No white flag just yet for Simpson
Chris Simpson recalls his battles to grow his company and beating cancer
By Louis van Wyk, Auckland, 19 October, 2007
Twenty years at the helm of the company he built from scratch have not cured Chris Simpson of his passion for technology or hard work.
Establishing Computer Brokers in 1987 with just $20 in the bank was a far cry from Simpson’s first job as a soldier.
Though he says his five-year military career, which included two years in active service in Malaya and Borneo, instilled in him skills and principles he has applied throughout his career.
These include loyalty, self-discipline, teamwork and leadership abilities, but no doubt also the tenacity with which he overcame all the usual trials of building a business and battled an enormous personal challenge.
About 13 years ago, Simpson was diagnosed with what he describes as “a nasty case of cancer”, which local doctors thought was untreatable.
“The people here in New Zealand basically wrote me off.”
However, Simpson was not going to give up without a fight and became involved in an experimental field-trial treatment programme being conducted in the US. The treatment lasted three years, during which time Simpson travelled across the Pacific about 30 times.
“At one stage I was spending eight days out of 30 in the US.”
This meant he had to step back from the business, but by this time his son Noel was ready to take on much of the day-to-day responsibilities.
“That was quite a challenge for the family, but we won that one – that’s now 10 years behind us.”
Simpson, aged 64, is still managing director of the company and has no plans to retire any time soon. Even though as general manager, his son is now in charge of the company’s day-to-day operations.
“I have no plan to retire – I do have plans to step back on the workload and I do have plans to get on a plane or a boat and be absent for a period of time. I just spent two months overseas in Valencia for the America’s Cup. I plan to do those kinds of things. The day-to-day control of the company is firmly in Noel’s grasp.”
Not being involved with the operational side of the business frees Simpson to focus on the strategic direction of the company.
“You can’t see the horizon if you are standing in the middle of the forest. So my job is to go and stand on the beach and look at the horizon and take a long-term view of it.
“I look at strategy and where we go and do a lot of the research associated with that and seeing how that fits in with our long-term plans – so looking at various aspects of growing the business, which allows Noel to get on with the day to day business of running the company.”
One example of a growth project Simpson drove was the establishment of Enterprise IT – a separate company set up just over two years ago in which Lexel holds a majority shareholding, along with Stuart Speers, who runs the business.
Enterprise IT was set up to service a sector of the market Lexel does not operate in – the high-level enterprise Linux, Oracle and project management space.
“It allows for the company to give a wider level of service across our customer base.”
Simpson began the business in 1987 after seeing the potential of computing, having taught himself to write programmes based on Lotus spreadsheets for the finance firm where he was a director.
“When I started off I threw $20 into a bank account and said: ‘Right, that’s it let’s go’.”
To get the business up and running Simpson worked feverishly – spending his days going through the Yellow Pages pitching his spreadsheeting solution to businesses listed in the directory. “I could see how computing could solve common problems every business was facing. After a while, customers started calling me for referrals and I didn’t have to use the Yellow Pages anymore.”
In those early days, Simpson worked long hours to grow the business. “There was an incredible amount of hard work in the first 10 years. I would never do paperwork during the day when I could be calling clients.”
But he enjoyed the work. “It was a job, an occupation, but above all it was a hobby – I loved the industry and I liked what I was doing. There were enormous challenges, but I enjoyed those challenges and loved every minute.”
For Simpson the secret to his career success is the ability to put himself in his customer’s shoes and act accordingly. “The philosophy I have is to treat other people as you would expect them to treat you. That is the philosophy I built the company on.”
If it wasn’t for Lexel, Simpson would be running his own business of some description. “What it would be I don’t know. I was just so sure that the computer industry was where I was going when I started.”
And, Simpson has enjoyed the experience of working with his son.
“In a father and son team, a father has to appreciate the taste of blood from biting his own tongue. There are many occasions when you must do that. We had to learn the hard way, so why shouldn’t they? That sort of experience of learning the hard way stays as a learnt lesson.”
While he is passionate about his work, two-and-a-half years ago Simpson developed a zeal for another activity, which left many of his peers astounded – Targa rally racing.
“A friend of mine was doing Targa and I went along to see what it was all about. The very next year I drove in the six-day New Zealand Targa. People responded with words like ‘mad’ or ‘stupid’, but of course there were a lot of the guys saying: ‘Good on you, go for it’.”
But, perhaps at the risk of losing some kudos, Simpson believes the sport is not that dangerous. “The biggest damage to a lot guys is to their pride. There are cars in there that are old and a lot of them don’t go that fast – if the drivers make a mistake and slide off the road, then their pride is dented. It is a lot of fun – I don’t go there trying to be the fastest man on the road.”
Nevertheless, Simpson acknowledges not many people take up the sport at his age. “A lot of people have been doing it for many years.”
On the other end of the adrenaline scale, Simpson is also a keen fisherman, who enjoys taking clients fishing on his boat. He was also a volunteer fish and game ranger for about seven years. “That is something totally the opposite of computerisation.”
Q + A
It will have to be my hi-definition video camera.
I don’t have one, except our own of course.
The usual – rugby, the America’s Cup and Targa racing – I also keep a casual eye on the Formula One, the V8 and the WRC [World Rally Championship].
If you could have a cup of coffee with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
It must be Charles Upham – he is the only double Victoria Cross recipient in the history of New Zealand. He was also a fantastic leader. He knew my father, but I never had the chance to meet him.
What has been the most important technological advance in IT?
It is a combination of things – the increased development and power of computer chips, the increased communication between computers and the advent and growth of storage. Without those we would not have had the development we have had.
What book is on your bedside table?
Without Remorse by Tom Clancy – I enjoy his books.
Who is/was your mentor?
There have been a number of people, such as Owen Hannigan – the chairman of P&O New Zealand who also owned Andrew and Andrews, which was a big freight business up to the 60s. He was a personal friend of the family – I always used to discuss business with him.