Interview with Russ Bennett, General Manager at Plexure
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Russ Bennett, General Manager at Plexure to learn more about his career journey into tech, hear more about the new direction Plexure is heading alongside their recent acquisition of TASK and why he thinks now is such an exciting time to be involved in the New Zealand tech industry.
With dreams of becoming a fighter pilot dashed at an early age due to his eyesight, Russ learnt to code and supplemented his thirst for the skies by jumping out of planes in his spare time.
Having worked in tech for a couple of decades, Russ has some great advice for people considering a career shift into the industry and that there is plenty of scope for non-technical people to find their place.
About the Speaker
Russ Bennett is the General Manager at Plexure.
“My main passion outside of work would be skydiving. If it's good weather, the sun is shining..”
Getting to know Russ
Do you have a favourite book you have read or listened to recently?
One of the books I read recently, which is a pretty easy you read, but I think pretty insightful is Freakonomics. Aside from being amusing, I think also really helps you get a good view around what drives people and motivates people and some of the intrinsic drivers behind human behaviour.
When you're not working, aside from family life, what do you get up to outside of work?
My main passion outside of work would be skydiving. If it's good weather, the sun is shining and the wind's not blowing too much, I would probably be out in Parakai jumping out there. So that's probably my main outside of work enjoyment.
I managed to break my ankle actually when I was out there a little while ago. So just recovering from that, but it's all right, these things happen and I'm sure I'll be back into it again soon.
Do you have any favourite pieces of technology that you are currently using?
I've definitely been using the Xbox a little bit lately with the old ankle as it is, but probably the best tech that I've been using lately is actually a pretty cool bit of skydiving tech, which is an audible altimeter that actually talks to you and tells you exactly how high you are when you're falling.
A bit of a move away from the traditional look at your wrist all the time. So I think that's just a great example of innovative tech that's obviously been created by skydivers for skydivers and it's pretty awesome. So that's probably the thing I love the most at the moment.
In terms of other Kiwi tech companies, aside from obviously, Plexure, are there any other Kiwi tech companies that you really admire and why?
Probably the guys at Hnry down in Wellington at the moment. I think the team down there have, probably actually similar to the skydiving tech, they found a problem that people have, and they've developed a pretty awesome app and a pretty awesome service that actually solves that problem.
I think they've managed to do that as they're in a pretty high-growth phase and I think doing a pretty amazing job. So those guys would probably be at the top of the list at the moment.
Finally, any standout career advice that you can share with others?
I don't know if it's something that I said I've received or been told from somebody else, but probably the number one lesson that I've learned in my career was probably to always look for the silver lining type approach. And I guess reframing the way that you think about things that happened to you.
There's been quite a few times during the course of my career or things that have happened, something bad has happened that at the time seems pretty devastating or just really shuts off an opportunity.
But with the benefit of hindsight down the track, you actually learn that was actually the best possible thing that could have happened. And it ended up taking things down a different path or you ended up with an outcome that would've been quite different.
That to me is probably the one that's really stuck with me, is that whole, when you have those obstacles or the hurdles or the disappointments, realising in actual fact, this could be actually a blessing, not a curse.
You just don't know it yet. You just have to let it play out and see where it takes you. So it's probably the number one thing that I always try to remind myself of.
Kia ora, welcome everyone. Today, we are having a chat with Russ Bennett, General Manager at Plexure about the current state of play at Plexure as well as some of the key challenges that he and the team are starting to face.
Russ, thanks for taking the time. First things first, can we get a bit of an intro as to who you are, how long you've been at Plexure, and the role that you're currently doing at the moment?
Thanks, mate. I've been Plexure now for about six months, so it's been a bit of a new experience. Before that, I was at a company called Fraedom for around 21 years, which was a FinTech that we grew from three people up to about 450.
So it's been a bit of a journey there, I took a little bit of time off and now moved here to Plexure and am excited about, I guess, doing the same thing here and actually growing the business to something pretty massive as well.
Outstanding. And then for people that might not be acquainted with Plexure at a top line, what is Plexure or what is the unique problem that you're solving?
I think what Plexure is, has probably changed in the six months that I've been here. Historically, what Plexure's been all about is really providing the engine that drives personalisation and some pretty cool experiences for our customers.
I think probably one of the best ways to describe it is if you've ever used the McDonald's app here in New Zealand, which is one of our big global customers, we're the engine that basically drives all of the offers that you receive.
All of the personalised content, we run all the loyalty programs for McDonald's in about 75, or sorry, 65 different markets. And really provide all that smarts, the data science, the intelligence behind those brands to be able to help people have a pretty awesome experience and to maximise the customer journey.
