Independence key to IT fix-it firm

By Helen Twose

Industry veterans rely on selling their expertise, not hardware or software

Clayton Wakefield (left) and David Graham, who started running Techspace from a cafe table, now employ 30 to 40 people. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Clayton Wakefield (left) and David Graham, who started running Techspace from a cafe table, now employ 30 to 40 people. Photo / Steven McNicholl

The stunning view from Clayton Wakefield's lower Queen St office takes in the high-rises that house Auckland's "big end of town". It's these tower dwellers - the likes of ANZ, Fonterra, Vodafone and the IRD - that are the core clients of the boutique IT consultancy Wakefield created five years ago with fellow technology veteran Mike Prebble.

Both left senior corporate IT jobs - Wakefield was head of technology, operations and cards at ASB and Prebble was at IBM - to form independent IT advisory firm Techspace.

The business was born out of a gap Wakefield and Prebble could see in providing impartial technology advice.

Techspace sells nothing other than its expertise, says Wakefield.

"If you contract a large IT vendor, then they have relationships around hardware and networks and software that actually, one could argue, they [have an incentive] to sell," he says.

"This is where we saw a great opportunity in the market and that's proved to be true over the five years.

"In fact it's going from strength to strength around that ability to have an organisation you can rely on for advice."

Within six weeks of kick-starting Techspace in November 2007, the pair, who were at that point running the business from the tables of Sheinkin Cafe on Lorne St, had landed their first contract.

The $90 million IT project for a financial services client saw them roll up their sleeves and get back out on the open-plan office floor.

"It was quite refreshing being on the other side of the desk from where we had both been.

"You can empathise with and understand the other guys, the people you are dealing with, the boards, the executive teams, so you can get to conclusions very quickly and help out very quickly."

He describes the firm as "advisers and doers".

"We love doing things but that always comes with advice."

Techspace was on hand to advise Air New Zealand and IBM when a massive IT meltdown in 2009 resulted in 10,000 passengers being stranded on the last day of the school holidays, prompting Air NZ chief executive Rob Fyfe to deliver a very public dressing down to the IT supplier.

Yes, Wakefield admits, he does know all the dirty IT secrets around town but he's too discreet to reveal more than that.

He says the business Techspace has created is built on trust and the independence that gives them the ability to call it like it is. "Sometimes it is hard delivering tough news to clients who have one perception when the reality is quite different from that," he says.

"I'm on a number of boards and I continue to be concerned by the lack of understanding of IT around the board table and at executive team level and it tends to fall to the CIO (chief information officer), so you have to have pretty broad shoulders in that regard.

"But it's fundamental to everyone's business these days. It's either a competitive advantage or it's a big millstone around your neck and the time has come for people to get more educated around information technology - or use a Techspace."

Wakefield says they don't write reports (although they are sometimes called on to interpret lengthy IT reports written for a chief executive), preferring instead to provide a roadmap to get results.

The practice has grown to between 30 and 40 people - the staff tally fluctuates as many contract to Techspace - but its low-key approach has seen it fly under the radar despite being a sizeable company in New Zealand terms.

David Graham, who came on board as the Auckland general manager early last year, says the majority of work comes from referrals, as do new staff.

"In the year and a half I've been here I don't go looking for people; the phone quite often rings."

Graham says he'd like to see Techspace grow to a much bigger version of what it now is.

"We've got some targets and how we might achieve that. We're looking at opportunities as and when they arise, which is a nice place to be in," he says.

Even though Techspace can count some multinationals as clients, doing work as far afield as Asia and Britain, expanding overseas isn't on the radar at the moment.

"I think there is a lot more value to be added in New Zealand first and I think that will happen by natural evolution.

"So no, we're probably not going to dash across to Sydney and start in a coffee bar in George St like we did in Auckland. I think that's highly unlikely."

- NZ Herald

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