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Interview with a global CIO: Gerben Otter of Fonterra

Interview with a global CIO: Gerben Otter of Fonterra

Gerben Otter reveals the nuances of holding one of the biggest ICT leadership roles in New Zealand, and why he always talks to his counterpart in competing companies.​

Gerben Otter was studying law, when he worked with the legal division of a computer company in the Netherlands.

"The company was introducing a new computer system and I was asked to guide it," says Otter, the CIO at dairy giant Fonterra since March last year.

He never got back to law.

Otter says his succeeding IT roles were commercial in focus, including salesperson, then director for services and business unit director responsible for sales and marketing.

In the next 12 years, Otter cemented a career as an executive in various technology companies in the Netherlands.

Before Fonterra, Otter was with FrieslandCampina, the Dutch dairy co-operative.

For three years he led SUMMIT, FrieslandCampina's largest business transformation programme. SUMMIT implemented a single SAP instance worldwide, globally standardising and harmonising all business processes. He stepped up to this role after being CIO at the Dutch dairy group for nearly two years.

His previous roles include Group CIO at GrandVision NV and CIO of adidas Group, which he held for nine years.

The Fonterra IS leadership team: Brent Bain, Laurent Haumonte, Simon Cowley, Anneliese Cleary, Cynthia Patterson, Gerben Otter, Joshua Bankers, Mark Smith, Mike Butler, Nigel Alder (not in photo: Andrew Dennis). They work closely with the disrupt team, composed of members from different units of Fonterra.
The Fonterra IS leadership team: Brent Bain, Laurent Haumonte, Simon Cowley, Anneliese Cleary, Cynthia Patterson, Gerben Otter, Joshua Bankers, Mark Smith, Mike Butler, Nigel Alder (not in photo: Andrew Dennis). They work closely with the disrupt team, composed of members from different units of Fonterra.

Global CIO

Otter was director of systems integration services at Unisys, when he was offered his first CIO role.

The company was adidas, requiring him to move from the Netherlands to the headquarters of the sportswear manufacturer in Germany.

Thus Otter’s first CIO role already had a global scope.

When he joined adidas, he told the chief operating officer who eventually became CEO, about the massive task at hand: "We need to globalise the IT functions."   

Otter noted how the company then had different systems in its offices across the globe.

“Over time, we centralised it and transformed it into an international working environment,” says Otter, but with a strong concentration of knowledge and systems in Germany.

When he left adidas, he was leading an ICT team of more than a thousand people. Around 60 per cent of the team was based in Germany and the rest across the globe.

Gerben Otter’s first CIO role, at adidas in Germany, already had a global scope
Gerben Otter’s first CIO role, at adidas in Germany, already had a global scope

Peer networking

In 2011, when he was with FrieslandCampina, Otter rang his counterpart at Fonterra, Chris Barendregt, now a partner with PwC New Zealand.

“It was a peer discussion and exchange of ideas,” says Otter, who had no inkling then he would one day take over the Fonterra post.

For Otter, this practice of calling the CIO of a competing company or in the same industry is not new.

He first started it at adidas.

When he told his boss about his plan, the latter asked in disbelief: “Are you really planning to talk to Nike?”

“Yes,” said Otter.

In their premises? Otter nodded.

“Go ahead, no problem,” he was told, “but I assume they don’t want to talk to you.”

His boss was surprised when the CIO at Nike said yes, and invited Otter to the company's headquarters in Oregon, US.

“We had to be very careful because we are strong competitors,” says Otter. They agreed the discussion was off the record and did not include new product development.

They talked about spending levels, how to manage challenges in getting approval for projects, project management strategies and how to prioritise investments, like retail solutions and big data.

He also had a similar discussion with the CIO at Danish dairy cooperative Arla.

“Absolutely,” he says, when asked whether he recommends other CIOs do the same thing.

Next: Gerben Otter talks about Fonterra's global IS strategy, insights from Silicon Valley and the best route to CIO

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