Hills Limited is an Australian company that makes home, hardware and electronic products. The company has been described as an Australian legend, and was founded on the production of a single product, the Hills Rotary Hoist. Hills is continually diversifying and, as the company goes through a significant business transformation, it is taking its entire IT infrastructure to the cloud to lower cost and improve agility.  

We had a chance to catch-up with Derek Brown, CIO, at Hills to discuss how he and his IT team of 40 employees is transforming the company’s IT infrastructure and enabling flexible, cloud-based collaboration through a comprehensive Microsoft technology solution that includes Office 365, Windows Azure, StoreSimple, Lync 2013, Windows Server 2012 and SharePoint 2013.

Q: How has your role as CIO changed since you’ve been in the role?

A: It’s changed a fair bit since I started 14 months ago. Initially it was tactical and operational centred on trying to fix some of the pain points from a legacy IT infrastructure, but probably my initial focus point and the biggest one, was to tackle a lack of IT strategy and invest in better solutions. Since then my role’s changed from more tactical and operational to strategic and transformational. Now I measure my success on my ability to deliver a business enablement platform. If I achieve that, I’ve done my job well.

Q: How do you see technology, and more broadly, innovation, helping you execute on your IT strategy to meet the business goals?

A: For me, this is not a matter of just talking technology. It comes back to that question of what do we need to create as a business, what are we trying to be, where are we trying to go and how do we stay ahead of the competition? And that’s the company philosophy. The IT solution that I have to implement, be it an on premise infrastructure or a cloud platform, is only one piece of the jigsaw but this is complimented by many other pieces, including hardware, partners and customers.

As a business, the discussion is around how do we make this possible? My job is to bring technology innovation capabilities into the business and we’re doing that with our partnership with Microsoft and Ensyst. However, it’s also to remain switched on to what else we could be doing or doing better to challenge what we feel are our own limitations. Bringing Surface devices into the business is a good example of that mindset in action. We’ll remove a multitude of iPads and we’ll replace two devices with one. Why run two? Why have two data casts when you can have one?  Something that simple can mean big change in making us more productive as well as helping us to reducing costs.

From a Hills perspective, the technology platform has to be used to its full potential, something I think many companies probably don’t do - you buy a stack but might only leverage 10 per cent of it. As the CIO, my job is to make sure we are maximising our investments.

Q: Hills Industries is going through its own transformation both from a business and IT perspective. What approach is being taken from an IT perspective?

A: Our IT transformation is running in parallel with the business transformation and we are being very deliberate in implementing at the same time. Pretty much everything in the Hills 2.0 Technology stack is new and Microsoft is a key part of that.

Q: Are you doing a lot of work from a back end infrastructure perspective? 

A: We doing a complete rip and replace. Our legacy environment was predominately VMware running on a combination of standalone servers and some Cisco UCS. Moving forward, we will be exclusively running on Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V. Why will I do that? Because we are also making a significant investment in Windows Azure.  It’s a clean, greenfield build and it simplifies my skill set requirements in the short term, but ultimately, it gives me the flexibility to look at mainly my services provider with a very simplified stack, making it far easier to sell and as well as assisting in the securing of a reasonable price and receiving a great service. 

If I maintained a multitude of OVM, Hyper-V and VMWare stacks, it limits your options but also becomes very expensive, a more complex environment and more importantly less robust. 

Transitioning to Windows Azure has allowed us to change, evolve and scale rapidly to meet our business needs. We looked at Amazon previously but I found that Microsoft is levelling the playing field in many respects and now have overtaken the offering that AWS probably had the advantage on previously.  Ultimately, I’m a fan of buy the right solution for the right environment. We’re a corporate environment and the Microsoft stack is simply a better fit for us right now.

Additionally, we are planning to move as much as possible to Windows Azure and take advantage of the solution from both a PaaS and IaaS perspective. We will continue to have some of our own infrastructure in our new East Coast data centre in a private cloud, which is the architectural decision we’ve made as a business given Hills is now far more East Coast revenue and headcount driven.

To address our storage needs we are deploying StorSimple an on-premises enterprise SAN that interoperates with Windows Azure to provide hybrid cloud storage for primary, backup, archive, and disaster recovery needs which fits into the overall strategy. To avoid storage expenses and reduce storage management time we can scale storage virtually instantly and more affordably and can add StorSimple units to gain faster disaster recovery.

Q: You have also adopted Microsoft Office 365 to modernise your communications infrastructure? What was the driver for this change?

A: Using a combination of Office 365 cloud environment and SharePoint 2013 on premise is one way to remain agile. I continually look for new ways technology can support our business, while maintaining high efficiency levels. Office 365 provides us with a flexible solution while enabling us to react faster to the business requirements. Since it is a hosted service, we have avoided having to make an expensive investment in licences and server infrastructure.

We previously had multiple SharePoint systems whereas with the new architectural design we are able to consolidate into one SharePoint site. This will be our single go to solution for employees incorporating a new Intranet, workflow engine, corporate dashboard and knowledge repository.

Microsoft Lync is enabling us to centralise our collaboration services – it’s far more than simply a messaging tool. We are the distributor for Creston, Australia and New Zealand wide, and its RL (Room Lync) product is getting a lot of attention in the market right now.  I’m a big fan of practicing what you preach so we now have our own Crestron RL set up, in our Sydney Pitt street office. We’re now rolling it out to our other state supersites, mainly using the Crestron RL solution to drive down travel time and costs with a target of significantly reduced travel, increased manager face to face time and improved employee engagement.

I personally recognise the power of Lync and I expect to reduce my own travel by 50 per cent. Office 365 and Lync is also device agnostic, so our 400 strong salesforce now have a proper mobility solution and it’s the first time they’ve ever been able to have conversations and be connected with their working groups without having to drive into the office or change their schedule around.  I do think it’s really a revolution for the sales teams in Hills and for all employees.

Q: Mobility is a key pillar in your IT strategy and empowering your Salesforce? What factors played in your decision making process?

A: Hills was predominately an iPad shop when I joined and it’s taken a while for the business to adopt a more corporate solution. We’ve also had some Samsung Notes and Galaxy’s. Legacy tablets are not going away completely but they’ve been reduced significantly. We’ve looked at the market and decided on Surface Pro 2 and have been running a pilot project with our senior leadership team – more or less 25 devices so far and continuing.

Ever since they’ve got them, there’s been a queue developing of people demanding the same. Why? Because without any doubt, in our opinion, they’re the best corporate devices in a Tablet format. From a support perspective, my team can support them like any other device.  Windows 8 does all the corporate stuff that you expect but from a user perspective they view the device as their ‘iPad on steroids’. We expect to roll out Surface Pro 2 devices to all of our mobile workers ASAP and reduce the other tablet fleet accordingly.

Q: Any takeaways from the transformation so far – what value do you see it delivering now and in the future?

A: We have become a more efficient business as part of the transformation. Why are we doing that?  To get cost under control but probably as importantly, so we can build acquisitions, expand our geographies, product line, market segments, whatever it is. So, the true value is having an extensible model delivered, to support the business today as well as grow with us in the future.