“Actually, we've got a much greater opportunity if we veer this way a little bit more.”
In terms of the current state of play at Plexure, you mentioned you've been there for six months now and a lot has happened in that time. Can you maybe give us a quick current state of play as to what has happened over the last six months and some of the things that you guys are currently focusing on at the moment?
Yeah, sure. So I think as I was saying at the start, Plexure as a business was very much looking at trying to find more global customers to be able to provide our service to and provide that as a standalone set of APIs or as a SaaS type product.
What changed in October is that we acquired a pretty awesome Australian business called TASK. What TASK does is they provide all of the actual capabilities that empower restaurants and fast food places and casinos and these stadiums with providing the technology that actually manages all the transactions.
So everything from the online ordering, the mobile apps that do the order and pay, those cool QR codes that you can scan at your table in the restaurant to get access to the online menu. And then they do all the kiosks, the digital signage, the point of sale, the kitchen management systems.
If you take that piece of what TASK was doing and you marry into it, what Plexure was doing with all of the personalisations and the incentives to get people into the store, the really exciting thing right now is that we actually have that entire ecosystem.
We're just in the middle of working with Pita Pit, as an example, here in New Zealand to roll out that entire offering.
So shortly, when you go into a Pita Pit store, right from the moment that you download the app or you order online to using the kiosk, ordering at the terminal, seeing what's on the sign there and the whole way that your order gets fulfilled and delivered, including your Uber eats and those services, all of that is now Plexure and TASK together providing that service.
It's quite an interesting change in strategic direction. Part of the reason behind the reorganisation that we went through towards the end of last year is to really take the business from going in this direction to say, "Actually, we've got a much greater opportunity if we veer this way a little bit more."
And hopefully, you can see that whole end-to-end solution. It's pretty exciting in terms of the customers that we can provide that too. And even who we provide that today. So the Spark Arenas and the Skycities, and the Sydney Cricket Ground, these guys are all customers of TASK and Plexure now, providing that service.
“We're probably lucky, our new CEO, Dan.. was actually here in New Zealand to lead the acquisition and got stuck here in a hotel for about five months.”
Remote working and how organisations can better manage that effectively is a hot topic. I suppose, remote acquisition in terms of how you guys have managed that, have you found any interesting tools or things that you've used to help create that culture or shared culture between the two teams?
Yeah, I think, I mean, there's obviously all of your standard things that people try to do, whether it's Zoom, Friday Quiz things and try to create a little bit of that atmosphere.
We're probably lucky, our new CEO, Dan, probably not quite so lucky in that he was actually here in New Zealand to lead the acquisition and got stuck here in a hotel for about five months. So we at least had him on the ground to be able to work through a number of things.
But yeah, we're really looking forward to the opportunity to just spend some more time with the broader team. And you can get to know people somewhat on screen, but I've always been a big believer that you don't really get to know people and build those relationships until you can get around the dinner table and go out for a few drinks and actually just get to know people as people.
Acquisitions have been notoriously difficult or challenging at times in terms of merging two businesses together. How has that gone for you guys? And are there any key things that you can point out as to things that you've learned along that journey so far?
Yeah, I think the really nice thing about the TASK acquisition has been that unlike those acquisitions, where there's a lot of overlap and a lot of... when competitors acquire one or the other, you often have that whole, "Oh, these guys have got a finance team, we've got a finance team.How do you merge that together?"
Or, "We're using this tech to do the same thing as they are."
I think the really exciting thing about the TASK merger is that it is very much just a complementary solution. So everything that we are doing on the Plexure side, TASK weren't doing, and we weren't doing anything that TASK was doing.
Both businesses are very API-centric. So the actual ways of interacting are pretty nice. Culturally, we're a great fit, we're both pretty passionate and excited about the opportunity. So it's actually gone really, really well.
“I think we were, something over 120 billion API calls that we processed last year.”
That makes sense. And then you've got an engineering background yourself, Russ, in terms of your business as it stands today. There must be some fairly unique engineering challenges that you've had to tackle given the volume and the customers that you're working with.
What are one or two of those really big, key engineering challenges that you've had to deal with over the time that you've been there?
Yeah. So I think it's definitely the scale on which we operate. I mean, one of the exciting things about Plexure is that we are very much leading technology in terms of, we're a multi-cloud platform, we're pushing the boundaries of a lot of what's being provided by Azure or by AWS.
So I think that's probably one of the challenges that we've had, is the scale at which we operate.
I think we were, something over 120 billion API calls that we processed last year. And so that really pushed the limits of some of the capabilities of some of the cloud providers.
