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Public service escaper strikes gold on the outside

The Business Review Weekly, 20 November 1995

Public service escaper strikes gold on the outside

The Business Review Weekly, 20 November 1995.

There is no 'right moment' to quit a secure, well-paid job, says John Mitchell, but he still shakes at the thought of having made the jump.

John Mitchell is not sure if it is possible to calculate how or when to leap from a successful, safe career path into the unknown. He will only say that, three years after surviving such a transition, even thinking about it is still a lot scarier than doing it.

In 1992, Mitchell was a Public Service high-flier. With a masters in educational administration, he was managing the South Australia-based TAFE open-learning program. His success had made him a name in education across Australia and he had the reputation not only of being able to match methods with requirement but for getting technology to work, even for non-technology types. Mitchell was renowned as a man who could make videoconferencing links work.

When he realised how valuable his consulting and project management skills were - this took some years to dawn on him - and the areas he could apply them to, Mitchell decided to leave the security of the Public Service and a chance his skills in the private sector. So keen was he that he did not wait around for one of the separation packages about to be offered. Mitchell still looks uncomfortable at the thought. "I don't know how I was that brave at the time," he says. "It's worked, it's been marvelous, but I'd rather not remember the risk I took."

Mitchell says: "I set up a company called John Mitchell & Associates using a Bankcard with a $5000 limit. My reputation was enough to get me early contracts, and it has grown from that. What I had to sell was skill: my ability to help people choose the right systems, especially in videoconferencing, and my skill at staying in there after it is set up, helping them get all their staff . . . to use it with the ease they would use a fax or a basic computer.

He says: "You never, ever want the situation where only the group of excited computer-competent people who embrace every technology change uses a new system That's not success, that's failure. The real challenge is to get the rest of a company or university to be as comfortable with the technology, and that's where we come in.

"If a university or large invests in video-conferencing, or a hospital in telemedicine, then that investment has to work efficiently or it's wasted money. It won't work if the majority of staff won't be part of it, and we have to achieve that."

Mitchell finds that older people, or people who have held a position for many years, will resist video-conferencing or feel very uncomfortable about it; some will not even try to adapt. The startling price drop in small desktop video terminals - from $15,000 to $5000 in less than 18 months - and a likely further drop to $2500 in the next 18, has prompted a huge increase in their use. Mitchell says staff appear to be more relaxed about using individual terminals rather than having to gather in a room to watch one large screen.

So far, Mitchell has maintained a personal service. He uses only two support staff (one of whom is his son, Benjamin, a psychology graduate) and he outsources graphics, editing and bookkeeping. He makes constant use of a business consultant-accountant.

"We're getting to the stage we are knocking back clients," he says, "and we have to decide how big to grow. The advice I get from our accountant is to subcontract as much as we can if we decide to grow - to keep doing that rather than taking on more of our own staff."

Since it was set up, Mitchell's company has had among its clients 13 universities, the Securities Institute, the Queensland and SA governments, New Zealand Telecom, Telstra, Sydney's Fairfield Hospital, Adelaide's Queen Elizabeth Hospital and F.H. Faulding & Co. Its turnover has almost reached $450,000.

Mitchell says Faulding - a global pharmaceutical company with its head office in Adelaide - is a good example of of his services are being used. "They use desktop video conferencing because the team leader can be working in South Australia and his team members in New Jersey in the US. They can chat to each other at any time the way they would phone . . . it saves Faulding having staff flying all round the world."

Alex Kennedy

Acknowledgment. The above content is copyright The Business Review Weekly, 1995.