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Ten minutes with Geoff Rohrsheim … IT entrepreneur

Business

Serial information technology entrepreneur Geoff Rohrsheim did not use a computer until after he finished school. Three decades and a swag of successful start-ups later, the SA businessman is looking beyond the cloud to the Internet of Things and Big Data for the next generation of IT.

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Geoff Rohrsheim has made a career out of information technology – a field he had zero interest in as a youngster. When Rohrsheim finished school in 1985, he had never used a computer and had no desire to.

He launched his first start-up company about a decade later, an IT systems integration business Strategic Data Management (SDM), which grew to more than 100 staff and sold in 2008 to ASX-listed DWS Ltd.

Kloud Solutions – which Rohrsheim started in partnership with Jamie Potter when the pair had a feeling that the ‘cloud’ had legs – achieved meteoric growth to be ranked by BRW as the fastest-growing company in Australia in 2014. The duo sold five-year-old Kloud in January 2016 to Telstra for more than $40 million.

Now, through Hatch Creations Pty Ltd, Rohrsheim and Potter run Chamonix IT Consulting. They also recently launched Cevo – a cousin to Chamonix – in Melbourne, and have another start-up, Exposé Data, set to launch on July 1. Rohrsheim is on the boards of RAA and Business SA. He grew up as the second-eldest of six children in a large family linked to the Rohrsheim Bakery in Port Pirie. He says a focus on education and a passion for learning has been a driving force behind his success and that of his high-achieving siblings.

InDaily caught up with Rohrsheim at Chamonix headquarters in Adelaide’s CBD. A couple of scrawled-on white boards line the otherwise bare walls of his office. The requisite technology on his desk sits alongside a small circuit board studded with wires attached to a tiny fan – all part of one of the dozens of ideas buzzing around his head.

You have built up a number of companies in the past 20-plus years. How would you describe yourself?

I have been labeled with the term entrepreneur, that’s for sure.

I’d like to think that I’m someone who just believes there’s always a better way to be doing things in business. I really enjoy the great game of business. I like the competition in business and part of being able to win in business is innovation. It’s about trying to stay ahead of the pack and I enjoy looking for ways for my own businesses, and also for my customers’ businesses, to win – it’s about how to improve. People call that entrepreneurial and innovating but it’s not what gets me out of bed in the morning. What gets me out of bed each morning is figuring out how to improve, either the business I own, or am working for, or am investing in, or my customers’ businesses.

What problems do you solve? Is there an overriding strategic plan in your head or are there new, diverse problems that you contemplate solving with each new venture?

Firstly, I think it’s interesting for me to point out that I had no interest in IT in school. When I finished school in 1985 I had never touched a computer. I never had a PC but when I was doing my engineering degree one of the professors realised that none of us in our era had any knowledge of computing or any desire to know anything about computing, so he set an assignment that I’d still be doing today if I hadn’t used a computer. That taught me that IT is a productivity tool, and that’s why it hasn’t been a fad that’s just come and gone. It is continuing to make us more productive, so the businesses that I get involved in are ones that make other businesses more productive. That is the overriding thing for me.

So Cevo, the new start-up that we have just opened in Melbourne, that’s about how you shorten the time from idea to software being deployed into a production environment. It’s ‘dev ops’, that’s the term, operations and development, where the two have to come together because it has typically been two different camps.

This movement, which is a bit new to Australia but definitely big in the US and Europe, to me it is the next wave of ‘cloud’. Cloud really got people to realise that there is a new way of working but the next wave is that we’ve moved our stuff to the cloud, now we have to keep it up to date. The race is on. We have to keep that website, or that functionality or that app, whatever it is, evolving.

A lot of big companies are still stuck in that paradigm that if they want to make change, it will take months, at best. They may be stuck with software that only gives them a release once a year. It’s hard to be agile if you have to wait a year. So your competitor does something and you have to wait a year – that can’t work anymore in this day and age – we need to be far more agile, so that’s what the Cevo business is based on.

In the problems that you are solving in the businesses that you are involved in, do you consider yourself a disrupter?

