De Bortoli CIO's fruitful reign

When a young Vittorio De Bortoli left Italy in 1924, escaping World War I to seek a better life in Australia, it is doubtful that he could have foreseen the slow path to prosperity and success that was ahead of him.
Written by Renai LeMay, Contributor

When a young Vittorio De Bortoli left Italy in 1924, escaping World War I to seek a better life in Australia, it is doubtful that he could have foreseen the slow path to prosperity and success that was ahead of him.

Bill Robertson, De Bortoli CIO

No sour grapes here — Bill Robertson, De Bortoli's CIO (Credit: De Bortoli)

Like many to disembark on Australian shores at that time, the immigrant arrived in what must have been a completely alien city — Melbourne — with little more than his clothes. It is chronicled that at one stage, he asked a farmer for whom he was working if he could have a sixpence to buy soup bones. The answer? There was simply no money.

And yet, De Bortoli was able to gradually lift his own fortunes through the combination of innovative thinking and hard work, building a solid wine-making business that is still held by his family today as one of Australia's largest private companies, and is still making remarkable wines.

Likewise, it is perhaps difficult to imagine that long-standing De Bortoli IT manager Bill Robertson, who started 15 years ago at the company, could have seen his own time working at the wine maker would bear so much fruit.

For most of Australia, the name "De Bortoli" has become synonymous with good wine. But for those in the IT industry, Vittorio's family business is also associated with innovative, deep and sometimes radical thinking about the nature of IT infrastructure and how it can best serve businesses.

Like that of Vittorio De Bortoli himself, Robertson's life has not been one of satisfaction with the status quo, but of a quest for improvement. Like De Bortoli's early years gathering the Italian community around his farm and fledgling winery, Robertson has gathered Australia's IT industry around his ideas like moths to a flame.

And yet there remain many questions about the collaboration. How did a traditionally conservative business like wine-making come to embrace Robertson's unorthodox thinking about business use of technology? How did De Bortoli himself come to think outside the box? And what's next?

Ancient history

Robertson says he came to De Bortoli with a wider grounding in technology than many IT managers would have had — having worked in both traditional programmer/analyst roles as well as different shades of the IT department spectrum — for example, as a systems administrator or in technical support. He's worked in roles with very specific scope but also as a "jack-of-all-trades".

"You tend to understand some of the complications and complexities of the various roles," he says in a recent interview. "How frustrating it can be to spend your life installing software on PCs, or how big an issue it can be to curtail a virus outbreak."

The other early factor that shaped the IT manager was his career in rural areas, as opposed to working in the big smoke. Robertson finished high school at Narrandera High in rural NSW. He attended Charles Sturt University, and went on to work for other rural organisations such as the ill-fated Letona Co-operative (the fruit cannery business), the NSW Water Resources Commission and SunRice.

Robertson says workers in country environments don't have the technical resources available that the same staffers in the city might.

"If you were in Sydney and Melbourne and needed to access a standard Microsoft shop — there are technical resources down the road quickly," he says. But if you're 500 or 600km from Sydney or Melbourne, you start to depend on remote communications tools such as internet, email and telephone support.

You'd want to be able to buy a PC from Dell and a router from Cisco and a server from HP and a switch from 3Com, plug it in together and expect it work. That's not how it used to be in the past.

Bill Robertson

With these two factors combined, Robertson saw quite early on his career that it didn't really matter whether it was a small open-source developer or a large corporation he was dealing with — it was the quality of the service delivered.

The open source community is spread out around the globe, with much work famously being done in individuals' spare time. But when you're already working somewhere between Wagga Wagga and Griffith — themselves only rural towns — global distances start to shrink. And the expertise and the openness with which it can sometimes be offered in such circles can be striking — if not systematised as it is in large vendors.

Another critical step in Robertson's thinking came when he was working in government and interacting with what was at that stage almost an extension of the ARPANet — the open communications network that would eventually become the internet.

He saw the inevitability that network protocols like TCP/IP and Ethernet had over rivals like token ring.

"You could buy pieces from any supplier and expect that they'd work," he said. "The lesson is that these days you wouldn't put in a NetBEUI or an IPX/SPX network," the IT manager says. "You wouldn't run token ring, of course you'd run TCP/IP and Ethernet. You'd want to be able to buy a PC from Dell and a router from Cisco and a server from HP and a switch from 3Com, plug it in together and expect it work. That's not how it used to be in the past."

