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Interview: James Petter, managing director of EMC

James Petter has been with EMC since 2004

James Petter has been with EMC since 2004

  • by MARTIN FLANAGAN
 

ONE might think an early casualty of the age of austerity would have been IT spending and data collection – stick with the electronic information infrastructure you have when purse-strings are tight, and all that. James Petter, a former British Army officer who is now managing director of the UK arm of $20 billion (£13bn) American technology giant EMC, disagrees “passionately”, effectively urging businesses to get on his “cloud”, writes Martin Flanagan.

He and EMC, whose UK offices include Aberdeen and Livingston, argue that such an attitude would be a short-sighted mis-step for both the public and private sectors.

Petter claims the cutting-edge use of data is even more vital in today’s bleak climate, in order to turn such intelligence into “revenue earners” – citing supermarket heavyweights collecting electronic data on what customers are buying to then tailor related offerings for increased revenues.

On the morning we meet in central London, Petter has been at an EMC-organised round table talk with Margaret Hodge MP, combative chairwoman of the House of Commons public accounts committee and recent scourge of American giant firms Amazon, Google and Starbucks for paying negligible levels of corporation tax in Britain.

EMC is coy about detailing any corporation tax contribution to the UK coffers, only saying it has a “transparent” relationship with the Inland Revenue. But Petter says the wider discussion with Hodge, entitled “Unlocking the potential of government data”, was very useful.

He reveals that it was focused on “how the UK government’s use of ‘big data’ has the potential to drive significant savings as well as new revenue streams”.

Also represented at the meeting was the Policy Exchange think-tank. The body backs the EMC man, and has claimed that the public sector could save between £16bn and £33bn annually by analysing and sharing data between departments using leading-edge concepts such as cloud computing and big data, in which fast-growing companies like EMC are trail-blazers. Petter estimates that the public sector could eventually provide up to 30 per cent of business opportunities for IT companies.

Before joining EMC in 2004, Petter held senior sales roles with Cisco Systems and Coca-Cola, and before that he spent seven years in the British Army with the Royal Green Jackets (now part of The Rifles), to which a trim figure attests. He became managing director of EMC’s UK arm in 2011, after a two-year spell as vice-president of the group’s global accounts arm for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, where he oversaw annual revenues of some $1bn.

Petter is passionate about the industry phenomenon known as cloud computing. He believes it can transform public service delivery by bringing lots of data together on servers at a remote location, from human resources to finance, “rather than IT data operating in ‘stovepipes’ or individual ‘silos’”.

The term “big data” refers to the very large government and company datasets involved, which can be analysed for business and financial insights. It can appear technical, esoteric stuff.

But Petter says: “Cloud computing means you can share IT sources across multiple functions and areas, making a business or government department more agile and lowering costs.

“And if the government released data in a controlled fashion, I absolutely think there is the potential to create new industries and jobs.”

Petter’s own employer has shown impressive resilience in a tough global economic climate. EMC posted record third quarter revenues of $5.28bn last month, up 6 per cent.

He says $28bn of annual global revenues by 2014 is an achievable target, adding: “We are innovative, dynamic. I call us a $20bn start-up.”

The group is also not averse tp acquisitions – it has bought 50 technology companies, small and not so small, in the past decade. The group now employs about 55,000 people globally, with 1,700 in the UK (about one in six of them in Livingston).

One increasing area of business potential is ramping up electronic security against cyber-terrorism. Both the Pentagon in the US and UK Ministry of Defence have spoken about future wars being waged as much in cyberspace as with aircraft carriers and helicopter gunships.

Petter says: “People are wondering, ‘How do I secure my data? How can I make our data safety more sophisticated?’ There are opportunities there. Cyber-terrorism is real. Not just from individuals, but also gangsters and nation states. There are myriad threats out there.”

He says EMC is one of those industry leaders working closely with the UK government on such issues. Embarrassingly, the group’s own cyber-security was breached last year in its RSA Security division. It took a $66m charge to investigate the attack, harden up its systems and work with customers on its remediation programmes.

But Petter says the company benefited from going public on the issue so quickly. “That raised our profile as an ‘honest broker’ on cyber attacks,” he argues.

Petter does not have his head in the clouds about the challenge in these austere times. Public and private sector executives are often more inclined to focus on maintaining their existing data management than being “innovative”. He says simply: “Our job is to persuade them to spend to save in the long run.”

EMC’ has a decent profile in Scotland, where it is currently sponsoring the rugby autumn tests and has good relationships with the banking and oil sectors. In the latter, this can be about sophisticated ways to get seismic data to energy company geologists more quickly, to speed up the process of finding oil.

Meanwhile, the group’s three-year contract sponsoring the Scottish Rugby Union, with its EMC² logo all around Murrayfield, has been “brilliant”, and talks are on about renewal.

BACKGROUND

Born: Guildford, October 1969

Education: Marlborough College, Surrey University

Ambition while at school:

I wanted to join the army

First job: Hay-baling on a farm – 32,000 bales

The car you drive:

A Land Rover Discovery

Favourite music: AC/DC

Can’t live without: My Garmin 410 running watch

What makes you angry:

The children leaving all the lights on in the house

The best thing about your job: Meeting and working with a huge variety of talented people

 

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