Peter Thompson founded GCOMM in 1996. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Software Engineering/Information Systems from Griffith University and his MBA from Nyenrode Business Universiteit in Holland. Over the few past years, Peter has been involved in various business projects, which is the consequence of his enthusiastic and entrepreneurial spirit. During this time he has remained active as GCOMM’s Managing Director.
What made you decide to start your own company? What was the vision behind it?
As a 23-year old, I always knew I was going to do something entrepreneurial. I had a natural connection with business and I knew that it was a positive way to express myself. I was working at a Harvey Norman computer store and recognised the need for business computing services. I approached the senior managers at Harvey Norman, but they didn’t share my optimism or that it wasn’t right for their brand. I wasn’t happy with their response and opted to leave and start “Data FX Online” or GCOMM, as it is known today. It’s amazing in reflection. Given my negligible assets at the time, it is quite incredible how we grew from nothing.
What is your most memorable experience from the early days at GCOMM?
It is one of the most important deals made in GCOMM’s history. We sold a complete IT network to a legal firm called Ingwersen and Lansdown. I put a lot of energy into that transaction. I was young, as were all of the team working at GCOMM at that time. The client put great trust in our young team in order to supply and install their computer networks. It was a landmark sale at the time for GCOMM and gave us the confidence we were on the right path. I feel proud Ingwersen and Lansdown has been a customer ever since. It has been 12 years since that initial engagement.
One of the most difficult aspects of being in business is that you are mostly on your own; you don’t really have a lot of support. Basically, it is proprietor against everybody – the tax office, customers and suppliers. Sometimes not being an proprieter is really much easier. There is a lot of safety as an employee. One can always offload a problem to someone higher up the chain. However, when the problem reaches the proprietor, there is no one else to turn to. The outcome resides with the proprietor. That point alone certainly makes you a very strong person. Or a weak person, if you give up.
What are your favourite aspects of working at GCOMM?
Today my motivation for the organisation is somewhat different from what it was in the beginning. At first it was survival. Whilst we must always concentrate very hard on our market position, I get great satisfaction from seeing individuals and the team take progressive steps they haven’t taken before. With the experience of 15 years, you have already walked a certain path. You know what that path looks like. Then you are faced with someone new who hasn’t walked the path, and they are afraid of it. For example, taking on a management role or making the first cold calls. They aren’t sure if they can do it. You can only describe the emotions, feelings and provide support. It’s a bit like riding a roller coaster or standing up surfing for the first time. Until you actually take the step, you don’t really know how it will be. My point is, it is inspiring to see people walk the path they didn’t think they could walk and to come to out the other side. It is very exciting; I get great satisfaction out of seeing people do that. It’s fun.
Another special thing about GCOMM is that every year we have an employee of the year award that is voted by other employees. It means a lot to people when they win it. We also have a large percentage of people who have worked in the organisation for more than10 years. We have large shields that sit inside the company foyer. It’s kind of old fashioned, but I feel we have a great sense of belonging in our organisation. In contrast, many people think changing jobs often and getting experience at various companies makes you a better person. I think that is only one point of view. I see nothing wrong with being a part of an organisation, helping it grow, being part of the decision making team, taking on more responsibility and increased rewards as an alternative success, rather than just switching from company to company. We’ve had many situations with employees going overseas for a few years and returning back to the company. My philosophy is principle-based and comes from the way I conduct myself. I believe I can do my job wherever I am. As long as team members who, while living in a remote location, still want to participate in the company and are capable of doing their work from wherever they are, then I’m perfectly fine with it. I think one of the great successes of our organisation is the open, understanding relationship among the team.
How did you decide to move to Europe, but stay involved with your company and remain its Managing Director?
I believe we only get one life and I know for certain it’s hard to be in two places at once. I am an explorer. I have visited around 50 countries to date and lived in London, Krakow Poland, Utrecht in the Netherlands, and now in Belgrade, Serbia. I try to combine my private and business life into one. For me, living a fulfilled life wasn’t about having a three bedroom house with a wife, two kids and a dog and going to the same place on holiday every year. It was more than that. I wanted to have an opportunity, and I still do, to see the world, experience a whole range of different cultures and in addition to that, to try to be a successful entrepreneur. These are not mutually exclusive. I don’t believe that you go to work, go home and that is where it stops. It’s just my philosophy.
You haven’t been living in Australia for a while. What has been the main challenge in managing an organisation since you relocated?
It’s been 10 years since I moved from Australia. One learns the true principles of business when you’re over 20,000 kilometers away. And the true principles of business are that the proprietor and the organisation are not the same entity. The shareholders of a company change, as do people. A company can go on for hundreds of years. I see a lot of people who think they are the company and cannot differentiate between the two. Surely, the needs of the shareholders are often different from the long-term needs of the company. I try hard to think for the company first and its long term future. I try to be very understanding, provide a lot of trust in the team and demonstrate that to them.