If you were to sum up Robertson's experiences before joining De Bortoli, you could say that he was not shaped by the traditional IT environments. He was located outside the box both geographically and able to see the trends running beneath many of the technologies he was working with.

In a large organisation structured along traditional hierarchical lines, this might have earned the executive a tough time. But as Robertson was to find out, De Bortoli is a different sort of Australian company. And his experience would play well into its strengths.

The De Bortoli world

The current managing director of De Bortoli Wines, Darren De Bortolio is the grandson of Vittorio and has held the reins at De Bortoli since 1993 — although his three siblings are also directly involved in the business, and with their mother they form De Bortoli's board.

Robertson says this long family history running the company means it takes a long-term view of things, giving a continuity that he doesn't believe other IT chiefs usually get in their environments driven by half-yearly profit statements. "I'm lucky that I've had the same managing director for my whole tenure at De Bortoli's," he says.

"They're faced with whatever the current MD's whims are," he says of CIOs at other companies. "[The MD] came from the last company and they used BlackBerrys, so [the CIO] got to throw out whatever he's doing and implement BlackBerrys. Or he read in the in-flight magazine that somebody put in SAP and it was a good idea, so he's going to put in SAP."

In comparison, he says, Darren and the rest of the De Bortolis were looking five years out — or even further, at what they can leave their children. "If you start looking at where you're going to be in five years, it changes your thought processes," says Robertson. "I work for a company that allows you to do that."

Rather than simply listening to the accepted wisdom on a subject, Robertson looked at the wider trends occurring in the IT industry as a whole

Another aspect of De Bortoli that works well for Robertson, he says, is its collaborative nature. In other companies there is often a level of competition between the second tier of managers below the CEO or managing director. But he points out that at De Bortoli it's not a factor due to the private ownership of the company.

"The nature of our approach means that we can operate collegially," he says. De Bortoli's famous implementation of Linux desktops throughout its business is one example of that style of long-term thinking impacting the business. The company had already started using Linux in its server fleet in the late 1990's. At that stage the problem was that De Bortoli needed to allow desktop access to its enterprise resource planning system, replicating and enhancing the functionality of old-style "green screen" terminal applications. But it also wanted to maintain the low support requirements of the old terminals.

The solution — which started to be rolled out in 2004 — was to use a Linux LiveCD for the desktops — where users would boot up their machines from a CD rather than the hard disk. Robertson's team nicknamed the new desktops "GTs" for graphical terminal — "we didn't want to oversell them", he says. Any user documents would be stored on USB keys.

The implementation is typical of Robertson's approach. Rather than simply listening to the accepted wisdom on a subject (which at that point would have been: install Windows XP), he looked at the wider trends occurring in the IT industry as a whole and applied them to his problem.

Firstly, he says, it was "pretty obvious" that the industry was moving towards using the internet as a delivery mechanism, with PCs eventually becoming appliances rather than the software-heavy desktops in their own right.

Using web-based applications means they can be accessed on any device — desktop PCs or laptops running Windows, Linux or Mac OS X, but even smartphones, for example. This, in turn, meant that if a company's applications can be separated out from the hard drive of a computer, you can start treating that computer as an end appliance rather than as a software-heavy desktop machine.

Robertson says he realised that if you could take the heavy desktop software footprint traditionally found on Windows machines out of the picture, his IT team wouldn't need to provide higher-level desktop IT support to many of its staff. Instead, if a desktop PC stopped working for any reason or at any level, he could simply ship them a new one, and reduce all problems to a hardware level.

The shift to Linux also tied in with Robertson's experiences with open standards and his belief that the shift he saw occurring towards standardisation at the network level would also reach the desktop level. The executive likes to draw what he calls "trend lines" far out into the future and see if he can work out where each trend is going to take technology — thinking for example, about issues like open standards, the growing power and energy use of technology and commoditisation.

Although the Linux decision has worked out for De Bortoli, Robertson says he doesn't want to give the impression it was an easy one.

"Don't for a second think any of this was easy," he says. "Do not for a millisecond think that this wasn't without an enormous amount of work in terms of arguing the points, discussing it with directors, discussing it with fellow executives, discussing it with managers and users, fighting with users on short-term tactical versus long-term aims and goals."

