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Ticket to rise

Ticket to rise

When Simon Conroy stepped up to become CIO of Flight Centre, he had to bid farewell to a parallel career in a rock band. Today, he is in the midst of the biggest ICT systems upgrade and integration at the travel company.

For three years, Simon Conroy’s career straddled the worlds of business and rock and roll. Conroy, chief information officer of Flight Centre, was project manager at Freedom Air when he joined the rock band Redline as its bass guitarist.

As Conroy puts it, the band was not merely “just a couple of mates messing around” and he was, effectively, working a second job. Apart from performing around Auckland, they also went on a couple of national tours to support the American bands Disturbed and Evanescence.

“Long hours, lack of sleep… It was good fun though,” he says. “The hardest thing was taking so much leave to do concerts.”

He continued playing for the band when Freedom Air was folded back into its parent company Air New Zealand, with Conroy moving to the same role at Flight Centre.

Six months later Conroy was promoted to chief information officer. By that time, he had another major change in his life — the birth of his first child. The new commitments to work and his young family (a second child was born four months ago), meant he had to leave the band and concentrate on being a CIO.

“Looking back, it was a fabulous experience and one I would not give up for a million years.”

A whole new world

More than 18 months after leaving the band, Conroy is in the thick of a major systems upgrade and migration for Flight Centre.

He and his team are working on four of the biggest IT projects to date at Flight Centre, with all of them set to be rolled out simultaneously. These are the move to a new building, installing the new VoIP and PABX system, transitioning the network to Vodafone, while rolling out Microsoft Outlook to more than 900 users.

“We are totally refitting it, gutting it, putting in brand new server rooms, refitting every floor from scratch,” says Conroy on the new offices on Vincent Street in Auckland central.

The telecommunications overhaul is also a major migration. “We have two phone systems in this building [on Emily Place, Auckland central] and two phone systems in Mt Eden, with different vendors, different support contracts that go with that. It is just a nightmare.”

Flight Centre decided a “greenfields” environment is a better option. “The move to Vodafone and the new phone system is a big investment,” he says, “But it should see us right through the next five to seven years, as opposed to taking this stuff and chucking it in the new building. We inherit all the same problems.”

Conroy explains this is first time in six years Flight Centre has made major investments around ICT.

Through the years, as Flight Centre grew and acquired businesses, there was no

integration to bring the systems seamlessly into each other. “We had a lot of old equipment that really didn’t talk to each other,” says Conroy. “We had a lot of six and seven-year-old servers and even desktops and old towers running critical infrastructure.”

His first role at Flight Centre covered large business projects, not specifically IT.

“This is my first leap into IT,” says Conroy, who has a degree in business and finance from Victoria University in Wellington. After university he worked at the Inland Revenue Department, and also worked as finance analyst and strategic planner.

Conroy explains Flight Centre has a strong philosophy of promoting from within where the skills exist. When his predecessor left, there was a search for candidates from the New Zealand and offshore businesses. “In the end they thought I was already involved in the business, and knew the major projects going on especially as a lot of the IT stuff was project related.”

He admits, though that while he had a head start with the systems at Flight Centre, “it has been a steep learning curve” for him when he progressed to the CIO role.

With a predominantly business background, Conroy finds it advantageous to have “a really good team underneath me and they are technically sound”.

He started with a team of seven people, though this has now grown to 13 and split into three streams: Operations and desktop support, technical projects and business projects.

“We run projects for the business out of the team as well, because a lot of them have quite a strong IT slant,” explains Conroy.

Alignment and governance

Conroy, who reports to the general manager, sits on the senior management team. This set-up works well for him and his team.

“I doubt whether it will necessarily work any other way in Flight Centre, because you tend to pick up a lot of stuff on the fly in conversations with people at that management meeting,” he states. “Everyone goes around and does that update and that is often how you find out about projects or get our heads up on things.”

Twice a year, the ICT executives of Flight Centre’s offshore businesses hold a conference in Asia or South Africa. The meetings ensure the ICT executives are kept up to date on both local and global issues affecting the sector.

Conroy say this type of face-to-face networking is critical, even if the global teams can communicate online.

“You can’t replicate being in a room and going out for drinks afterwards.”

A different form of networking is needed when he is with his non-ICT peers in New Zealand. “I am more of a conduit between the IT team and the senior management team and the GM,” he says. “It is translating the IT stuff to the managers. I know enough about IT to talk the language and understand the concepts [to] put IT in understandable terms and the business impacts of it on our business.”

He says one of the elements of his role is “providing the senior managers and general managers with a range of options particularly in IT”.

Vendor management skills

One of the things he tried to get in place when he started the role was work on the

department’s relationship with vendors. “We find that if you have those relationships and regular contact, they often come to you with new technology.” And this, he says, is how Flight Centre got into the “virtualisation path”.

Flight Centre was reviewing its infrastructure requirements, with one of the items for replacement being the laptop fleet. The team wanted small-form laptops as they have to take them while travelling to the offshore businesses or attending conferences.

Flight Centre went with Dell for its new laptop fleet, and in the course of the work they also discussed other ICT-related issues, which were mainly about the refreshment of older systems and the lack of integration among ICT acquisitions through the years.

During the review, they identified an opportunity to consolidate Flight Centre’s server platform by implementing virtualisation software through VMWare. A capacity planning tool was used to establish what could be achieved with the reduction in physical servers.

“We got rid of basically 90 per cent of our old hardware and virtualised them and that was such a success,” he says. “That means you don’t have to transport all these big chunky old servers and we save on rack space and therefore dollars.”

As part of the move, Flight Centre is also outsourcing its back-up systems with Revera. “We don’t have to invest money in all those enterprise data centres in the new building, we avoid those costs,” he states. “It is a matter of pointing people to a new direction instead of moving the equipment to the new building as well.”

Conroy says another one of their projects involved starting up a direct marketing database that is able to extract information from all the databases in each of their 130 stores.

“Each store has its own Citrix server and its own customer database at the back of each of these stores. We have looked to centralise our database with our marketing team to get a feel of people’s travelling habits,” he says. “A lot of that is around trying to predict what the travel habit is going to be against what is happening in the economy.”

At the same time, New Zealand is also used as a “test bed” for IT projects, particularly for those spanning across the Tasman. One such project that was first rolled out in New Zealand is the internet booking engine.

Conroy says the trans-Tasman system is already on phase two of what will most likely be a six-phase project. The system will later on be rolled to South Africa and the United Kingdom.

The project allows them to run a global distribution system where airlines can load their inventory and the travel agents can access that and resell. In the past, the system would only have flights for online booking and the agents have to get onto a different system for the hotels.

“It all makes it seamless and easier to book for the customer,” says Conroy. “It is still in its infancy, but it has been a radical change for us already really.”

Conroy has a matter-of-fact perspective on working through the shifting economic conditions that could impact on the travel sector.

“As all those economic factors start to hit the aviation industry, we find people don’t stop travelling necessarily. They just change their travel habits,” he says. “Instead of doing a lot of long-haul flights that are more expensive, they do a lot more short-haul trips.

“So no matter what the economy does, to a point we still make business. It just changes our profiles in terms of how we deal with that. We have to be a lot more cost conscious, keeping the best return on our investments, making sure we look at all the options possible and making sure we get the best benefits and the quantifiable benefits as well.”

True, Conroy may be keeping a low profile on his music career, but when it comes to delivering on his ICT leadership role, he is up for the long haul.

Fairfax Business Media

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