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Honorary DSc for Sir Gil Simpson from University of Canterbury
Article from the University of Canterbury's Chronicle - 05/07/02

Building a successful business on quintessentially
New Zealand values

Sir Gil Simpson
Sir Gil Simpson receives his honorary DSc from Dame Philis Guthardt
Photo by Duncan Shaw-Brown
The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Daryl Le Grew, gave the oration for Sir Gil Simpson on the morning of Friday, April 19.

"Sir Gil Simpson is something special. He's even been called New Zealand's Bill Gates.

"In the fast-changing world of computing, he has had more than twenty years of success and he's had two major software products in LINC and JADE. He heads a company that employs some 400 staff, 300 of them here in Christchurch, and which turns over $60 million annually. Those are mighty achievements and they've been made in an industry that favours youth and changes very, very quickly.

"The accolades he has earned are numerous, including being knighted in 2000 for his services to computing and the broader community. But before I outline all his many achievements, I want to try and get to the bottom of what makes Sir Gil such a successful businessman.

"It seems to me that the secret to his success is his New Zealand style of interaction and employee relations. He embodies very traditional New Zealand values - values such as giving it a go, which is quintessentially Kiwi and which ensures mistakes .... the very best way to learn.

"Sir Gil encourages his senior technical staff to spend some 15% of their time on curiosity-driven projects - what we at University would call 'blue skies research'. Then there's company innovations like 'Learn at lunch', a personal and professional development programme.

"Traditional values such as respect for the individual staff member. Productivity is very high at JADE but there are no punch clocks and - much to many people's surprise - there is a free supply of alcohol on every floor and staff are allowed to imbibe at work. Interestingly, the average consumption per staff member is about two cans a week, a great advertisement for how people respond to trust.

"Values like a commitment to community involvement - Sir Gil exemplifies that himself through his professional associations, public involvements such as chairing the Christchurch City Mission Foundation and many other invisible and anonymous commitments to the community, as well as extensive community use of the company's buildings - and he encourages his staff to do the same. Insiders say the community involvement of the firm and its staff is second to none.

"And finally, he gets loyalty, productivity and creativity from the way he treats his staff. It's no coincidence that turnover among the technical staff is 2% compared with an industry average of 30%. One of the keys is the involvement of family and partners - every month there's a catered function for them all; the regular newsletter goes to their private address; all staff and their families get a Christmas card each year personally signed by Sir Gil and sent to their homes; and then there's the coveted invitation to the Christmas do of champagne on the lawn - or 'turps on the turf', as it's known irreverently. And this generosity is based on the recognition that successful staff have supportive partners.

Those very human, very New Zealand values of Sir Gil's, borne out in work practices, are the key to his success. As one executive put it, when the British strike a problem, they employ more staff; when the Americans strike a problem, they spend more money; when New Zealanders strike a problem, they work smarter - and that's something your staff deserve rewarding for.

"Sir Gil, chief executive of JADE Software Corporation (formerly Aoraki) wears many hats - non-executive director of the Reserve Bank, member of the Business Roundtable, President of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Chair of the E-commerce Action Team, a fellow of the New Zealand Computer Society, the New Zealand Institute of Management and the New Zealand Institute of Directors, and chairman of the Christchurch City Mission Foundation. And in 2000 he was made a Knights Companion for his contribution to computing.

"His first job was at the National Bank, where a compulsory computing aptitude test changed the direction of his life and career. One week he sat a computing test and the next week he was programming computers. Some of the code he wrote at the bank is still in use today.

"He rose quickly through the ranks of the industry and into senior programming positions at Whitcoulls and Comalco. Whereas other senior programmers were being drawn into management, he stayed in programming. That view is central to his philosophy - that programming skills are the basis of the business and that the programmers are key staff, which is why they occupy the best building at JADE.

"In 1976, Sir Gil travelled to Saudi Arabia to start work on his own ideas about how programmes could be written and the theory behind it. After two years he came back to New Zealand and started developing the LINC product, initially writing every line of code.

"Sir Gil and partner Peter Hoskins sold LINC to Burroughs (later Unisys) in 1982. Now, twenty years later, Sir Gil's latest software package JADE is taking the world by storm. JADE is now enjoying international success in Australia, the United Kingdom, Korea, Singapore, India and Japan, in organisations such as IBM, Ernst and Young, and Northern Territory Health Services.

"He is still disappointed in business opportunities the company has lost and New Zealand's reluctance to adopt local products. The Australian Federal Government was the first government in the world to use JADE, the UK is following, but New Zealand has a way to go. Despite those frustrations he has no plans to move overseas. He likes the environment in Christchurch and the team he's built up. In fact, he plans to list the company publicly next year, with all the scrutiny and pressure that involves.

