Up close & personal: Fuji Xerox's Nick Kugenthiran

ZDNet spoke with the printers, software, and managed services company's managing director Nick Kugenthiran about his past as a sailor and how that has helped him succeed in the IT industry.
Written by Spandas Lui, Contributor

When you see Nick Kugenthiran, Fuji Xerox Australia managing director, he certainly looks the part.

Neatly groomed in a suit, and wearing a genial smile, it's hard to imagine that he used to be part of a crew on a merchant Navy ship.

Born in Sri Lanka, Kugenthiran decided to join a merchant ship owned by his cousin in Singapore when he was 17 years old.

"I spent time finding myself, because at that time, I didn't really know what I wanted to do," he said. "In Sri Lanka, it wasn't easy to find a defined career.

"Back then, very early on in life, we decide what we want to do, be it maths or medicine, and you stick with it."

Unsure of what he wanted to do in the future, Kugenthiran spent the next three years travelling the world as a crew member of the merchant ship, learning how to navigate the seas using the stars, eventually becoming a third officer, keeping watch of the bridge and assisting the captain onboard.

"In those days, we didn't have GPS and had to use celestial navigation," Kugenthiran said. "These days, it's so simple — you just program a location and it even sets a path out for you."

His travels eventually took him to Saudi Arabia. It was there that he ended his naval career after a tragic incident.

As his ship was exiting the harbour at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a simple miscommunication from a naval pilot, who was managing another ship as well, had dire consequences.

"The ships collided — it took us six minutes to sink," Kugenthiran recounted. "There were about 43 people onboard my ship.

"We jumped out of the ship and most of us got out."

Kugenthiran was only 100 metres away from land, but it wasn't easy swimming in his naval uniform with a life jacket strapped to it.

"A ship sinks when it's half full and it creates a whirlpool — like a washing machine — and it sucks you back in," he explained. "It's not easy trying to swim away quickly. We lost three people that day."

Having lost their passports in the sinking, Kugenthiran and his crew spent 30 days in immigration gaol.

There's nothing like a life and death situation to make you reassess your priorities, and Kugenthiran returned to Sri Lanka to find a new, less dangerous career path. But the incident did teach him a valuable lesson that he still carries with him today.

"It was a simple communication error, and we didn't test the communication," Kugenthiran said. "For me, the lesson learned is clarity in communication is so important.

"Make sure when you communicate that you test your understanding and communicate again."

After doing a course in electronic data processing in Sri Lanka, Kugenthiran went to work for Union Carbide, a US-based chemicals and batteries company, before foraying into the IT industry.

He moved over to Olivetti, back then a manufacturer of typewriters, where he met his future wife, who was a computer programmer. Kugenthiran eventually moved to Qatar to run Olivetti's operations there. In 1986, he made the jump to Rank Xerox, assuming the role of country manager for the office equipment maker.

Rank Xerox, which had been a joint venture between Rank Organisation in the UK and Xerox, was then bought back by Xerox.

In 1991, Kugenthiran moved to Australia to work at Fuji Xerox. His family had immigrated to the country and he was keen to reunite with them.

But by doing so, Kugenthiran had to work at a much lower position within Fuji Xerox.

"I couldn't carry my position over," he said. "I was told there was an opening, but I would have to start as a commercial sales representative."

Despite being cast down from his lofty position as a country manager, Kugenthiran maintains that it was the best thing that could have happened to him.

"Having to learn and understand the culture and how business is done in Australia is a big reason for why I am the managing director today," he said. "As a manager, you need to understand your people and motivate them.

"Being part of the team and growing with them was a great experience."

Kugenthiran worked fervently at Fuji Xerox, taking on a new role roughly every 18 months. He wasn't concerned as to what his next role would be, and his advice to other IT professionals is to do as he did.

"I always say to people, if you're passionate for the job you do, you will do well in life," he said. "Don't worry about the next job, because that will happen on its own and just be ambitious in the role you are in now.

"That's the way I've always been, and somebody always ends up tapping me on the shoulder and offering me a new opportunity — 23 years later, I'm a managing director."

Having come from Qatar, where the market was smaller and he had to fight for every opportunity to grow the Rank Xerox business, Kugenthiran found the Australian market easy game.

"When I got my sales badge, I saw opportunities everywhere," he said. "Australia is a big market, and people are not used to hunting for every single opportunity, and I came with the exact opposite attitude."

Despite 27 years of experience in the IT industry, Kugenthiran is still learning, particularly from the younger generation of IT professionals. Recently, a graduate hired by Fuji Xerox helped him get into Facebook.

"I'm not that social media savvy, but it comes so naturally to people today," he said.

In terms of future IT trends, Kugenthiran sees IT and business being integrated even more tightly than ever before.

"You can see mobility and social media changing the paradigm we used to have," he said. "IT used to be very business process oriented, and now it's getting democratised — that is, bringing new ways of doing business.

"I believe with that, IT is going to be an enabler to simplifying our business process and to communicate more effectively."

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