When Chris Maclean stepped up as CEO at Maclean Computing in April this year, he was following in his father’s footsteps. But succession was by no means a given.
“Allan and I agreed some time ago that the top job was to be earned, not assumed.”
To this end Chris completed his tertiary education – holiday jobs frequently involved putting memory into servers – then spent over seven years abroad, learning as much as he could about growing technology companies, to enable him to add real value to the company when he returned.
“The downside of that was I missed out on building key business relationships here. But the ICEHOUSE programme (Leading and Managing for Growth) was a fantastic way to meet other business leaders and share challenges and insights, as well as learning a lot about myself and our company.”
Allan Maclean founded Maclean Computing in 1993. Back then he, his wife Ella and brother Kevin, were it. Allan, who understood the power IT could bring to business, was responsible for sales, Kevin was the technical person and Ella did everything else.
Today the company has a staff of 72 full-time employees and offices in Auckland and Wellington serving hundreds of businesses.
“It was a different game back then, much less competitive, more focused on basic reliability. IT was really in a geek stage in those early days.”
As IT has matured, reliability has become less of a differentiator and MacLean Computing has redirected its focus to helping improve clients’ businesses through technology.
“So many companies still view IT sceptically, as a cost, whereas it’s been proven time and again to provide the basis for true competitive advantage. Customers just need to let us show them how.
“We focus on providing IT and telephony foundation infrastructure, and through years of deliberate investment in our professional partnering initiative, we now have a partner eco-system that’s second to none. This means we can provide the best total solution for any company, no matter what their industry. We’re great at building solid foundations upon which any customised software can sit comfortably.”
So, in a hugely competitive market, is it sticking with what they’re good at that’s made Maclean Computing successful? Chris believes sheer determination has been a vital ingredient.
“Allan has an enormous capacity for work plus admirable courage in making some tough calls. I also believe his uncompromising dedication to integrity has served us well – there have been many opportunities to cut corners to save a penny but he knew it would cost a pound in the long run. More recently I think it’s our ability to think like a customer and genuinely have their best interests at heart.”
Chris says a “fantastic staff culture” has also played a big part. “We have many employees who’ve stayed with us far longer than the average IT professional because they enjoy the respect, competitive remuneration and work environment at Maclean Computing.”
Of those who have left, he reckons about one in four find their way back again.
“Allan did a great job creating this environment and I personally believe a lot of it is down to his generosity as a person. He consistently put the well-being of the company above his own agenda and it shows.”
Allan is also well known as the voice of Maclean Computing, building trust through a series of radio campaigns that resonated with small business owners and built brand awareness. Chris doesn’t see himself picking up the mic; their marketing initiatives today need to focus on establishing credibility amongst 25 to 250 seat prospects, he says.
Maclean Computing has Gold Certified partner status with Microsoft and in July Chris Maclean attended the Microsoft Partner Conference in New Orleans.
“The scale of it was just enormous. More information than you could get through in a month but in the five days I was there I found it really valuable in terms of reshaping some of our strategies. I actually got much more out of it than I expected.
He also got to see Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, in action. “He’s actually a pretty compelling speaker, very passionate and that’s infectious. A lot different to Bill Gates. I think he’s good for the company for where it’s at in its lifecycle.” (Google Steve Ballmer to see just how different he really is!)
The path to CEO
Unlike a good many people who talk about ‘steep learning curves’ as they step into management, Chris Maclean followed a well-planned path to CEO at Maclean Computing. So does he believe it’s important for companies to follow a similar process?
“I’m not sure there’s any one recipe for grooming the next generation of leaders. There are so many ways to get there, all of them valid in their own right. For me the combination of a business-focused tertiary education, some time abroad working in the right sort of companies and The ICEHOUSE Leadership programme, feels like a pretty good start. But there’s no doubt learning to be a great CEO is a long journey and I’m still near the beginning.”
For his part, Allan says he’s over the moon at the way Chris has stepped up to the role.
“His qualifications, particularly his overseas experience, have groomed him perfectly, and even in the short time since his appointment, he’s proved himself to be a highly energetic and outstanding leader – exactly what the company needs to take it to the next level”
Since stepping aside from the role of managing director in April, Allan has focused on four main objectives: governance – keeping an eye on things from the level of chairman; mentoring Chris through the transition; attending various events as the company’s representative; and special projects, using his knowledge of the business, its processes and systems to help migration to new ones.
He’s also taken the opportunity to assist with fine-tuning back-room functionality. “Lots of small things you always wished you could find time to address.”
And there are a couple of holidays planned. “But gardening is definitely not on the agenda. There’s simply too much exciting stuff happening in ICT to even think of retirement!”
Patricia Moore is an Auckland-based freelance writer. Email firstname.lastname@example.org