The Interview: Chris Whiting & Mike McKim, Aotea Security
Chris Whiting, Aotea Security.
In this month’s interview, Chris Whiting and Mike Mckim of NZ security integrator, Aotea Security, talk about the nature of the NZ security market, what end users want from security providers, what integrators need from their security suppliers, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, how Aotea retains staff and the importance of training.
JA: You’ve got an impressive list of supplier partners – what does Aotea Security value in a supplier partnership – how important is it that technology partners understand the needs of security integrators and their end user customers?
CW: Our team would hope to be low maintenance on our supply partners, we are in the long game and want to be in relationships with all our suppliers through the highs and the lows of the market together. Having a strategic and trusted supply partner is key, especially if they are very proactive and receive the greater share of our overall spend. Where we see the difference in local suppliers and manufacturers is when things get tough, and are not going to plan. Aotea will always step up and it’s great to see our partners stand up with us to solve problems.
We encourage our suppliers to communicate with our end users, which allows them also the opportunity to understand their needs and purchasing cycles. Our customers have to build business cases for funding and need to be educated on risk and technology controls in order to effectively communicate these business cases to the leadership level – a side often unseen by suppliers. Aotea Security values honesty and an open mind willing to try new things. We also like to engage with businesses that listen and understand working with a national business that also operates regionally. This requires some strategy and rules of engagement.
JA: Tell us more about Aotea Security – there’s a long history stretching all the way back to 1997 – how did Aotea Security come about, who owns the business and what is the business ethos?
MM: The Aotea story goes back over 50 years. The modern Aotea Security was formed in 1997 against the backdrop of a trade-based business, where there has always been an expectation of quality and high standards. Founded in Dunedin NZ, Aotea Security has grown to 16 regions operating from 14 branches, but we remain headquartered in Dunedin. We have enjoyed year-on-year growth since 2014, with annual sales in excess of $NZ30 million since 2019 and total staffing in excess of 160 people.
The amalgamation of Aotea’s standalone security operations in 2014 into the single company that is Aotea Security (NZ) Ltd set the company on a rapid growth curve and established us as credible nationwide providers of scale, while retaining local focus at branch level. We are proudly both local, and national.
Despite popular competitor propaganda, Aotea Security (NZ) is neither a franchise nor a trading division of an electrical contracting company. Our people are central to our business and our company is owned jointly by our key people via Aotea Security Holdings Ltd – 51 per cent – (the vehicle for key employee ownership), and Aotea Group Holdings Ltd – 49 per cent – (the umbrella company that invests in all Aotea Group companies).
JA: Aotea Security tends to hold onto its techs for decades – what do you put that down to?
MM: The tenure and the low attrition of our tradesman says a lot about our culture and vision. Having had the consistency, hands-on management and tireless drive of our chief executive Alistair Hogg, from inception to the present day, has meant the foundation is rock solid and we are still doing the basics right all these years later.
Our leadership team is also relentless in its drive to grow people and culture and, as our single biggest asset, the technicians that are the life blood of our business. We work tirelessly to support them the best we can through technology and leadership. An additional layer is our long-term customers, some go back over 15 years in the education, hospital, banking, government and infrastructure sectors, which provides the highest level of achievement for our technicians working with the best platforms, integrations and customer environments. Our customers help attract more experienced technicians who want the next challenge.
In recent months 2 of our original technicians retired, being shareholders throughout their Aotea Security journey – we currently have 40 staff shareholders at Aotea Security (NZ) Ltd.
JA: What are end users in the NZ market looking for in a security integrator – and in a security solution – what characteristics do they insist on, what technologies are they hungry for?
MM: What we see from customers is simple, they want their integrators to do what they say they will do, face up when things are tough and deliver on their promises. Mature customers want to see layers of support and not an organisation leaning on 1 or 2 individuals. Fit goes without saying, “can we work with this team over the long term?” We spend a lot of time at work, and no one wants to have forced relationships on either side. Meanwhile, we ask ourselves; how can we adapt Aotea’s offering to fit the needs of these organisations?
