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Branham300 Executive Interview - John Kvasnic, CEO, Chief Architect and Co-Founder, Navantis

Monday, April 23, 2012

John Kvasnic - NavantisFor the past 20 years, Branham has tracked the Canadian ICT Industry and the leading companies that comprise it. As part of Branham’s ongoing efforts, we speak with leading executives from across Canada to gather first-hand insight on current trends and recent developments within the Canadian Technology space. Recently, Branham sat down with John Kvasnic, CEO, Chief Architect and Co-Founder at Navantis to talk about his career, his company and what the future has in store. The following statements summarize some of the key points that Mr. Kvasnic would like to pass along to the Branham300 community. Alternatively, listen in on the conversation between Branham and Mr. Kvasnic in its entirety here

Lessons Learned at a Young Age…

Some of the key values that I like to apply here at Navantis, I learned from my dad when I was growing up. He was one of those guys that came from Eastern Europe, with no money in his pocket, the real salt of the earth types. Throughout his life, he made this living as a carpenter. After about 15 years of working around Toronto, he landed a job on a very prestigious city street to renovate an entire house. He did such a good job on that project that word travelled fast, and another neighbour hired him to do a reno at his place, and then another neighbour hired him, and then another. He ended up staying on that street for 11 years without leaving, and he didn’t even have a business card. People would come up to him and he would tear-off a chunk of drywall and write down his name and number on it. That was it.

Seeing this as a young guy growing-up had a huge impact on my career, because I learned very early on, the power and the purity of referenceable business. After my dad spent all that time on that street, the neighbours got together and gave him a t-shirt that said, ‘John K, Carpenter Extraordinaire’. In order to convey the type of values and work ethic I want from the team here at Navantis, I’ve told them all that story, as well as had that t-shirt framed and hung in the boardroom at our headquarters.

While I’m not in the carpentry business, a lot of the lessons I learned growing up can be applied to the technology services business, which Navantis is a part of. It’s all about building relationships, delivering and making sure the customer is happy. You always have to earn that next job.

Seizing the Opportunity that Others Missed…

If I look back, it was actually a very specific incident that caused me to venture off and start Navantis. Back in the early-1990s, I was working for a company that developed solutions for the banking industry. I was kind of a young up and comer and they afforded me the opportunity to lead a small team working with some new Microsoft technology. After about a year of working with these new tools, I realized that this technology was way more user friendly than current technologies, and easier for non-technical people to learn and use as well.

After about a year, I went to the exec team and told them that I think this technology is the way of the future; it really simplifies things. I really thought that we could mop the floor with our competitors because their solutions would require an army to support, while these new Microsoft technologies would require far fewer people and less expenditures. As opposed to seizing this opportunity, they actually saw it as a threat to their cash-cow support business. It was at that point that we decided to part ways. From there, I ventured off and founded Navantis in 1998 to leverage the opportunity of this new technology and it’s kind of taken-off from there.

The Technology Services Business is all About the Client…

Honestly, I think our vision has sometimes taken little detours, but since day one it’s really been all about the client. I like to think that any client engagement we get involved in starts with the customer, and then works its way back to us and what we have to do to deliver.

I guess one shift that has taken place in the past 15 or so years is that back then, it was more about the technology, and how that technology was going to fill a need. Today it’s really more about providing solutions to business problems. The technology is more like tools on your belt that you can use to meet a clients need or business problem.

Bringing in Legend to Meet Changing Client Needs…

The reason we acquired Legend was because we were running into some projects where the customer had to manage a lot of the complexity. Let’s say for example that a customer had a development project of some sorts. Often times they had to manage one vendor for project management, another for development, and then another for infrastructure. What we were seeing is that the client was having a lot of accountability challenges, because each of the vendor's were pointing at each other. So our thought was, why not offer the customer one throat to choke, and make it easier for them to get their project done with only one vendor.

When we started looking at companies to acquire, we wanted a really solid infrastructure company that was nimble, customer centric and had a great reputation in our key markets. Legend really fit the bill in all three areas, so we brought them in and it has really complemented our offerings well.

