Advanced Security chief executive Michael Marr is pioneering the use of drones for security with new technology expected to earn $300 million worldwide in the next few years. The former sparky from Pukekohe is about to sleep rough for the fifth time as part of the Lifewise Big Sleepout.

1. What were you like as a child?

I was always a bit of a gadget person - wiring up my bedroom door to switch things on when you went in, making robots. In high school I couldn't do algebra so I wrote some software to do it for me. Once I'd written the software I knew how to do it anyway. I taught myself to write computer programmes by renting a school computer over the holidays. You could buy a book on how to do it.

2. Why did you become an electrician?

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Computers weren't a career option when I graduated from Pukekohe High in 1986. Dad encouraged me to get an apprenticeship with the Franklin Electrical Power Board, where I learned every part of the electrical industry. I progressed into management for some big Australasian companies but it was always my dream to own my own business, so at age 30 I threw in the corporate career, put my tool belt on and went back to being a sparky. At first we survived off my wife's primary school teaching income. I had friends say to me, "What on earth are you doing?" but it felt right.

3. How did your small family-owned electrical business become Advanced Security?

After the twin towers came down in 2001, one of our key customers, Siemens, pulled their security division out of New Zealand. They had all the blue chip clients - like the NZ Defence Force, Fonterra, Fisher & Paykel, Genesis and Mercury Energy - but weren't making a profit. . We went to the bank and used our house to buy their Northern region. Since then we've grown by an average of 30 per cent a year to become New Zealand's largest electronic security company. We've also set up an incubator called ASG Technologies to dream what's possible and make it commercially viable.

4. What's your most exciting technological advance?

We've created a product called Vigil Air, which uses drones as aerial security guards. In the event of a security alarm going off, a drone can fly there automatically along pre-set flight paths and stream video from the scene. We believe what we've created is globally unique. We're about to sell the software internationally through global resellers and the potential is absolutely huge - around $300m in the next few years.

5. Have you trialled drones in New Zealand?

Yes, we're using drones here right now. The Civil Aviation Authority signs off what we do. Our drones have assisted the police in search and rescue operations in hard-to-reach terrain like cliffs and crevasses. Our drones do commercial work in forestry, inspecting power lines and the Auckland Harbour Bridge. They look for leaks on the roofs of buildings in the CBD. So far they've all been human-driven but we aim to make our security drones fully automated. We're also working on drone detection technology to protect our customers like prisons from other drones that could be used to drop contraband.

6. How do you build expertise when you're working in ground-breaking technology?

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We often bend technology to make it do something completely different which helps us get there faster. For example we've partnered with companies like Panasonic on developing drone cameras.

Michael Marr in his East Tamaki office. Photo / Nick Reed
Michael Marr in his East Tamaki office. Photo / Nick Reed

7. You're taking part in the Lifewise Big Sleepout for the fifth time this year. How did you get involved?

My friend Tony Falkenstein, who owns Just Water, invited me to join him. It's pretty tame compared to what the real situation is like but I do it because it grounds me. The second year really stuck with me. I was heading back to my car at 8.30am with my piece of cardboard and I probably looked a wreck and the looks I got from people really stuck with me. Lifewise talks about how all of us are only three events away from being in that place ourselves. You lose your job, then your house, then your partner - that will rock you. People say, "Why can't they just go and get a job?" Actually, it's not that easy. People who fall out of the system lose their identities.

8. Do you think homelessness is a solvable problem?

Yes but it takes all of us, not just the Government or business. Successful organisations like Lifewise need more resources. My wife and I support Lifewise through our Runway Foundation because they don't just provide a handout, it's a hand-up. They build trust with people and teach them practical life skills. Eighty per cent of the people they help are still off the street after two years.

9. Where does your moral compass come from?

I have a Christian faith, but it's really that I believe people matter. Humans have four basic needs: 1) security, we need to know we're going to go to work and get paid; 2) variety, to keep it interesting; 3) connection with other people and; 4) significance, which might come from work or coaching your kid's sports team. The two higher needs are; 5) growth and; 6) leaving a legacy.

10 Your company spends a lot on staff benefits. Is it worth the investment?

Absolutely because if staff are engaged and happy, customers are too. If they believe in the business they're easier to align with the vision. After the GFC we gave every employee's family $250 in supermarket vouchers and in the next report we noticed our EBIT went up. That's not why we did it but it proves it works. We have a confidential crisis fund for staff in need. In May we introduced a housing allowance where our Auckland staff get $2 extra an hour in recognition of the housing crisis.

11. What has been your most challenging time?

For entrepreneurs the challenge is often when you hit a glass ceiling and have to break through. In 2006 I could see we were going to double in revenue and it was going to hit in May. It was like this tsunami coming and I thought, "Are we going to get wiped out?" Luckily our competitors went under and we hired all their staff.

12. What makes a good leader?

I've been a member of the Entrepreneurs Organisation for 10 years which is great for sharing experience. I've learnt that humility is probably the most important leadership trait. When the organisation fails, I've failed. When it succeeds, it's due to our people. Never think you've got it right. Great leaders ask questions " upwards, downwards and sideways. Being a leader can be lonely. Appointing an independent board has been really helpful for me in sharing the journey. We're not listed on the stock exchangewho knows what the future brings.

http://www.bigsleepout.org.nz/