Living so far away, I learned to manage completely differently to the way I used to when I lived in Australia. I was not directly hands-on. I knew I was going to have limited information and first-hand knowledge, so I learned to become patient. To help with the situation, in 2000, I designed and managed the web-based software that runs the business. I did that from London. I was project-managing a team of Indian programmers who I haven’t met to this day. My view was, wherever I was located, it would be useful to be able to log in to a computer and get an understanding of what was going on at GCOMM. That gave me visibility to the quotations, services, traffic, cancellations and all those things that are relevant to the company. It was a complex undertaking.
You are now living in Serbia, how did you end up there? What made you decide to move to Serbia?
I won a full scholarship in 2007 to study my Master of Business Administration (MBA) at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands. One of the alumni I was introduced to mentioned he owned a ship construction company in Serbia. We were talking one day near the end of my studies and I said I didn’t have a thesis to write. He offered me to go to Serbia and write it on his company. I like Eastern Europe, which is why I decided to accept the offer. I did exceptionally well, receiving a 9.5 on my thesis. It is a very high grade in Holland, they don’t give 10s. Immediately, he offered me a job at his company. I accepted it because I thought I could make a difference there. That’s something I like to do, try to make a difference in the world. I was the COO of Shipyard Begej for nearly 4 years and I was instrumental in the transition from an old, run down, former communist steel shipbuilding company, to a fully operational turn-key chemical tanker and container ship outfitting business. There are nearly 300 employees.
Do you go back to Australia to visit often?
I was home in October 2011, which was the first time I’ve been home since 2008. And I’m going back in April this year. It has been very busy and I haven’t had much of an opportunity to go home, unfortunately.
Living in different countries, you have probably learned different languages. Which ones do you speak/are you fluent in?
I think my German is quite good, I know a lot of Polish and I understand some Dutch. I can definitely speak some Serbian.
I like eating food of different cultures. Some countries have terrific cuisine. For example, most of Asia has really great seafood. Whether it’s Thailand or Japan, it doesn’t matter. Eastern Europe has really great soups and meat. It is a little bit heavy at times, but it’s still big in flavor and natural. I like that.
I do a lot of fitness; I probably work out 10 hours a week at the fitness club. For the last couple of years, I’ve been learning to play violin, which I’ve enjoyed a lot. It is entertaining for me, I’m not sure if it is enjoyable for the people that have to listen. It is like trying to learn a language – complicated, difficult and frustrating, but when you have some success, you really feel great about yourself. I have a teacher here; she plays in the philharmonic orchestra.
Why did you choose the violin?
I was in Romania on a holiday with my brother; we were at the bottom of the Carpathian Mountains. There is a village that specialises in making violins, so I thought I should buy one. I brought it home and decided maybe it would be a good idea to learn how to play, that was it. I just found my teacher and starting learning.
What are plans for the future of GCOMM and what is the vision behind it?
The speed that the IT sector has been moving has changed dramatically. I think a lot is driven by marketing of these huge tech companies. In my opinion, the IT industry is a lot about marketing, more than it is about technical things. It is a lot about positioning because, at the end of the day, most companies have very similar products or service offerings, and their success is purely about the way they go to market. I think the future of GCOMM lies in the way we deliver our services to the customers. Clearly the marketing term of “cloud” is a huge element and being a part of it is aura is important. Not much actually changed about what we did other than the word “cloud”. Of course, there are improvements in software, and this is impacting our customers’ ability to remain competitive in their own market. The National Broadband Network (NBN) in Australia is going to have an impact on the business, it will change the way we work. Our role is to become more of a managed services focused organisation, who engages our wholesale channel more effectively.
We are focused one delivering better services to our customers, enabling them to better understand how IT services can help grow their businesses. IT is very complicated because it has a lot of terminology that is hard to understand. I think that is partially done on purpose by technical companies to confuse people. The more we can help people understand the outcome of how IT can help them, the more confident they will feel in an organisation.
What are you currently doing in Serbia?
I am currently managing the marketing team. We will develop the collateral and material which will provide clearer content for our customers and channel partners on how the services GCOMM provides can deliver a better outcome to their businesses. We are creating content via a combination of video, audio, and written material, as well as support tools that will allow for easier communication of GCOMM with its customers. It is a huge undertaking, an enormous amount of work and something that requires total focus. For years we were a technical company, the best kept secret, but we are working to change that.
The team in Australia has proven to be effective in managing day-to-day operations. For the most, I have driven the strategic positioning of GCOMM. The team provides input and together we execute. I am responsible for transitioning the direction of the organisation from one place to another. That is happening now. The company in in the process of evolving from what it is today to where it will be in the future.