Twenty-one years after Kahl Betham joined Gallagher Group in Hamilton as a young software engineer, he has taken the helm at the company.
Betham is just the third chief executive in the Waikato company’s 83-year history, following Sir William Gallagher and, before him, founder Bill Gallagher Sr.
There is strength in that continuity, with Gallagher Group the largest privately owned tech exporter in New Zealand and growing strongly.
With company stalwart Steve Tucker as executive chair, and Sir William still involved on the board in an ambassadorial role, the trio including Betham have 100 years-plus combined experience.
“That’s one of the things that Sir William says is one of the hallmarks of a successful private company – a strong and enduring small number of leaders,” Betham, 45, says.
With continuity comes a culture that Betham has valued from the start, when he first met corporate services executive Margaret Comer.
“Margaret always said, ‘Be kind, look after each other and then you will always be looked after.’
“And that sort of shaped my leadership all the way through, making sure that we are not only good business people with good technical aptitude, but we’ve got a real people focus to how we behave.”
The Gallagher attitude is a “massive” advantage, he says. “Not only being privately owned, but actually having that culture of looking after people genuinely, and feeling like you could settle in for life. That’s really key.”
Betham shifted from his hometown of Marton to join Gallagher in Hamilton on the first working day of 2000, following the group buying out tech company PEC where he had not long started his career.
PEC was a firm with a remarkably similar history to Gallagher, starting in agricultural machinery before getting into electronics and then software systems – making petrol pumps with the world’s first microchip before developing its access control technology, which in turn has helped open up Gallagher’s now booming security business. Betham himself had a highly successful spell heading the Gallagher security division through a period of rapid growth before becoming deputy CE in April 2019. Early promotions had included a business analyst role and then roles in product management
Before that, he got his start through Manawatu Polytechnic where he completed a Bachelor of Applied Information Systems that, crucially for the young Betham choosing his path, had both a business and a technical component. He undertook a six-month real world project at PEC as a final year student, and then gained a job with the company.
As a tertiary student, Betham valued the strongly experiential element of the degree, including having teachers from industry bringing their practical experiences. “I really believe that having highly business-savvy technical people is the way of the tech sector.”
The Gallagher focus on culture that Betham first encountered through Margaret Comer also pays off in its dealings around the world where it focuses on building relationships and “doing the right thing”. Betham tells the story of the CE of a big American company who attended a Gallagher-organised channel partner event in the US and spoke to them after the opening address: “I know why my people asked us to come,” he told them. “Because you guys do business the right way, the way it’s always been done, and the way it should be. And the way everyone’s forgotten, based on the integrity of business.”
Betham says having that Kiwi approach helps Gallagher Group immensely, wherever it operates worldwide. “It doesn’t matter where we go, we seem to be fairly Switzerland-like as a country. Actually, being Kiwi is a massive competitive advantage.”
The result is Gallagher provides security to some of the world’s most critical sites, including governments, with a particular focus on the Five Eyes countries. It is certified to the highest level of national security in Australia, New Zealand, the US and now Britain, with Canada
next on the list.
The Group has performed well in the US, which Betham says has the largest growth potential for both the security and animal management divisions. The US features in a recruitment drive that has seen Gallagher add about 80 staff since October, as they double down on investment during Covid-19.
It’s a lesson learned from the GFC, when they similarly invested heavily in the future as larger, listed competitors focused on the short term.
“We doubled our security R&D at the time, and that’s what got us into this highest level of national security. We got a platform ahead. We got a generation ahead,” Betham says.
“That’s what we’re choosing to do now as well. So, what does the next generation of all of our agriculture and security look like? And how might we make that go faster? So that we not only survive the downturn, we come out of it better than what we went in.
“That’s a really cool thing you can do when you’re private; you can take a long-term view, you can be courageous.”
He makes the point that Gallagher has been through multiple generations of technology in its 83 years. “As soon as you stop innovating, and adapting, then you lose a competitive advantage. And as soon as you lose competitive advantage, then you lose the option of manufacturing in New Zealand, and it’s a death spiral because you’ve only got price left.”
Keeping the manufacturing in Hamilton was a conscious decision after the GFC, rather than shifting that part of the operation to China as so many others did. They thought focusing on cost would backfire once the Chinese middle class developed, driving up price. They have further gained from the security level they can assure overseas governments by manufacturing in New Zealand.
Staying put was also, Betham says, the right thing to do for New Zealand. “To prove that you can be a high-tech manufacturer with your R&D in New Zealand and do very, very well and beat the world, essentially.”
Tech is New Zealand’s fastest growing export sector, but has a long way to go to catch up with the gap that’s being left by the decline of tourism and foreign fee paying
students, he says.
“New Zealand needs the tech sector to grow and we need to be less reliant on primary industries and tourism, so we’d like to think we’re a good example that it can be done in New Zealand. You don’t have to do your manufacturing offshore, you can do it all here. Provided you add value – ridiculous value – to your customers and you innovate well then you can keep doing it here.”
The Waikato is a great spot to do just that, with Betham citing the university and lifestyle as key elements in the region’s tech appeal.
Gallagher has a longstanding association with Waikato University, teaching a real life case study on the MBA and sitting on the advisory council of the management school.
“There seems to be a really nice culture forming around the business and the educational community of wanting to do it as a team.
“It’s really interesting to see how we can have this really tight-knit connection between industry and education to create this next generation of business-savvy tech people.”