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Friday, 27 April 2012 16:16

Cloud via Canberra and Computer Power


PeterJamesMDNinefold webPeter James has arrived in the cloud - literally. He arrives for lunch sporting a Ninefold T-shirt, which seems to be his ubiquitous choice of garb these days.

James is today the chairman and co-founder of Ninefold, the public cloud storage offshoot of listed hosting provider, Macquarie Telecom, on which James also has a board seat. But he's been a feature of the Australian IT landscape for 30 years and more including stints at the helm of local companies including Computer Power, Ainsworth Gaming Technology and Adcorp.

Retirement isn't part of his vocabulary. With a firm belief that if you give up work; 'First you play golf, then you play bowls and then you die' James at 61 is clearly in the game for the very long haul. 'My team here are half my age. I was at a function last night where I was the oldest person in the room. Do I feel old? No. Do I act old? No? Do I try to be the same as them? No. Is there respect all round? Yes there is.'

Age shall not weary them if James' father is any guide. He peppers his conversation with regular references to his late father, Clarrie, pulling out a well-worn photo showing a dapper elderly chap and later sending a copy of his father's memoir. Right until he died at age 89 Clarrie James lived life large, there is every sign his son will follow suit.

 'A lot of what I do and why I do it comes from the roots of my background,' James acknowledges. Clarrie was one of eight kids who grew up during the depression. After leaving school at an early aged he landed in Canberra as a message boy, before serving in the Second World War. Commissioned in the field Clarrie became a magistrate for native affairs in New Guinea at the age of 25 before returning to Australia to start a family and new life in hospital administration.

There were six James kids - Peter, the second oldest was born in 1950 - all of whom quickly became accustomed to a peripatetic lifestyle (James attended 11 different schools) following their father's career which bounced regularly between Canberra and Sydney until James' mother died at the age of 44.

'Mum died very young and to be frank it was a shambles. I was the second in the family. I grew up with live-in housekeepers while dad went to work and mum was sick - we were all pretty self-sufficient and independent. The three youngest went off to boarding school and my baby sister - well all her schooling days were at boarding school.'

By the time his mother died James was studying commerce at the University of NSW, paying his way with various part time roles in Sydney's hospitals - 'I was a mailroom boy, cleaner, wardsman and finished as a morgue attendant' , but he admits; 'I had no idea what I wanted to do,' after graduating.

It was the late 1960s and James took an elective then called operations research which involved a little Fortran programming.  Newly married he saw an advertisement in the newspaper for a scholarship to go to Canberra and be paid full time to finish his degree at the University of Canberra while working part time for the public service.

James was appointed to the lofty position of programmer-in-training, then swiftly rose through Canberra's ranks. But the private sector beckoned and after a series of offers James accepted a role offered by Roger Allen, founder of Computer Power, to run Computer People, a recruitment and contracting business in Canberra shortly before Computer Power floated on the ASX through a backdoor listing of a legal technology business called Clirs.

'By this stage I was in my early 30s.  I'd stayed with the public service and could have stayed forever - but that was the point I didn't want to - I wanted to get out and do something different. Computer Power was bidding for things like the Tax Office, New Parliament House, big defence projects. It was an amazing time and taught me good Australian companies can hold their own on the world stage.' By this stage James wasn't just a Computer Power employee, but a shareholder along with the likes of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and Westpac.

But Computer Power grew too far too fast and when the dot com boom-crash opera sounded the company had $300 million of revenues and $90 million of debt. 'Our share price dropped to only a few cents,' says James. On Christmas Eve 1991 the shares were being dumped and James and two other Computer Power executives, George Bradbury and Ron Baxter bought 20 per cent off the market.

Over the next four years; 'Everything we could sell for a good profit we did - anything that wasn't working we closed down.' It was James acknowledges an 'Absolute baptism by fire - but also about having good people around you, being tenacious and never giving up.'

By 2000 he'd sold off what remained of Computer Power to a US company called Interim Technology which became Spherion, and spent two years working for them; before taking on roles with Harvest Road, Ainsworth Gaming Technology, iiNet (where he remains a director) and Adcorp. He also continued to invest in a number of start-up businesses, either alone or with other Computer Power veterans including Roger Allen who became a well-known venture capital investor after leaving Computer Power.

Most recently Allen and James were founding investors in Jump On It which was sold at the end of 2011 to Living Social.  James won't reveal what his stake was worth - but it likely left him sitting pretty.

'What was the common theme? I'm prepared to have a go at something. I don't have to have done it before - it's about business. What Computer Power taught me was how to manage and run a business. '

Right now business is about ninefold, a Sydney based cloud computing start up, selling storage as a service, with a team of around 30 people able to leverage off Macquarie Telecom's investment in infrastructure, although James says ; 'Roger and I are going back into some other things in a hands off way.'

Not that there's much else that can be described as hands-off about James who admits to still working 'silly hours'. In his downtime (sic) he's taken up long distance and marathon running.

Father to two grown up children of his own from his marriage, James also has a close relationship with his partner Libby Christie's two children, and a clutch of grandchildren. Christie, who ran the Sydney Symphony for six years and is an executive director of the Australian Council for the Arts ensures James' culture levels are regularly topped up.

Weekends generally involve an escape to the family farm in the central west tending to 100 olive trees or to a house at Kilcare on the central coast.

It's been a packed few decades, and the future seems just as busy with James focussed on continuing to contribute to the Australian technology sector. Retirement isn't even considered. 'I don't play golf. My wife has her own career, the kids are all grown up. It's about keeping life in balance. It's a game - a serious game - but a game.

'I think we are well positioned - Australians always been early adopters and prepared to have a go - we've planned ahead with the NBN and social media - I deal every day with entrepreneurs and start ups. Today incubators are popping up almost overnight - I had someone saying that there are almost more angels than deals. That's not right - but I am optimistic.

'But we've got to recognise that the world is our marketplace - that's where our customers are and that's where the competition is.'


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