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10 Sep 2014

CEOs Uncovered: Darrin Grafton

Our sincere thanks to Unlimited Magazine for publishing this article. To read the article in full on click here

There are few life experiences that can build a work ethic like growing up on a farm. Darrin Grafton, whose travel software company Serko listed on the NZX in June, grew up helping his share milker father in Waimauku, north of Auckland. “Getting up early and working hard is the norm for farming life,” he says.

There was never a computer in the house. But his father encouraged him to look at broader opportunities, and the boy was very good at maths.

At the time, the country’s elite computing degree was the arcanely-named New Zealand Certificate in Data Processing. Grafton was one of only 15 applicants out of 600 to get in, and the stringent entry test identified those who could think and solve problems, he says.

When the course’s teacher, Tony Bew, realised he had never had a computer, he showed him the ropes. For Grafton, it was a lightbulb moment. It was on that course, too, that he found his future business partner in co-founder and current director of strategic growth, Bob Shaw.

That ability to solve complex problems has been expressed at Serko most particularly in the solution the company built for the mining industry. A change in shifts on often remote mine sites requires complex travel booking procedures for hundreds of people at a time which could take weeks to organise.

“Everyone said it was too hard,” Grafton says.

But the Serko team pulled it off, creating the Serko Online Mass Booking module and the company now claims a host of mining companies as clients alongside blue chip government and corporate customers across Australasia.

“Always focus on the goal, not the money,” Grafton says.

But it wasn’t exactly a straight road to the NZX. It began in 1994 with the founding of Interactive Technologies (ITL) which set out to solve a few thorny back office issues for travel agents. ITL became Serko in 2000.

As part of the Gullivers Travel Group, it was listed in 2004 and then acquired by Australian travel company S8. The technology didn’t thrive in that environment and Shaw and Grafton bought it back in 2007.

Then, this year, Serko added the assets of online expense management company Incharge to its portfolio and announced it had received a US patent for travel expense management reconciliation from payments made on a mobile phone. The pieces are coming together.

Despite that progress, the market didn’t bid Serko’s shares up on listing: in fact at time of writing Serko’s shares were trading at around 92 cents from an offer price of $1.10.

Grafton says he was as surprised as anyone at that reception, but if you walk around Serko’s office, you won’t see anyone with the share page up on their screen.

“We know what we have to deliver,” he says. “We’re focused on the goal.”

Serko, he says, is like a family.

“There’s a level of respect and support. You feel part of that from day one. Almost 40 per cent of the business went to the staff.”

A great CEO, he says, is someone who has a clear vision and who can take people on a journey. Founders can’t all do that, he says. They have to be able to make a transition and develop their own styles.

The way Grafton and Shaw work together is part of that, with Shaw focusing on commercialisation, finance, compliance and new markets while Grafton leads. 

“You have to surround yourself with people that strengthen the whole,” he says.

Three quick questions:

How do you handle the stresses of your job?

“I do have time out, on the water, fishing, at the beach house and do stuff with the kids.”

Did you always think you would be a CEO?  

“I always knew I was going to be an entrepreneur... I always wanted to run my own company.”

What is something people would be surprised to know about you?

“I bake all my kids’ birthday cakes. It’s about putting in the effort rather than buying. It’s about spending the time.”

*Disclosure of interest: Rob O’Neill bought shares in Serko after listing.

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