"And as with many high achievers, there's a recreational side to him to provide balance. He still enjoys computer games and he still attends the theatre, films and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. He loves his rugby and there's his love of cars - he loves Minis, has three Mini Caprices and even has the famous yellow Mini out of Goodbye Pork Pie.

"One last thing I want to say about Sir Gil Simpson is that he is brave. Taking a successful product like LINC and selling it to the Burroughs business giant takes a lot of nerve. It involves turning your back on your success and your income stream and starting from scratch again; no wonder the Burroughs people said 'guys like Gil Simpson will only ever hit one home run.'

"But he'd studied the development of major IT firms in both evolution and revolution mode. A new product meant staff lay-offs and million-dollar write-offs, as the company had to change tack from mainframe computers to PCs. It meant retraining 280 staff whose skills had become obsolete. But as we can see from the success of JADE, the revolution approach does work.

"For all these many reasons we are delighted to honour Sir Gil and his commitment to the region and the industry with an honorary degree.

"Madam, I have the honour to present Gilbert Simpson for the degree of Doctor of Science (honoris causa)."



Sir Gil, DSc, acknowledges support

Sir Gil Simpson, DSc (honoris causa), gave the graduation speech (edited below) at the morning ceremony on Friday, April 19.

"Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor members of Council, everyone honoured here today, their friends and family, distinguished guests, it's a delight to be here.

"The Vice-Chancellor didn't say it but I didn't attend university, so this is quite a remarkable occasion in its own way. My friends and family and colleagues at JADE many of them (are) distinguished academics and none of them, I think, don't believe I don't deserve this. But they clearly feel I haven't suffered enough for it.

"I would like to acknowledge the support in my work of all my associates at JADE and back over the last twenty four years - it's been a remarkable process and their support has been absolutely fantastic. I would also like to acknowledge my family, my wife, my children for their support as well, which really makes all the things possible that I have been involved in.

"Science is about discovery and about understanding - a level of new understanding. Technology is when we actually use science ... I am more of a technologist that a scientist.

"Today you have received a degree from a university which has a very unique place in the world. Lord Rutherford, in my view, is one of the top ten scientists of the twentieth century. His achievements were remarkable and they changed the way in which the world behaves, both politically and socially - truly a remarkable man.

"The road through Technology Park is called Sir William Pickering Drive - something I am very proud of. I met Sir William Pickering just last month - (he is) 91 and is fitter than me and was visiting New Zealand. Sir William led the US unmanned space exploration programme from its inception, with the first satellite going round the Earth which he watched pass overhead from the White House lawn where he stood with President Eisenhower. He led the programme right through to the first soft landing on Mars. In my view, definitely in the top five technologists the twentieth century has produced.

"So what we have in the University that has conferred the honour on you today is a university that had two men - one a scientist and one a technologist - who were leaders in the twentieth century. That is quite unique. I looked at some other statistics and there were 4355 organisations in the US that conferred degrees. When we think of that and think of that achievement - it's remarkable. What's more important is that somebody might be here in 2102 and say that in the twenty first century this University created a person who was in the top five in science and technology, and there is no reason why one of you is not that person.

"There are three things I think that you take away from here. The first is your self - I think that is the most important thing that you have. It is your potential - that's everything that you will do in the world, the most fantastic thing you have.

"The second thing is your awareness and the third thing is something else. Canterbury University has more to do with JADE than you imagine. In 1984 I was investigating the problems of parallel processing and concurrency - complex problems. In 1984-5-6 I was heavily involved in that work. So were a lot of computer manufacturers and universities. It was the 'in thing' in computer information systems at that time. I thought that the solutions in parallel processing and concurrency were going in the wrong direction.

"I had an idea that I might be able to solve the problem. Today the JADE product contains the result of that work. It contains the results of those initial architectural models that worked. To my knowledge it's the only commercial product in the world that actually has resolved that fundamental problem. In 1984 I applied to the University of Canterbury to do this work to gain access to the library because I needed to see the journals and the papers. I wanted to get confirmation of what they were doing right and what they were doing.

"I was turned down by the University for access to the library because I wasn't a graduate. So I hired an assistant who was a graduate. Max used to go to the University of Canterbury and obtain the necessary literature that I required.

"So when I leave here today, the first thing I am going to do is apply for my library card - that is the third thing you take away from here. Apart from yourself, you have access to the library.

"And whatever challenges you face, whatever difficulties you face, never forget the library because in the library is discovery and in the library is understanding and in the library you can find a way of moving yourself and overcoming difficulties, whatever they might be.

"So my thanks for this honour to the University, my best wishes for all of you in the future. Do come back to New Zealand when you have been overseas - we need you, we need your wealth to pay for the next flock of students coming through. I thank you very much and all the very best."






 
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