The customer also wants to know more about our purpose and the drivers behind our business approach and, in turn, wants to see a similar engagement with our supply chain. Often a customer is using our teams as an extension of their business units, and we represent them at the coal face, so they want to know that our staff are competent and capable with the tools and support to carry out those tasks every time.
When it comes to technology, they insist on value for money and the assurance of driven innovation, and a supplier prepared to listen to their needs and adopt features that enhance the product for all. Our industry has a wide range of technology and, through API’s, most systems coherently communicate. Customers utilise integrators as part of their decision-making journey with technology – this privilege means it’s important to remain brand agnostic.
JA: What has the response of NZ companies been to COVID-19 in terms of enhancing their electronic security solutions to meet the demands of contact tracing and proximity detection?
CW: Manufacturers based in New Zealand who are driving innovation stepped up their ability to natively contact trace within their applications. It has been great to watch manufacturers and suppliers pivot their business. We think it has been one of those times where business continuity came to the forefront very quickly and we had ‘the test in anger’ to measure resilience and capacity of our business to adapt and safely continue to support our customers.
We have seen heavy reliance on access control and visitor management for managing contact tracing and occupancy. It’s at these times we see the benefits in having an up to date and upgrade-ready infrastructure able support deployment of new software and features to support the changing environment. We had seen a dramatic drop in video system installation and a greater investment in access control, preventative maintenance, and asset life cycle replacements through 2020, but this has now moved back to previous levels.
JA: Would you agree the pace of change in the electronic security industry has accelerated in recent years, and even more quickly post-Covid-19 outbreak?
CW: We certainly see that customers are asking greater questions of their integrators and systems probably not seen since we went through the last GFC. Customers who traditionally had not gone to market for security integrators were all of a sudden reaching out to the market, whether it was to find savings or just because time was available to work through an RFP, which is time consuming.
COVID for Aotea Security is proving a time for reflection and reset – it created a moment to undertake tasks uncompleted due to the demands of years of growth. We do agree that the pace has accelerated and the opportunity to put into practice business improvements made in mid-2020 is paying dividends for our business now.
JA: What sorts of challenges does rapid technology change – especially around management solutions, analytics and communications – pose for businesses like Aotea Security?
CW: For Aotea Security, the problem is just the vast options and choices available to us, not only from a customer perspective but also the running of our business. How do we see every supplier and manufacturer to assess their technologies? If we accepted every invitation, we would not see our people or customers, therefore we partner more closely with manufacturers and suppliers we have greater synergies and tenure with.
Our job as an integrator is create solutions but most importantly, to resource and support these solutions. The majority of our revenue comes through our work force, which requires job management systems, communications, and mobility of systems. We do need to cater for both private and government organisations, where cloud provides huge efficiencies for Aotea. We use a hybrid approach for storage and information management.
We are in the business of risk identification and prevention. We cannot forget the basic principles of what we are working to achieve for our customers. Understanding the technology trends and turning these amazing features and benefits into a business case is an art in itself – just describing this technology is not for the uninitiated. For the customer making the decisions, it’s essential to guide them towards best practice – towards use cases where technology has improved controls and given the assurance required. We always start with the basics when it comes to protecting a customer’s golden egg, whether that’s information, people or assets.
JA: How important is training when it comes to managing turbo-charged technological change?
CW: Without rehashing the old chestnut of skills shortage, it’s really about doing what we say we are going to do, Training is not negotiable, like health and safety it’s part of our overhead and it’s not about locking our people in through contracts and agreements on paying back the training. Instead, it’s about trusting our people, upskilling and investing in them to ensure they stick with us long term.
It would be very rich for a business like Aotea to expect to not invest in our people, yet expect to take the returns on offer from a healthy electronic security industry. We are in a very privileged place – to have the capacity to upskill a large portion of security technicians. We don’t take this task lightly.
