There’s no doubting the buzz around data and technology. And John Jakovcevic, the head of STULZ Australia and New Zealand, a subsidiary of the STULZ Klimatechnik Group (a division of STULZ Holdings), can help make optimum air conditioning a reality for every data centre project.
He’s the man responsible for overseeing an Australian start-up become the leading local supplier of resilient and energy-efficient critical cooling systems. STULZ air-conditioning equipment is designed and manufactured in Germany, and includes data centre cooling, chillers, air handlers, modular and micro data centres, humidification, IT racks and containment.
With various sizes, extensive options and modularity, STULZ ANZ creates fully bespoke and customised solutions.
After completing his university studies in 1991, John found his big break working for Westfield. Starting in an IT support role, he worked diligently until, one day, his manager called him into his office to offer an exciting opportunity – John was thrilled to become Westfield co-founder Frank Lowy’s personal IT tutor. Three years later, John was given another surprising opportunity via an early morning phone call. “Would you be interested in growing STULZ in the Australian marketplace?” the caller asked. Despite not being an engineer and not knowing much about air conditioning, John felt he needed to do this.
“In my twenties, I met a very wealthy and successful individual who built a shopping centre empire from nothing into something quite incredible,” John says, “which is interesting, because it reflects the journey I would eventually embark on this new company called Western Industries (an exclusive distributor of STULZ products).”
At just 30 years of age, John packed his bags and boarded a flight to Germany, ready to face senior executives on the other side of the world. And over a couple of handshakes, he and his equity partner agreed to bring the STULZ brand to Australia.
On 2 January 2001, Western Industries commenced trading in the spare room of his single-storey, red-brick home near Parramatta, Sydney. He started with nothing but a fax machine, a copy of the Yellow Pages and a lot of hope. Without a network, and no sales or engineering experience, John knew it would be an uphill battle. “We were a start-up before the word became fashionable,” he laughs.
“We were a start-up before the word became fashionable.”
He opened up his frayed copy of the Yellow Pages, flipped to ‘A’ for air conditioning, and ran his finger down the list to find potential contractors to sell to. He called every prospect to see if there was any interest to learn more about STULZ. But despite STULZ’s success in Europe and parts of Asia, the Australian marketplace was not yet aware of the German brand.
John was driven by the hope that this venture would be successful. But more than anything, he wished to prove he was meant to be in the business world. And while the fear of failure was certainly also present, he sought to succeed despite the odds.
John and his little red-brick home competed head-on with a subsidiary of a Fortune Global 500 company that had a monopoly on the market. With a 95% market share and a network built over 30 years of business, the competition was a “big mountain to climb”. Sure, the opportunities were there, but John had to start from ground zero in an age where the ‘Buy Australia’ campaign was going strong as well. And the public’s preference for local products was yet another hurdle in trying to popularise STULZ in Australia.
“The challenge was motivating and, at the same time, a little bit scary,” muses John. “When I was a kid,I used to watch Land of the Giants. Just as in that show, I felt so little as everyone towered above me and all I could think about was not being crushed – but that was a battle I had to face.”
“I felt like a little person walking up to a big person – but that was a battle I had to face.”
John had to dig deep, learning to sell a level of service to exceed what his local competitors offered, despite the time difference.
He says that if there were any technical enquiries that required answers from Germany, he would tirelessly hunt for prompt solutions. It meant long hours, but he always had an answer by the next day. This continued for years until he decided it was time to take the next step.
John had felt a keen need to be more closely associated with the brand he was representing, especially as his competitors were deploying a range of strategies to drive him out of the market. This included the FUD factor: fear, uncertainty and doubt.
“Companies would say ‘John’s a one-man band, so if he gets hit by a bus tomorrow, he’s gone. He’s got no backup or support. Trust us instead. We’re big’. When we wanted to really play in the data centre market, we’d lose a lot of opportunities,” recalls John. “So, I presented to the equity partners and convinced them that we needed to rebrand and be called STULZ. I knew if we could demonstrate this global backing, it would counter our competitors’ FUD approach.
