Bill Halbert, CEO of KCOM

Another Game changer that Finance Monthly speaks to is Bill Halbert, CEO at KCOM, who tells us about transitioning a 100-year-old company into an agile enterprise technology upstart. Bill joined KCOM’s Board as a Non-Executive Director in September 2006 before stepping up to become Executive Chairman in July 2009 and subsequently Chief Executive Officer in April 2014.

KCOM is one of the UK’s oldest technology services companies – how do you manage to stay ahead of your competitors?
KCOM’s rich history at the heart of all communications technology revolutions in the past century through telecoms, IT services and most recently, digital transformation has meant that when it comes to our own transformation, difficult decisions have been necessary to allow us to focus on our core strengths. Making decisions to exit certain areas of our business has been vital.
The sale of our national network to CityFibre, back in November was an important stake in the ground which signalled our transformation plans externally. Bringing together all the expertise in our separate businesses under one KCOM umbrella has been key in keeping that momentum going.

I’m extremely pleased that we’ve managed to take all our partners with us on this transformational journey, from customers, employees and investors to pension trustees, the regulator, suppliers and the wider communities where we work. It’s very important to me that we don’t fall into the trap of satisfying one set of stakeholders at the expense of the others, so honest and open communication is crucial.

Our positioning of KCOM in the enterprise market, as a challenger to the traditional integrators, is serving us well. We’re being sought out by customers with a new kind of management team that value the individuality of their organisation and realise that real commercial benefit can be gained from technology, when that individuality is acknowledged and championed.

It’s this approach that has won us advocates at AWS, Microsoft and Cisco, where our transparent, cloud based expertise and approach allows our customers to get what they need, rather than just what’s on offer. Architecting and integrating today’s enterprise technologies to bring about fundamental and profitable change is what our customers are seeking and this is what we are focused on delivering rather than simply selling solutions. Our realistic approach to holistic consultancy is vital to this process and we’re seeing an enthusiastic response from customers.

You have worked within the information technology industry for over 40 years – how did your career path lead you to your current position?
I’ve always worked in technology, straight from university. I’ve always had a strong interest in the power of and opportunities presented by technology and I’ve been lucky in that the IT services industry, specifically systems integration, has provided fascinating challenges for me throughout my career. I have worked on some of the most demanding projects around the world, from air traffic control, to online financial trading systems. In 1999 I was offered the opportunity to set up what became Syntegra, BT’s acclaimed global consulting and systems integration subsidiary Syntegra and was CEO for 13 years, before moving to work in the US, for a period, to do something very similar over there.

The long experience of working with established telecoms companies in addressing the threats and opportunity presented by the rapidly developing convergence of the IT and telecoms worlds would prove to be of value, when I joined the Board of the then Kingston Communications, on my return to the UK. The business historically had a reputation for innovation and post its listing on the LSE in 1990, had acquired many of the assets needed to become a key player in the converged services market, at the same time as developing a relatively unique position in its original local market.

Given that the IT sector is one of the fastest moving of all sectors in terms of innovation and change, what are the challenges of working in such an environment?
The funny thing about the IT sector is that it’s not as fast moving as it appears to be from the outside. Take ‘cloud’ for example: the concepts behind it haven’t just happened overnight; it’s been coming for a long time and, if you’ve been around for that long, you’ve seen it coming and you understand its promise. Our role in the first instance is to communicate that promise to our customers and work with them to make it a reality. It’s that simple. When you have the expertise to consult in that manner, decisions about technology arrive more readily and the end user is much better off.

Jargon and hype are the biggest enemies of our industry. People get lost in the terminology and tend to focus on the technology, when they should be stepping back and looking at the whole picture. I believe that if you can’t explain it succinctly, you don’t understand it fully and that philosophy is an important part of our approach.

What have been some of KCOM’s major achievements in the past twelve months? What are you most proud of?
Making our transformation activities public and receiving really positive feedback from all our stakeholders on the changes we’re driving across the organisation is an obvious one. But if you were to ask for specifics, I’d say firstly that the way in which our teams have tackled our contract with HMRC is something that fills me with pride. We proved the detractors wrong and our growing relationship there is testament to the opportunities delivered by our transformation strategy. It shows what we can do when the potential of bringing all of our teams’ capabilities together is realised.

Secondly, we’ve created an innovative springboard for the Hull and East Yorkshire region by bringing superior Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) technology to people and businesses in the area. It puts the region potentially streets ahead of the rest of the country and that digital transformation positions it well to attract future inward investment.

What do you anticipate for the company in the near future?
The ongoing need for businesses to transform themselves digitally positions us well for growth. Several years have passed since we began our own transformation process and that early work is beginning now to bear fruit. Our position as a challenger in the enterprise technology space is delivering continued success and KCOM is becoming increasingly recognised for its innovation and foresight in delivering FTTP to Hull and East Yorkshire. It has been a long road but worthwhile in terms of the benefits that region is beginning to reap thanks to the decisions we made back then.

What motivates you most about your role?
Throughout my career I’ve been fortunate to be at the sharp end of change and transformation and the opportunity to play my part in the development of a company with the history and heritage of the likes of KCOM, creating market leading positions in so many areas is hugely motivating. It’s unusual to have the opportunity to be part of a journey like this. We’re increasingly recognised as a top-flight systems integrator amongst some of the most complex organisations in the world. We’ve created an attractive proposition for investors; a stable stock with increased growth potential. For KCOM to be able to reinvent itself successfully while keeping all its stakeholders happy is quite something and I’m privileged to be a part of that.