Leading from the front: Successfully driving a wholesale portfolio
Bevan Slattery founded Megaport, NEXTDC and Superloop, and co-founded SubPartners. With such a rich portfolio of companies in the wholesale space, Jason McGee-Abe spoke to him to find out what are the keys to success
Back in December 2016, I heard Bevan Slattery at a Superloop reception during Capacity’s 2016 Asia event when he spoke eloquently about the company’s Hong Kong 110km dark fibre network going live, fibre and subsea cables. Impressed by his enthusiasm and focus, he added at the time that the domestic TKO Express subsea cable in Hong Kong was progressing well, which as we go to print is now live.
What struck me at the time was how he identified the opportunity in the Hong Kong market and how he engaged with people to realise this vision. He had looked up details of the Singapore-Japan cable, that had previously landed, and found some contact details on the back of the brochure. He said he phoned Susana Halliday to discuss the opportunity and after a few more talks, she agreed to work for Slattery, joining his vision and Superloop team as a project leader.
I was immediately struck with how well he spoke to and about his staff, making them feel not just part of a team but as individual leaders in their own respective right. Slattery, who is behind software-defined networking (SDN) leader Megaport, is a great tech entrepreneur and it was a true pleasure to get his insights into leadership and succession.
The early days: ‘do it yourself’
So where did it all start? After Slattery left university he spent a few years in government but “it wasn’t for me as I found it too boring”. So he signed up to do the Novell IT course and worked for an ISP, helping it to open up an office in his hometown. The business went under but that’s when Slattery looked to set up his first business.
“I started up iSeek with a school friend back in 1997. It was the early dot-com days and although we had enough stock we didn’t have enough cash. We ended up selling the business and after it was sold I continued to work there.”
However, he missed owning his own business and he then co-founded telecommunications infrastructure provider PIPE Networks, running it as CEO. “That was back in the day when DSL was coming out. Australia was very isolated and we had some limited capacity but we could see connectivity needing to rise. The beauty of PIPE was that we realised peering or internet exchange (IX) would become more important to keep the traffic local and save money from a cost perspective. We essentially leveraged the growth of traffic from broadband in Australia.” Pipe started in 2001 and in just a few years it became one of the largest IX operators in the country.
Start of the business empire
The big step change in that business happened when Slattery wanted to buy some dark fibre to connect down the street and into the company’s buildings. “Most of the providers didn’t want to sell it to us. One did but it was very expensive and it was cheaper to buy a carrier licence itself.
I explained that it needed to be cheaper or I’d just lay dark fibre myself and their response was: ‘If you think you can do it, then do it yourself’.” Slattery accepted the challenge and hasn’t looked back since. Six years later he built an $A400 million business and sold it to TPG and then built an undersea cable to Guam, which was a massive learning experience and exciting time for him.
“That’s when I fell in love with the industry and got exposed to so much incredible stuff. That was really the start of Megaport and Superloop,” Slattery says. “The common theme is that I love infrastructure businesses that support the growth of the internet: Megaport, Superloop and NEXTDC.
“I love these businesses as they are in one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. Megaport and Superloop were about taking that data from the data centre to the enterprise buildings and vice versa.”
In April, Superloop announced that it had acquired subsea cable operator SubPartners and was planning to build a new 18Tbps cable linking Singapore and Indonesia with Australia.
In May 2010 he founded independent data centre provider NEXTDC with a vision of “becoming the most trusted, connected and recognised data centre provider in the Australian and New Zealand market”. It operated three data centres in Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra, Australia. In three years, it raised over $A200 million in capital and was an ASX300 company with a market capitalisation of almost $A500 million.
“Every business I’ve started has always been about solving problems for people,” Slattery stresses. “Usually it’s about bringing a group of like-minded people together and making the investment, the risk so to speak, on behalf of other people and turn that into a business.”
What makes a good leader? Slattery pauses, and says: “Gosh, that’s a really good question. The one thing that is often overlooked is communication. That’s certainly an area I still need to improve on internally. In our market, you ultimately need good vision, strong commitment but great communication. There’s no point in having a great vision if you can’t communicate it and get people to come along on the journey with you. Being able to bring your customers, partners and staff on your journey and vision is paramount.
“Usually when people leave, it’s not a surprise, and you should always have a succession plan,” says Slattery. “Always think about good, talented people in the organisation and about how their careers should progress. Of course you can look to people outside of your organisation but if you’re not preparing people within the organisation for leadership, they may feel that they’ve hit a ceiling and if they want that level of career advancement they’ll go somewhere else.
“It’s very important to share this vision internally and have an open line of communication with your leaders. Generally speaking, people won’t generally wake up one morning and say: ‘I’m leaving’. It might not even be disgruntlement, it might be part of their own personal plan. People leave for a whole variety of reasons,” he adds. “Sometimes they’ve already succeeded in their business, got what they wanted to achieve and are seeking a new challenge. We’re agents of change in our businesses.
“People could leave either because they’re unhappy, disgruntled, not performing, or they’ve done incredibly well and people are looking at snatching them from you. It could be retirement or a personal situation.”
It’s very similar to a football coach who has won everything in the game and achieved all their personal and club goals. But they may want a new challenge.
“100%. You’ve done something amazing and got to a point. People take roles in their careers for different reasons. A good example with some global companies is that there’s a lot of travel associated with their roles and perhaps they don’t want to travel that much anymore and want to settle down,” Slattery responds.
Having a high level of buy-in from people to see through your vision through is also critical, Slattery adds. “You’ve got to be prepared to promote within or in fact, give them the opportunity to be promoted internally or skilled-up to take higher roles. You have to look externally too.”
Good people are hard to find, but great people are very difficult to find. “When I started off it was just me and a laptop. Then the team grew to two then to four. Superloop and Megaport started off in similar ways, so to speak,” says Slattery.
“As the businesses evolves, people’s roles get a little bit more defined, but you want to identify and keep the good people.”
Slattery identifies one recent example that the company has already announced. “Look at Belle Lajoie, whose just been named CCO at Megaport. Belle started with me ten years ago at PIPE Networks, when she was the assistant to the sales assistant. You just couldn’t find a harder working, focused person,” he says.
“She absolutely worked her way to executing brilliantly. She works incredibly hard. Within a fairly short space of time she became the sales assistant, I then brought her on at NEXTDC to do channel sales and when we started Megaport I hired her and she’s been instrumental ever since.”
The secret to keeping on to talent for Slattery: “When you find people who are smart, hard-working and dedicated they’ll keep rising to the top.”