So we had a few challenges there that we had to work through, particularly as we were supporting McDonald's through the December period, which is when all of their activity ramps up around advent, as they call it, and you've got all those Christmas time offers and deals.
We just saw some massive spikes and traffic activity is driven by... a country like the Netherlands, all of a sudden doing a promotion where everyone logs into the app at 12 o'clock, right? And so just all the demand that we saw means that we're having to manage quite bursty traffic. So that's been quite interesting.
I think that's probably been the biggest challenge we've had, is just managing the scale that we are dealing with, right?
So previously I've had a lot of discussions with people around big data, everyone was excited about big data and back at Fraedom we used to talk about that, but we didn't really have big amounts of data. Whereas at Plexure, we have big data, right?
So it's definitely operating at a scale and pace that's pretty exciting. And it's great because it opens up a lot of opportunities for our engineers to actually get involved in some of the latest technology and spend time talking directly with the guys at AWS or Microsoft about how best to deploy and utilise their technology.
“..we definitely operate at a scale that sets us apart, definitely in the New Zealand market..”
That's really interesting. And I suppose, testing the other limits of some of those cloud providers, that in itself must be quite unique for a New Zealand company, or even, there wouldn't be too many global companies that would be making that many API calls a year, would there?
No, I don't think so. I think we definitely operate at a scale that sets us apart, definitely in the New Zealand market. And I think because of the fact that even though we're a Kiwi company, we are supporting, as I say, McDonald's around the world, right.
So, that's just huge volumes of traffic. So yeah, it's definitely interesting. It's definitely pretty cool to just know how much stuff is whirling around the background every day that we're doing things and then being able to continue to build and enhance and deliver more capabilities.
And now obviously with TASK in the mix as well, we're all pretty excited about what the future looks like.
“At the end of the day, we all want to be able to do something that's pretty cool but to do it in a way that you actually feel like you're doing it with a group of mates..”
Russ, you've gone from being a CTO to a GM. How has that transition been for you? What's been the differences, the things you miss about being a CTO? Tell us a little bit about your own journey.
Yeah, I think it's almost twice that I've done this. So when I was a Fraedom, I was the CTO for quite a number of years and then moved into the CEO role there. And so I think there's definitely... I am, as you say, an engineer still.
I love getting into the details of the technology, but I think for me, I guess the GM role gives me a little bit more scope and opportunity to be focusing a bit more on the people side of things and actually more of the cultural sides of the business, trying to work on not just solving the technical sides of things.
We've got a great team of very smart people that are probably more capable than I am of doing that. But to be able to focus more on actually, what makes Plexure an amazing place to work and what motivates people to get up on a Monday and actually either drag themselves to wherever their laptop is or come into the office whatever it might be.
But just what actually motivates people and what creates and drives that passion and that community. And really I guess what motivates me is creating a pretty fun place to work, right?
At the end of the day, we all want to be able to do something that's pretty cool but to do it in a way that you actually feel like you're doing it with a group of mates, as opposed to doing it as a number in a large organisation.
That's probably the change and what excites me the most about the broader remit is being able to actually be much more focused on the business growth and the people elements.
“I think, to be able to actually give a little something back to the spouses and partners and family members of the people that are working hard here.”
Then I suppose, on those people elements and making it a fun place to work so that people are really excited about that. What are a couple of the things unique to Plexure that you would say that your culture brings and gets people motivated and excited to be turning up?
Yeah. So we've got a couple of pretty cool, just internal, I guess hospitality benefits and things that we do for people that are designed around just providing people that opportunity to take their partner out for dinner and do some things, which is just a nice thing and a nice way.
I think, to be able to actually give a little something back to the spouses and partners and family members of the people that are working hard here.
I think one of the things that's key for us is just this openness and transparency and making sure that everybody is aware of where we're at, where we're going, what's important. I think that's one of the things that's pretty important for us, is really just the way that people actually work together.
We've obviously gone through a little bit of a change recently, but I think there's a renewed excitement around where we're going. We've got a whole bunch of initiatives that we are working on as to how we support people to grow in their careers.
Ultimately we want people that want to be part of Plexure for a long time and can move through roles and experiences and do more and learn more, all as part of the same business.
“..the long backstory was I was going to be a fighter pilot and then realised towards the end of school that I couldn't read the blackboard quite well enough..”
Interesting. And then for you personally, Russ, if you're rewinding back the tape, how did you first get into engineering or get into tech yourself? Can you remember what that spark was originally?
Yeah, it was a long time ago, actually. I never actually did any development until I got into university. It was through a friend there who found a pretty cool course and it was like, "All right let's do that."