Lessons Learned from Integrating Two Companies…

I knew the owner of Legend really well, and we had a huge amount of respect for one another. I think the teams from both companies saw that we had that level of trust and that really helped with the integration of the two companies. We also spent a lot of time communicating with the teams, getting them to work together and establishing a common vision that everyone could really rally around. But the key lesson that I really learned was that even with as much as we communicated, and it was way more then I usually do, it still wasn’t enough.

When you bring two companies together, even if they are like minded, you really need to show your people why it makes sense for the company, why it’s better for them, and why it benefits the customer. Even though I think we really did a great job integrating everything, I still think we could have done more to make it happen faster and more effectively.

Major Milestones at Navantis To-Date…

When I look at the company, one of the biggest milestones for me is the number of companies that we have been working with for more than 10 years. We’ve have decade long relationships with about 25 clients; companies like Honda, Microsoft and a number of municipalities. I’m really proud of that and to me that says a lot about the level of trust we have built-up with some of our clients.

Another big one for me is that our attrition rate is really low. We’ve been around for 14 or so years now, and we have a lot of employees that have been here for 10 years or longer – a lot of the original crew. Even though we have a team of approximately 300 in various cities around the world, it still feels like a family and I think that’s a big part of why people stay with the Navantis team.

Positioning the Company for Success in the Future…

We recently took a good look at ourselves as a business and decided that we were going to focus on three core areas moving forward. One was client excellence in everything that we do. Whether its project delivery, how we sell, or how we support our customers, we have to be at least a 9 out of 10.

The second part is a focus on our people, and what I mean here is making the right kind of hires, coaching employees, making them feel as though they are part of something bigger than themselves, as well as celebrating success and learning from failure. While we are very proud of the culture here, which has led to our low level of attrition, we still have areas where we can improve and we’re focused on that.

The third pillar we decided to focus on was IP and differentiation – what’s our secret sauce and what makes us different than the other service providers out there. We can’t just tell our existing and potential customers that we have better and smarter people. Instead, we are focused on providing our clients with examples of the tools and technological knowledge we have on hand and showing them the project experience where we have done it before. This third pillar is a real challenge for us, because in order for it to be effective here, everyone from the front-lines to the guy in the CEO chair needs to be on the same page, with the same message.

If we can nail these three things, I think we’re in good shape going forward.

Advice to Entrepreneurs Looking to Land a Blue Chip Client…

The biggest lesson I have learned is to think: big client, not big deals. Sometimes a journey can begin in the most humble of ways, like a small $5k or $10k consulting engagement. That’s how Navantis started working with Microsoft and now we’ve been working with them for 13 or 14 years.

You also have to take a long-term view and understand that you are only as good as your last project. You have to keep earning that business and building that trust with the customer. Even as exciting and appealing as it is to win those five or ten million dollar deals, it’s more about getting in the door with a customer and establishing that trust. If you can do that, the sales will always follow.

Tech Trends on the Horizon…

I think the mobile enterprise is going to be huge. It already is, but it still has a long way to go before it’s the mainstream. How are we going to make it so people can work anytime, from anywhere and on any device, while still maintaining the level of security and privacy that’s currently in place? That’s a huge opportunity and I think it’s not just going to disrupt the system integrator market; it’s going to disrupt the way business takes place.

I also see some huge trends in the social space, in terms of how people are able to collaborate. In today’s world, people with similar interests are able to connect and find each other easier and faster than ever imagined. Apply this trend to the enterprise space, and think about the possibilities. If a large company with 50 thousand people in offices around the world can pull together the right 10 people to collaborate on a project, that’s a huge strength. So I think the social enterprise movement is going to be massive.

Two other areas that are talked about a lot are cloud and virtualization. We’re just at the beginning of these waves, and I think it’s already clear that there are significant opportunities in these areas.

We really are living in very exciting times.

Parting Advice…

I’ve always been in the services business, so I will offer advice in this area. Two things and they are both very simple:

  • Listen to your clients.
  • Listen your team.

Between your clients and your team, they literally have all of the answers.

   

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