Pieter Bakker joined Ports of Auckland (POAL) as CIO/general manager information technology four years ago, following two decades of IT leadership roles across various New Zealand corporates.
But his meeting in February this year with Tony Gibson, then newly appointed CEO of POAL, underscores how the engagement of CIOs with their chief executives has radically shifted in recent years. “He started asking me questions, [like] can you show me what the IT infrastructure architecture looks like? What about your application architecture?”
He says it was the first time a CEO asked him those types of questions, and this reflects the new breed of heads of corporations that today’s CIOs are working with.
Bakker recalls that at the early stage of his IT career, “You spend a lot of your time explaining and educating senior management about what IT is and where it potentially could add value.” And with CEOs, he says, the discussion “was very much more on productivity and access to information type initiatives”.
With Gibson as CEO, he says, “the focus was going to go much, much more on supply chain integration and what we could do in terms of delivering end to end visibility around business processes, and enabling business process within the organisation.
“That kind of emphasis differential is facilitated by the fact he has that much broader knowledge and what the technology can do for the business.”
For Bakker, there can only be advantages in reporting to an “extremely IT savvy CEO” like Gibson.
“The upsides are in the area where you have got a strong congruence between the business strategy and the IT strategy and what you are enabling,” he says. “If you can have an informed debate with your CEO, to me that can only be advantageous. And the more informed the other person is, the more value comes out of the discussion at both ends.”
Tradition and strategy
Bakker describes his current role at POAL, as that of a “very traditional CIO” — “running the IT shop” and enterprise project management office, or as he puts it, “keeping the lights on”.
In the past six months, however, Bakker has been involved in a markedly different space from other ICT executives and restating the business strategy together with members of the executive team. He reckons half of his time in the past six months was spent on this “non-traditional” CIO role.
To underscore the importance of this programme, Bakker explains POAL has a “very lengthy planning horizon” and these can range from a five-year plan, through to forecast for 10 years in terms of strategic planning, and up to 2040 for infrastructure planning.
Surely, this a good place for a CIO? Bakker nods and says he has been on the executive team since he started at POAL. “You have got your role as a department head and CIO but you have also got a role as an executive team member. And as an executive team member, you are there together with your colleagues to run the business.”
“It is both a partnership and customer supplier type of relationship because they are your internal customers as well but at an equal level. You are part of that executive team driving the business. And if you are not at the top table together with these others, then it becomes very much a customer supplier relationship only.”
“And that really diminishes the strategic value the CIO, I would probably argue it is more an IT management than a CIO type role.”
Cross functional workshops
He explains the company took a different tack compared to previous years, when the planning was “a predominantly top-down exercise”.
This year, he says, they are “driving a lot more engagement right throughout the business”.
The company also organised “cross functional workshops” involving staff from what Bakker describes as a “diagonal slice” of the company.
Staff from across the group were invited to participate in a series of workshops. They came on a “voluntary basis”, says Baker, and those who responded included the stevedores.
The process lasted three months. The result “has been brilliant”, he says. “We have had the kind of insights you only really get when you really talk to the shop floor, about what was truly going on. We’re a lot more aware now in terms of where the inhibitors to productivity are and what we need to do.”
Where trading never stops
The port estimates that the equivalent of 13 percent of New Zealand’s gross domestic product is handled in their facilities every year. “It is a major component of the supply chain, the country’s economy it is the largest port by value in the country and certainly the largest container port in the country as well,” says Bakker.
“We are running 24 x 7,” stresses Bakker, “and if the IT stops the business stops — dead.”
Sattel, a GPS system with impact sensors, plays a key role in the operations. While Sattel has been running for around seven years, it was, he says, “bumbling along” and it was picked as one of the first projects of the project management office that he led as CIO. When he joined POAL, the project office was purely for IT enabled projects, but nine months later, was given oversight for all business projects.
He says Sattel got into “full production” two-and-a-half years ago and is now a huge success for the business.
