Q&A with Senior Partner,
APRIL 5, 2021
Peter Hannaford has been involved with computers and data centers for over 50 years, starting as a computer operator. He worked his way up in the business and, in 1989, went on to found Waterfields which became one of the biggest datacenter design and build companies in Europe. Hannaford then founded Tecnikon, a company that designed and patented the first water-cooled server rack with an integrated vertical cooling coil specifically for high-density computing which was sold to APC in 2003. APC itself was sold to Schneider Electric and Hannaford worked there until 2010 when he founded DataCenter People, a firm specializing in data center industry recruitment. He then Portman Partners, a boutique senior level executive search firm for the data center industry, and serves as its Senior Partner.
What did your time founding and leading Datacenter People teach you about identifying developing industry leaders, and how do you leverage that insight for Portman Partners’ clients who are seeking top level talent?
Sometimes we find people who we just know would just be a perfect fit for our clients. Call it instinct. Our clients however, sometimes rely heavily on what’s on the CV before moving a candidate into the process. The CV only tells you what someone has done, not what they are capable of doing. I once had a client’s HR manager reject a candidate because the skills stated on the resume didn’t match her checklist but I saw the candidate’s potential and knew they were a fit. I was so frustrated that I phoned the hiring manager directly and persuaded him to interview the candidate. He did and hired him. Unfortunately, the HR manager didn’t find my “proactivity” endearing and I wouldn’t do it that way again. However, I do work to achieve the same objective, just in a more diplomatic way.
What do you believe are the key issues facing the digital infrastructure industry today and how is Portman working to meet them?
It’s a bit of a dichotomy right now. Our digital infrastructure has kept the world afloat through the time of Covid, and provided us with the ability to move workforces from office to home. It has supported at home education for students, and enabled supply chain agility for stores, manufacturing, utilities, petrol stations, transportation and the like, supporting firms, governments, hospitals, police and the military in their efforts. It has also aided scientists in their vital modelling and forecasting, and hospitals on the front line. So, digital infrastructure is one of the sectors that has remained busy. But some industries are suffering badly - airlines, hospitality, restaurants etc., and they are all big users of digital infrastructure. The result is that it seemed investment had paused as we try to figure out how this was all going to end but now, with the vaccines, predictions are that investment will increase and growth will accelerate. As a boutique firm, Portman is agile and scalable and we’re ready to react to that demand very quickly.
What does the ideal digital infrastructure business boardroom of today look like? What are the positions needed and what type of people should fulfill those roles?
Whoa. That’s a huge question. How long have we got here? We’re in a super-competitive world here. A CEO has to have the courage to be different. Digital acceleration in this Covid world is creating new opportunities. New ideas are needed, and the CEO will need to embrace diversity and build an innovation factory with people from different backgrounds, ages, gender, ethnicity, religions, etc. In our fast-moving world, the CEO needs to be able to act quickly and decisively. Timing is a critical success factor in most businesses but especially in the world of digital acceleration.
The CFO also needs to be creative in this competitive market, and integrity is key. The CFO will be held to a higher standard than the CEO and he or she is the guardian of shareholder value and potential outside investment.
As there’s enormous pressure on datacenter operators to reduce carbon emissions, today’s COOs need to be passionate about sustainability.
Digital infrastructure is necessary to the economies and quality of life in modern nations where access to unlimited information is expected 24 hours a day. Successful companies will be those with the best digital infrastructure, and I see potential for a new board level role, one that combines the responsibilities of the CIO and CDO – a Chief Digital Infrastructure Officer. And finally, but by no means the least important, the Chief Commercial Officer. The person responsible overall for revenue generation. And the role most difficult to fill.
Portman is, by its own definition a boutique search firm specializing in the digital infrastructure industry. Why should digital infrastructure clients choose Portman over any of the larger big name search firms that don’t specialize in that area, but do have dedicated technology and infrastructure teams and practices?
Whilst data centers have an impact on every aspect of our lives, globally, the number of people working in the sector is relatively small. I, for one, have been in the industry since it started around 30 years ago so Portman has the inside track and we’ve maintained an impressive list of contacts that includes exceptional leaders and industry influencers.
In 2019, I received the Datacloud Congress Lifetime Achievement Award and that same year, was named one of 200 personalities around the world leading the datacenter and cloud sectors by Data Economy Magazine. That lists notes accomplishments charting new innovations or technological breakthroughs, investment or business acumen or exceptional entrepreneurial skill sets. But Portman is not just me. I’m merely supporting my London and Singapore based Portman colleagues who all have many years’ experience in the digital infrastructure and/or executive search sectors. That’s a pretty powerful and unique combination. So we have the experience in digital infrastructure as well as executive search and our small size is a benefit to both clients and candidates. When they work with us, they work directly with senior level executives who have insights on their business and leadership needs in a way that most recruiters at the larger firms, very often junior or mid-level, have yet to attain.
What are your goals for Portman in the next year, three years, five years and how do you plan to achieve them?
Our aim is to be the leading firm in leadership recruitment in the Digital Infrastructure space - globally. The Covid crisis has taught us that we don’t need big expensive offices in major cities around the world. Video conferencing platforms, a digital infrastructure success story, have been a godsend and will become standard in our process going forward. There is no substitute for meeting candidates and clients face to face, but because of our extensive network of senior executives, we’ve probably met before anyhow. We need to be global, not big. Small and niche is good, enabling us to move quickly to take advantage of changing markets in this world of digital acceleration.
What do you think has been the greatest negative impact of Covid on the digital economy and do you think there have been positive changes as well?
As previously stated, the only negative impact has been the inability to meet face to face where networking for many businesses normally takes place. But we’ve all learned to adapt. The positives include increased use of the internet and supporting digital infrastructure, which in turn drives our business.
What is your favorite quote about business and why is it your favorite?
“Unless you spread your wings you’ve no idea how far you can fly.” Napoleon could teach us all a few things about leadership.
What would you most like to hear someone say about you when you aren’t in the room?
Anything. If they talk about me then they know about me. That’s our aim.
What do you consider to be your greatest professional accomplishment to date?
Probably helping to establish Nigeria’s first on-line banking system at Societe Generale in 1977. I was 29 when I was sent there with ten others to start the bank. Three years later we had five branches, 200 employees and 100,000 customers.
When reflecting on your career, is there a road not taken you wish you had?
I don’t think about that. I’m happy that the roads that I did take have led me to where I am now.
Can you name a person who has had a tremendous professional impact on you? Why and how did this person impact your life?
’ve had some great bosses and awful ones who have left scars. Better not to name names. But my wife of 50 years gets the award. She’s been my rock. Offering constructive criticism when asked, but never putting me off when she knew that I was serious about some new idea. And when my head was down the gentle words of “just snap out of it and get on with it!” always worked. Thanks Pat.