Not forgetting we need the managers, and sales and administration teams resourced across the industry to stay relevant and competitive. We have found that recruitment of the non-technical positions in Aotea Security can be challenging at times, due to the nature of the technology we install and support.
JA: Something many businesses in ANZ face is splintered and inadequate educational paths. The heaviest load is borne by big integrators and quality manufacturers and suppliers who just got tired of waiting decades for a response from professional educators – is this Aotea’s experience?
CW: Our experience is that there is no point expecting change to occur without some pain or self-reflection. Education is also a business, but has barriers introduced through compliance, funding and political agendas. If we look closely there are individuals trying in vain but who perhaps don’t have the exposure or influence needed to hold the industry accountable.
When you look under the hood of our educational pathways on offer, the NZ government is funding free apprenticeships for Level 3 and 4 qualifications until December 2022. We can’t complain about that. Potentially the gap is how integrators are handling the new entrants into the industry and not using trainees as commodities and ensuring they get the support to train and complete their qualifications. In our case, being a private business, we not only have the resources, but we have the reach and ability to influence change.
JA: What’s the answer? How can businesses in the electronic security industry create powerful training pipelines that bring in talented youngsters to replenish the ranks of older techs, and how can they retain them?
CW: Watch this space.
JA: What sorts of young people do you think would do best in an industry like electronic security, with its melding of networking, communications, optics, electronics, cabling, sensors, locking, software management solutions, apps, cyber security, fire systems and the multifarious building sub systems?
CW: The new generations have much different drivers, they want to know how and why before they do things. For generations, an apprentice was pushed into the trenches to do their time, the hard yards and the dirty work. While it’s not unreasonable to ask apprentices to carry out these tasks, it’s important that they understand the reasons, the bigger picture and their contribution.
They are our children and next generation’s children, but they need to be given the opportunity to understand. It is key to recognise that the next generation looks at this work in a different light, analogue is gone, digital is here, and they have been on tablets and computers from very early ages. What was complex for an analogue CCTV technician is bread and butter for a young technology-savvy trainee.
We believe it’s about understanding the drivers and the mediums from which the youth are forming their decisions. We need to demonstrate opportunities that relate to what the future technicians are looking for. Maybe it’s not corporate, maybe it is, maybe it’s vibrant and neon, as opposed to dull and tired – we just need to engage the right people who understand this change.
JA: Aotea is a big integrator with a good–sized team – how have you managed training through the COVID-19 epidemic – do you see online training replacing face-to-face, or do you think in the future a hybrid model will prevail?
CW: COVID provided a great opportunity for manufacturers of systems to show off their innovation and agility in providing online access for technicians to upskill or re-certify. Through COVID we did not need to lose any staff, but we did relocate staff to other regions. It was essential where staff did not have work available that we made sure training was set-up and we could measure the success and uptake from staff. The outcome was 3500 hours of online training for the L3 and L4 period in NZ.
JA: Is it inevitable in niche business segments that the industry must take responsibility for bringing youngsters through, rather than expressing concerns and waiting for others to intervene?
CW: At this point we can see it will take individuals more than businesses to push past this old narrative, some get up and go, passion and giving back to the industry that empowered these individuals in the first place. Without excusing business owners, just keeping the bills paid and keeping staff busy is a full-time job for most. If individuals can collaborate and lead the way, eventually business, too, will see the benefit of being a part of the movement to bring the next generation through. One of our vision statements for Aotea Security is “attracting, building, empowering and exciting the very best talent”.
JA: What advice would you give a young technical person considering a career in the electronic security industry in 2021 and beyond?
CW: Look for a security business that aligns with your ‘why’ and your purpose. If you do not know what that is, look for mentors or individuals within our industry that you can look to for guidance and whose achievements you can aspire to. Also be patient with the old guys, give them some respect for going before you and perhaps they will let you in on some of their secrets.