Anthony Belsham on his rise from IT manager to chief executive officer
As organisations move to become digital businesses, ICT executives are offered the chance to take the helm in more traditional markets.
Anthony Belsham’s ascent to chief executive officer of cloud advisory and technology services company Fronde was a reversal of this path.
Belsham came from the manufacturing sector, as GM global quality of Fisher & Paykel Appliances. Before this, he was GM global sales excellence for the appliances company.
But for Belsham, it was actually a return to the technology sector.
More than 20 years ago, he was IT director of the refrigeration business of F & P.
“I have come full circle in my career.”
Belsham joined Fronde in December when Ian Clarke stepped down after eight years as CEO. Fronde provides a portfolio of cloud based services, and partners with global providers including NetSuite, AWS, Salesforce, Adaptive Insights and Google.
He joined F & P after completing his bachelor of engineering (electrical and electronics), at the University of Auckland.
He became IT manager, following a stint as IT control and systems engineer.
In the late 80s, when he was working on his electronics degree, he was doing a lot of work on mobile telecommunications and robotics.
As a student, he was already working on interesting, if not leading edge technologies at that time.
''It was the early days of telemetry and I worked on the dams for the water supply around Auckland. We would measure the water levels and send them to control centres via radio communications.''
He says he was drawn to work at F & P Appliances because the company had a huge investment in machine automation in factories. “We started getting desktops, so I had a part-time job managing the PCs that were coming into the organisation.”
“What happened was that the information systems team started to emerge out of that team. Our team was doing factory automation and had this mix between factory production engineering teams and information systems.''
He told his mentor, Stuart Broadhurst, now managing director and CEO of F & P appliances, about his interest in the business side of what they were doing.
Broadhurst asked him to move to the factory as team co-ordinator and project leader. He was then information technology manager. That was the turning point in his career.
“I had a choice to go off and work for an IT company where IT was the business, or be more involved in the business side of F & P.”
He chose the latter and found himself team leader of the factory.
He says moving to a new environment was one of the best things that happened to his career. “It was an incredible learning experience,” he says. “You learn a lot about people and empathy.
“In the factory the cycle time is short. When things go wrong, the stuff piles up...You get that cadence of learning very quickly.
“I was lucky enough to have moved around the few areas in the factory, to get the breadth and the depth in the organisation.”
When his mentor Stuart Broadhurst moved to the F & P in the United States, Belsham “inherited” the factory manager role.
“I was 29 years old and I had a $120 million business to run. It was an awesome opportunity and a hell of a learning curve.”
That became the springboard for him to get into other roles across the organisation.
''We were growing from a New Zealand organisation, to an Australasian organisation and ultimately into a global organisation.
“Some of the challenge and excitement around that is that you are taking on the world.”
While he has left full-time work at the IT side of the organisation, he says he continued to work on some IT projects on his own. These included writing code and working on mobile apps.
“They were skunk works, with just enough knowledge to be a bit dangerous,” he says, smiling.
Continuing a family tradition
Belsham reflects on his career and says his grandfather and his father had influenced him to pursue a career in technology.
His father was a mechanical engineer and this influenced his career choice.
“My father said to me it was pretty clear I will have something to do with technology and engineering," he states.
''When I was aged two, I put a screwdriver in the power socket to see how it worked. I always had that inquisitive mind.”
His grandfather worked on one of the first computers in New Zealand. He was the captain and head of research of the original Tui, the research ship of the New Zealand Navy.
His grandfather used to tell him that in the 50s, they were working with Americans on research work, using paper tape computers.
He compares that now with how people get their technology ‘'as a service'’ and the continuing disruption the shift to these business models are causing to industries.
He says he has two favourite slides at the moment: The first one is a road in New York in 1900 full of horses and one car. The second slide is taken on the same road 13 years later, but with one horse and full of cars.
He muses about the jobs that have been lost or shifted in the move from the horse-drawn carriages to automobiles.
“We look at our world now and how fast stuff is happening, disruption is going on and it is going to completely redefine the jobs of people.
“Even the industry where I am in is getting disrupted,” he says.
The barriers to being able to scale the business is going down, he says. "Rod Drury of Xero is proving that you can use New Zealand as a technology hub 'to do cool stuff' around the world."
At the same time, he says, the speed of change makes it hard to make the right decisions in any business today. This is the “end to end conversation” they have with customers around digital platforms.
“You need this platform that can evolve really quickly, you need to be fast and the world is going to be faster than ever. But you need to think from a system and platform point of view," he states.