I don’t really consider myself a disrupter – only because I look at my brother (David Rohrsheim) and Uber – I see that as real disruption. That’s business model changing stuff. That’s where you’re using technology and not just applying it to make things more efficient, which is where my businesses are often focusing, and increasing productivity. With something like Uber, that’s where you’re using technology to change the fundamental business model; the way you distribute your product, the way everything works. Something like Joust, a business I’m helping support, is a great new fintech startup in Adelaide. That’s a disrupter – it’s changing the way that you get a home loan. So, none of my businesses are what I would classify as disruptive but others probably would, I’m sure.

Looking at the health industry and the work that Chamonix is doing in mobile health – digitizing everything so that healthcare practitioners can access information wherever they are – surely that could disrupt the health industry?

That really is a good example and something I am passionately interested in. The Chamonix business is behind creating mobile access for physicians. Coming from an efficiency angle, in hospitals where they have very old, clunky systems, there’s been a lack of investment in IT in the health industry for a long time, but even where it’s good, at best there is a shared computer in a ward and the clinician has to figure out how to login and find the patient and look for the results and if they haven’t come in yet, then that was a big waste of time for our precious medical resources. In so many other industries we have that information in our pocket, on our phone or on our smart watch.

Is m-health already up and running?

M-health is really the new wave, we are literally about to trial that in the Northern Territory. We’d like to trial it here but that’s another story. In Darwin the chief information officer of NT Health is supportive of giving this a go.

Many transformative business ideas seem like no brainers once they’re created. Something like m-health seems like an obvious progression given that everything is digitized these days … do you wonder why it doesn’t already exist?

I think it’s totally obvious but when we first floated the idea, it’d be two years ago now, to senior health IT people around the country who were all 50-plus males who sort of said ‘ I don’t know anybody who is going to use that’. There was just no interest in it. Fortunately two years later, there are some people who are a bit more cluey and they are interested in it. They are realising that mobile phones are actually quite useful; they are even reading their emails on them. When we first pitched m-health, a lot of these people were still having their assistants print out their emails for them. Unfortunately we have some people running these companies who are not keeping up.

Is it easy to be entrepreneurial in South Australia? Or are there impediments to business that need to change?

It’s not easy to be entrepreneurial here. If you look at my businesses, most of the revenue has been generated out of Melbourne and Sydney. Yes we start here, but the majority of revenue is from Melbourne and Sydney because there are more customers there, there are more people who get it. We are a bit slow here.

Everybody thinks that entrepreneurs need money but that’s not usually the case. They need customers to practice their solutions on, whether it’s a product or software or a service, and we just don’t have that critical mass in South Australia.

We have lots of government departments and there are innovators in there, fortunately, but on the whole, not. And then you get into the enterprise space and we don’t have many of those head offices left anymore so those decisions, those people you would be pitching to, are not here. So we end up in Melbourne or Sydney. And then the small to medium enterprises are where we need the innovation to come from. In this town, because there are so many of them, we rely on them to be smarter and innovate but it’s not that easy for them.

What growth areas do you perceive for you?

The Internet of Things or the internet of everything. We should be able to measure anything, collect information from it, make sense of the data and do something with it. It might be in a production line; we’re working with a great company HMPS Packing Systems here in Adelaide that actually builds the packaging equipment, the conveyors and robot arm that picks things up and packs it, they build that for all the big businesses around Australia, from Adelaide. All those machines obviously can collect a lot of data and we’re sending that up to the cloud so that they can then look at: why is that production line slowing down, or why is the voltage going up on that motor? There must be some resistance there, something is wearing out, perhaps we should go do some preventative maintenance on that before it stops. When these production lines are running 24-7, it can cost a lot of money if something goes wrong. So, we’re working on that – sending data up to a cloud, and then onto a mobile device for a production manager to be able to keep an eye on everything – it’s great.

Agriculture is another great area for the internet of things. They are totally getting onto it because there are animals roaming around but where are they? People are now using drones to go and collect and herd those animals, rather than having to send planes, or send guys out on a ute. The drones can be sent to precise GPS coordinates.