Robertson's own IT staff reacted well to the innovative thinking, because their motivation is to avoid getting stuck with legacy technology that could send their careers south in the long term

He says for the rest of De Bortoli, it was a "hell of a leap of faith" to believe those trend lines and trust in his strategy, although once he explained his ideas he says he received a wonderful commitment from key players in the company.

Other examples of innovative thinking include standardising on the OpenDocument Format for office productivity files (using the OpenOffice.org 2.0 suite to do so), using the TYPO3 open source content management system for De Bortoli's corporate intranet and public internet, Pentaho for business intelligence, dotProject for project management, and Fedora Directory Server with SAMBA for authentication and file serving.

During the desktop implementation process Robertson spent a lot of time researching the philosophy of psychology and change management, to deal with situations like an executive ringing him up to complain about an accountant not wanting to use Open Office on the desktop — because everyone else in her industry used Excel.

He said ironically, he had discovered that while some end users panicked about new technologies they didn't know well, some executives reacted very positively because they understood higher order concepts such as cost/benefit analyses and the changing technological trends.

And as for Robertson's own IT staff — they reacted well to the innovative thinking, because their motivation is to avoid getting stuck with legacy technology that could send their careers south in the long term. "What was problematic for us with some users was actually handy in terms of recruiting and holding some extraordinary IT staff," says Robertson.

The outside reaction

Robertson says his fellow CIOs haven't always responded well to the example of innovative thinking he has set, noting sometimes the response he got was "unmitigated fear". "They say: 'I wish we could so that, but we have all these problems'," he says. He notes even "the most strategic" executives often get driven into a tactical mode all the time due to the nature of their environments.

There is a fear in the community, he says, that as the provision of IT services becomes more commoditised — with one example being the encroachment of services such as Google Docs on the corporate environment — the need for internal IT departments will vanish.

"The lack of vision was thinking, well that's the end of IT, whereas what you should be thinking is, if you can get rid of some of these things that are a drain on our resources, then we'll free up people to be doing more and more with things like business intelligence. And that level becomes more obtainable to SMEs, not just large corporates."

He acknowledges some of the controversial strategies he has pushed over the years were risky in terms of his career. "It's true — I bet my career. Make no mistake. These were career-defining decisions. And yeah, you need to back your convictions. They seem more obvious now. Years ago they were pretty big calls," he says.

He acknowledges some people also think he's got a problem with Microsoft. "I don't," he says. "Good company, good technology."

The difficulty with Microsoft, Robertson says, is actually embedded in the market structure. "The problem is monopolies point blank," he says. "If you're a monopoly, the way you maintain shareholder value is to bleed your customers."

"If you're an executive at a monopology, you have a legal requirement to bleed your customers. If you make decisions that are against the long-term vested interests in shareholders, you can go down for it. And that not necessarily in the best interests of the customer."

Next steps

When asked what he has on his radar, Robertson is again quick to go against the conventional wisdom, mentioning Google's Android mobile phone platform — particularly the push towards Android-based tablets that are connected to 3G networks. He's started talking to Telstra about support for Android — the telco this month launched its first Android handset, the HTC Desire.

The IT manager also mentions software-as-a-service as something he wants to investigate. "I'm a believer in the concept, but concerned about some of the potential ramifications," he says, noting hosting your organisation's data in another country, with another country's laws, could have a whole range of complications.

There are also some open-source projects that he's interested in providing seed funding for — for example, a set of Python scripts that interact with Google's application programming interface.

Robertson says because De Bortoli has been innovative and ahead of the curve when it comes to technology, vendors have sought the company out to use it as a "litmus test" about which direction some trends are going in. "For a tiny IT team, we punch well above our weight," he says. This lets the company have some influence in the technology development process — a process Robertson describes as trying to move a giant battleship sitting in still water.

"If you lean long enough, you could nudge it," he says. "We'll often try and nudge things a little bit very, very early."

Ultimately though, it all comes down to the same thing. Thinking outside the box, trying to predict the future, and above all, looking out for the interests of De Bortoli. "My wife points out to me — 'You've been spoilt'," he says. "You couldn't work anywhere else now."

"I'm doing it for the love of it and I love doing it for the company I work for."

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