Kunnen’s career has taken him from the oil fields of Southeast Asia, through management with Hewlett Packard to the CIO position with power company Contact Energy and now to the role of CEO at Critchlow.
“With HP, I was involved in the management of consultants and engineers in our systems integration and consulting business,” he says. “My background was in terms of understanding customers’ needs, architecting solutions for that and managing the deployment and support of those solutions. I had experience across the whole lifecycle of technology.”
He ended up working in Australia with HP. “I came back to New Zealand and took up the opportunity with Contact,” he says. “I was interested in the whole environmental question and Contact was a large player in the New Zealand energy scene.
“I thought I could help shape the direction of the New Zealand energy sector and I was interested in some of the new technologies that could be applied to areas such as smart metering.”
He took up the CIO role at Contact due to an interest in experiencing a computer-based operation “from the inside, as opposed to being a service provider”.
“The job there is not bound by a contract, as it is in consultancy; the expectation is basically that the information services team will support whatever the business wants to do.
“It was a challenge to put in place the frameworks providing that flexibility, yet still maintain the service level required and protect the corporate information assets.” The experience helped shape his attitude to the Critchlow job.
Another lesson from his time at HP was “the rate of change in terms of keeping what you’ve got current; the patches, the operating system updates, the database changes. There was a huge stream of work required just to keep the current investment fresh. On top of that there are all the new initiatives needing to be addressed. So in order to be effective, you really have to put in very good change-management processes. Those are not meant to slow change down, but to facilitate it.”
IS, he says, must not only do what the business demands, but try to draw the attention of managers and directors to the opportunities arising from new technologies of which they are not aware.
The CIO role also means focusing on cost control, through being aware of which areas of the information systems have become outdated, or are no longer of value, and turning them off.
Kunnen spent two years at Contact and achieved a lot in that time, “cleaning up a lot of the business information and implementing enterprise-wide business intelligence; a single point of truth, rather than multiple spreadsheets and databases”.
He also oversaw several online customer service initiatives. “I was pleased to see a significant transition from treating the customer as a consumer, to seeing them as a true customer and putting in place the services they were looking for.” His transition to Critchlow came through an awareness of a broader role to be played by spatial data in the core business of corporations, along with his love of bicycle riding.
“I returned from a biking tour in Europe last year and everywhere I went I’d seen a proliferation of navigation devices. This was obviously a new area of the market that is exploding.”
After talking with founder Steve Critchlow, he learned more about the company’s competencies and what it was trying to achieve.
“I was looking for a leadership role in a smaller company, and in a different area from pure IT, where I could influence the strategic direction more strongly.
“We’ve gone from fairly traditional geographic information systems and mapping techniques, to spatial information being a critical part of the information that an enterprise needs to consider. It helps understand energy use in your organisation; fleet management, the most effective positioning of your retail outlets and understanding more about your customers’ behaviour.
“In the past, the spatial solutions tended to be used by one or two people in an organisation, whereas now that information is being used by everyone from marketing teams and distribution/logistics teams to strategic planners. We have to cater for that broader market.”
The growth area of Critchlow’s business is “location-related intelligence”, says Kunnen. “The visualisation of that information is much more effective when it’s mapped, than presenting it in a tabular form. It is much easier for decision-makers to see the patterns.”
What he brings to this expanding market, he says, is “a strong understanding of technology and a systematic way to approach the design and deployment of technology for solutions and projects.”
Kunnen says he will have no difficulty refraining from “getting my hands dirty” in the ICT side of Critchlow’s business. “I consider myself a technologist rather than a technician; someone with strengths in project management and evaluating the risks of innovations that use technology.”
His move to the top post handed him a slew of change-management challenges. “I think for myself the biggest change has been going from a large corporate to a small nimble enterprise; the range of things you have to get involved with is bigger and at a much more detailed level in a small firm than a large corporation.
“You do spend more time doing strategic thinking [as a CEO] and the timeframe you’re looking at is probably further out,” he says. “As CEO, I’m also looking at what are the new areas for the company to move into, what are the competitive threats, what’s the impact of changes in the market, etc.
“The focus is also very much on running a business as opposed to running a cost centre. You’re concerned with all aspects of the profit and loss and the balance sheet, whereas you tend to have a less direct focus as a CIO on that. You have a capex and an opex budget and you’re focussed more on how you use those resources effectively.”
The change involves working for a smaller company. “We don’t have a lot of specialists across areas of the company, so you do tend to get involved in cashflow management, financial planning, recruiting and other areas; where in a larger company there are a lot more support staff to take care of those aspects.”
His ICT leadership roles have definitely prepared him for the top post. “I’ve always taken a businesslike approach to running the IT organisation,” he says. “While we had mainly internal customers, I still used a model of running it like a business, making sure that you’re creating value and being cost-effective. I think when you use that kind of approach, it’s a relatively easy step to move from CIO to CEO from a business perspective.”
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