The other one is Big Data, that’s the industry term.
We’re about to kick off a new business on July 1 called Exposé Data, keeping in the French theme with Chamonix (pronounced sham-oh-nee), There is all this data being created – there’s so much stuff being digitized – that’s really what my first business SDM was all about in the late ‘90s, collecting all the data. Those who can make sense of all of that data are the ones who are going to win.

We’ve moved on beyond that now. Of course you need to be able to slice and dice the data but now you need to be able to overlay that with weather patterns, or with ABS statistics and say based on this and based on that we should be able to forecast better.

Is this an automated thing; is it a matter of training people to slice and dice data?

Data scientists, they reckon will be one of the biggest growth areas for our children to get into. Those who can manipulate and extract and make sense of it, but machine learning will also be big. There is some really clever technology that is now becoming cheap enough to be mainstream. With the cloud computing power, as well, the machine can start to learn and see patterns and present them to the data scientists. There is so much data that our brains just can’t fathom it. Machine learning is something that we are looking at.

What could business be doing better in that IT development space? Do they work closely enough with education institutions?

One thing that needs to happen better is businesses working with universities. People talk about it, the Prime Minister has been pushing it and it does make sense but in my experience it is a lot harder than it sounds.

It’s the process, and the difference between a small or medium enterprise – say we had an idea to create something – the time it would take to just get something done. The timescales are so different. We could have something in the cloud and working in a matter of days, but in a university it would have to be project managed and there would be meetings and budgets and more meetings and approvals and it just goes on and on. We just want to get on with it and if it doesn’t work, we toss it in the bin and move on. Whereas the timeframe in a university, sometimes it’s years because it will be a Masters student wanting to write a paper due in two years. We don’t want to wait two years.

How do you work? I see scribblings on whiteboards here in your office. What is your process for coming up with ideas?

I scribble a lot, I scribble my notes into OneNote on my phone. With SDM I was hands-on all the time. I was 31 with a wife, a child and another child on the way and a mortgage, which is amazing and horrifying when I look back on it. It was just nuts. We were living in Melbourne, I had a great job over there in IT, and our oldest was born – he’s now nearly 20 – and my wife wanted to move back here because our families were here – but what was I going to do here? There were no jobs I could see myself doing. I madly thought to start my own business, and fortunately it worked. As a start-up I did absolutely everything but now, of course, we’ve moved on and we have really capable people running the day-to-day operations of each of the businesses so that gives me time to actually think a bit and time to get online and virtually attend some amazing conferences around the world, from here. These things help fuel my ideas.

Your skills are global but you stay in Adelaide. Is that a lifestyle choice, you could be in Silicon Valley or New York City – what keeps you here?

Yes, it is family, and that lifestyle we’ve got. How you can get around, and you can afford to have a nice house and a beach shack of some sort, and the kids can go to good schools. It is a good place to grow up. Sure I think often about whether I should have, could have, what would have happened. But you can’t think like that.

If we’d picked up and moved the kids to Silicon Valley, who knows? I love living here.

You have accomplished siblings. Is it the schooling, the upbringing? What has the impetus been, do you think, for striving for success?

Well there are four Rohrsheim boys; David is General Manager of Uber ANZ, James is an orthopaedic surgeon in Sydney and Andrew is a test pilot in the navy.

Certainly education was a big thing for my parents. Dad didn’t finish school and was determined that we should. He probably saw what people could do with a good education and was determined that we were good in school, he encouraged that. I remember when I wanted to go work and make money when I was in school, in Year 10 or so, and he said no, because that was what he did, He said ‘no, you have to focus on study’.

He wanted to go work – there was a family business that he went and worked in early and then he went and taught himself to fly – he rode his motorbike down to Parafield and learnt to fly. Then he got a job in the military flying jets.

I guess there is some family history in that the Rohrsheim family, in Port Pirie had a bakery, a very successful bakery that delivered all across the state and got bought out years ago. So I guess there’s a little of that there, but dad really realised that education was key.

 

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