Bakker says each of the straddles — the massive carrier vehicles used for picking, stacking and moving the containers around the port — is essentially a “travelling office”. Each straddle is linked to the wireless network covering the entire port precinct and Bakker says this presented quite a challenging environment. “You can imagine radio signals going through steel boxes is not that easy and we stack up to eight high. We have got our aerials that are lined up through the alleyways.”
The straddles will move only if the systems tell them to. “It is entirely systems enabled,” he says. The drivers’ focus is on driving the crane, lifting the container, and dropping off the container. “What they need to pick up and where they need to drop it off is entirely managed by the system,” says Bakker.
The vehicles also have what is called the “differential GPS” which tracks all of their movements and use the information to “performance coach” the drivers as well. “We are tracking everything that goes on field monitoring whether they bang into a container or drop a container too hard because that can lead to claims,” he says.
Bakker picks insights on trends while visiting ports overseas. One of the systems he observed and is included in the port’s 10-year strategy, is the use of automatic stacking cranes, which will allow the port to stack more densely and higher. The system consists of what are essentially giant robots and the stacking is done all through robotics.
He says it is still “early days” but the local ports are also discussing the possibility of sharing some IT resources. Bakker explains running a container terminal requires some fairly expensive software and hardware. “They are very IT intensive… there are certainly opportunities for ports to collaborate.”
Like some form of ‘co-opetition’? “That is a good word,” he says. “How can we collaborate in the back office and in the back end and still compete at the front end?” He says actual delivery of the shared services projects is “unlikely” in the next two years, but could be happening within five years.
Building a deeper IT leadership bench
Bakker came through IT via a technical route. Originally from Holland, he did a computer science degree and started working as a developer for Computer Strategy Limited in the Bay of Plenty.
One of their customers, interestingly, was the Port of Tauranga, a competitor for POAL. He then moved to the Kiwifruit marketing board where he was manager of business systems through the whole transition to Zespri. He worked on the SAP implementation for the financial systems and replacement of the legacy systems with SAP.
After that he moved to Air New Zealand where he spent two years in Melbourne working in IT strategy for Ansett Airlines. When Ansett collapsed, he was one of the last people to leave the office as he was looking after the IT infrastructure and bringing the methodologies housed there back to New Zealand. He then moved to finance, working at ASB as general manager for technology solutions for the bank’s Sovereign Group.
Bakker is one of the growing number of CIOs with an MBA, which he completed at the University of Auckland while working full-time at Zespri. He credits his then CIO, Pam Nobbs (now with DB Breweries) for encouraging him to go down that route.
He was then running the business systems when he told Nobbs he wanted get a broader background. Nobbs encouraged him to do an MBA which he says now is “probably one of the best things that happened to me”.
It was not the easiest times, however, to squeeze in time for his studies as Zespri was in the midst of an SAP project and to top it all, he had signed up for a marathon.
“I was a bit of a sucker for punishment,” he laughs. “It was a very intense 90-hours a week for two years.”
But he says it was worth it, and recommends other CIOs to explore the option. “It gets you way out of your comfort zone,” he says. “Because I came out of a technology [background], the MBA broadened and deepened my wider education base in all those other disciplines — sales marketing operations — which I am using now.”
One of the components in his MBA course that he found “really interesting” involved organisational change.
The course included working with his classmates to make a change within an organisation and deliver that change in three months. Their team worked with a not for profit organisation helping victims of domestic violence.
So what did he take away from this diverse work experience? “An ability to continuously challenge the way we do things,” he says.
As he puts it, there are similarities in managing the berth at POAL with the scheduling for operations in an airline. “The kind of risk management, security management and discipline are absolutely innate in a banking kind of sector that you need to bring to your CIO role.”
His stint with a large exporter, Zespri, also provided him industry perspectives that he is now using at POAL. “Every part of my career has been a building block that I apply in my role here.”