I mean, the long backstory was I was going to be a fighter pilot and then realised towards the end of school that I couldn't read the blackboard quite well enough to be able to become a pilot. So I was like, "Oh, I better do something else." So I got into the tech side of things, got into the consulting side of that.
I started at Deloitte consulting, which gave that background of being able to understand the technology and do things in, I guess it was emerging e-business at that point in time. But also to be able to actually work with customers and partner with people.
I think that's probably been the thing that always drove me along the way. It's nice to be able to get in and solve the problems, but until you can actually understand who you're solving the problems for, and actually spend time with the customers and understand what their needs are, and then come up with a pretty cool way of being able to solve it.
That's, I think where I always found the most enjoyable piece, was actually seeing your solutions provide value to an end-user. So that's, I guess, my start into the engineering journey.
“There's just so many opportunities to get involved and so many exciting companies that are doing something on a pretty awesome scale.”
We need a lot more people to come and join the tech industry in New Zealand. For you, if you're thinking about other people outside of the industry and talking specifically to them, why would you say now is such an exciting time to be involved in the New Zealand tech ecosystem?
Yeah, it's a good question. It's definitely better than when I started. So in the early days when we started, we started, I guess, what was a cloud solution before cloud back then, and we had to ask people who would contact us and want our system, whether they had the internet. So, that was the early days. I think now the fact that everyone's got that is pretty cool.
Joking aside, I think the fact that there's so much investment and there's so much, I guess, awareness and the ubiquitous nature of being able to do things online, to be able to do things remotely.
To be able to be a Kiwi-based business or a business in this part of the world that is providing services around the globe, I think there's probably no better time to be able to actually do that. And if that's one thing that Covid's taught us is that you can do things remotely, there are other ways to do things than having to be there.
I think that was always one of the earlier challenges we had as being a Kiwi company when you're trying to provide services to somebody in the US or Canada. Sometimes people would see that as being negative.
Whereas I think we are thought of quite highly in terms of the approach that we bring to things. We do have that Kiwi ingenuity approach of trying to do something with maybe less resources to come up with unique ways to be able to solve problems.
And I think being able to take that and then do that now at a global level is probably what makes it quite interesting.
Technology is the future, right? I mean, it is everything that we do now, right? Whether it's the technology that's going to be automating your toaster or your fridge or your autonomous, self-driving car. There's just so many opportunities to get involved and so many exciting companies that are doing something on a pretty awesome scale.
“Sometimes coders are the worst, no offence coders, but we are the worst at doing a lot of these pieces, right?”
There's no straight-line path into getting into startups or getting into tech as you've demonstrated with your own career. For people that perhaps perceive tech or startups as something just for engineers or people that are coding, what are your thoughts on that?
Oh, absolutely not. Sometimes coders are the worst at, no offence coders, but we are the worst at doing a lot of these pieces, right?
You need people with all sorts of skills, right? People that, whether they're UX designers, business analysts, you need people that can actually really talk to a customer and build that relationship and be able to understand how to explain the technology.
There's all sorts of people that make a good tech company's team. I'm thinking of some of the great lawyers that I've worked with over the years that have got zero technical background whatsoever, smart people that we wouldn't have been able to win the deal that we won if it wasn't for their ability to navigate some of the compliance and the risk and the legal elements of it.
So I just think there's an opportunity regardless of what your skills are, to be involved in tech businesses and to be able to get involved in the industry. Absolutely.
“I know, in a few years' time we'll be a household name..”
Yeah. That's a great answer. And then finally, before we let you get back to your day, Russ, in terms of Plexure specifically, why do you think now is such an exciting time to join your team or your business?
Look, I think the thing about Plexure that's pretty cool is we have a solid base in terms of the business, the customers that we are dealing with. But the opportunity that we have now when we look back, I know, in a few years' time we'll be a household name in terms of providing the services.
It's just going to be great to be able to give people the opportunity to be able to be chatting to somebody at the barbecue, and when they say, "Where do you work?" To be able to say, "I work with Plexure and this is what we do."
Even now I'm sure that most people watching this will have used the McDonald's app and made a purchase, and if you've done that you've used Plexure, right? So to be part of something where our trajectory and where we're going to end up is pretty exciting.
I think it's a great opportunity to join the team. We've got great people and yeah, we've got a pretty bright future ahead of us. So I'm definitely pretty excited about what we're doing here.
Outstanding. Well, we really appreciate you taking the time to connect and have a chat today, Russ. Hopefully, that leg is on the mend and you can be back up in the planes jumping out of them soon enough.
Awesome mate. Thank you very much.