learning the things that are important, and I use those as motivators for the people that we have inside the organisation and that is exactly what I will focus on when I move to my next role.”

Kevin Ackhurst says having a great team is critical to the success of Microsoft New Zealand in the past two years.

“All I really wanted to do is to make sure I had a group of motivated people that came to work passionate about working for the company and wanted to work as hard as they possibly could and do the best they possibly could for the customers and partners,” he says.

“I think I have a group of people working at Microsoft that love the things that they do, that love the customers and partners they get to interact with and as a result of that the passion has been played to the customers and partners. And we have had some fantastic business.”

He underscores Microsoft’s shift to services in the cloud. “We are really serious about the stuff we are doing around the cloud. Whether that means partnering with organisations locally to actually deliver that to their datacentres or the delivery we are providing through our data centres, I think, will substantially change business models for them and allow them to save money.”

He is keen to see improvements in Microsoft’s engagements with the heads of ICT departments. “I still find CIOs in New Zealand sometimes hold vendors at arm’s length and probably that is because we have not always been the people that do the things they actually want.

“To ultimately achieve that, we need to develop a closer relationship so I encourage [them] to look at what they can do to move towards a partnership model as opposed towards a supplier provider relationship.”

One area where he would have also wanted to have done more work on this year, and this, he says, is “the local software economy, the businesses that build software for export”.

So what insights will he pass on to his successor? First, he says, he wants to do a “really great handover, of making sure that the knowledge that I have accumulated in the course of the last two years and nine months can be transferred to the new person.”

As well, he will advise his successor not to take things too seriously. “That sort of helped me,” he says. “I don’t take things too seriously and I listen to feedback, and I would encourage anyone that had my job to make sure they listen a lot more than they talk.”

He is looking forward to the new regional role, saying the move is a plus for Microsoft’s business contacts in New Zealand. They will now have an ally in Singapore, because Ackhurst encourages them to knock on his door if they are in that part of the world.

Ackhurst began his career at Microsoft as managing consultant in South Africa, before moving to its Australian offices. Before moving to New Zealand, Ackhurst was Microsoft’s worldwide general manager of Operations and Business Strategy, in Redmond, Washington.

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