“We had to lobby the STULZ management for many months, to convince them to support the Australia option. Up until that stage their subsidiaries were all based in Europe.” In 2005, STULZ ANZ was born – a joint venture partnership with STULZ. In 2012, STULZ ANZ became 100% owned by the STULZ Group.
Today, STULZ ANZ is a A$20 million company. It’s acknowledged by its parent company for its expansion and diversification into other products.
John offers some advice to anyone aspiring to succeed in business: you can’t do it alone – you need people. “STULZ is a business built on people, a loyal and dedicated team that has enabled us to bring the right products, deliver them in a timely manner and provide the exceptional service. This also includes our external teams. Our suppliers, freight forwarders and local transport companies all have a huge part to play. One of our brand values is ‘We work together’ and this is so well demonstrated at STULZ.
“It’s about others, not about me. I have my own four Ps: Passion, Persistence and Perseverance and, if you add those three together, you get the fourth, Prosperity. I’ve prospered on the business front and the home front, but it could not have happened without these three elements, and an extremely supportive wife. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that people don’t see. They often think we were always this big and successful. They don’t see how much hard work has gone into it.”
“There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t see … They don’t see how much hard work has gone into it.”
While the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) industry is not a big one, it’s already populated by established household names such as Carrier, Daikin, Panasonic, Fujitsu and Mitsubishi. All these brands play in the air-conditioning space, and are generally more recognised. Although STULZ ANZ is in the same market, it sits slightly on the edge because of its data centre perspective.
Every morning, John picks up The Australian Financial Review, The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald from his doorstep and devours them before starting his workday. As an active reader, businessman and traveller, and he enjoys attending conferences to stay abreast of what’s happening in the digital space.
Conscious of the advent of AI, he has no doubts about its impending impact on the data economy. “We have an air-conditioning unit which has a controller that constantly monitors the temperature, humidity, and airflow in a room. And if it finds an event it doesn’t like, it alerts the customer and our service centre to send someone out to check on it. That’s the current mode of operation. Moving forward, the increasing intelligence of the systems and sensors means they will eventually predict an event before it occurs. They’ll be so intelligent, collecting the data over time to grow their own minds. This is what we call ‘machine learning’. We would have a person onsite, prior to the event happening and circumvent a failure.
“In our business, it’s all about 100% uptime and ensuring customers have a cooling system that always operates. If cooling goes down, your servers will overheat and shutdown causing significant impact to the public and businesses. Luckily, we haven’t had that experience as yet. At the moment, we run a team of field-based service technicians. Their role is to go out there and carry out preventive maintenance, conducting a ‘health check’ every month. And with the IoT as part of our daily living, it means more data, number crunching, servers and heat load. It also means we will need more cooling systems and will potentially see a new market for micro data centres. In simple terms, a data centre in a rack.”
Essentially a data centre, whether it’s in-house or outsourced, stores servers, mainframes, storage devices, routers, switches and other computing and communication equipment in IT racks. These are supported by critical infrastructure such as uninterruptable power supplies, fire suppression and air conditioning that ensures full facility uptime, safety and security. It may be complex (with a dedicated building) or simple (an area or room that houses just a few servers), and it may be private or shared.
John says data centres are geographically spread, as they need a lot of land. There are an increasing number being built in the western suburbs of Sydney, for example. However, there still needs to be sufficient availability of power and communication technologies to support the data centre operator’s own customer base and this may not be the case further out of Sydney.
“With the growing dependency on the IoT in the industry, a new phrase has been introduced, Edge Computing,” John says. “Simply put, it’s about bringing the computing power to process all the data that is being collected closer to the people that need the data. But, rather than build more bricks and mortar data centres, we will have micro facilities that cater for these needs instead.”
John sees this similar to the uptake of mobile phones. “When mobile phones first came out, connectivity wasn’t the best. There were a couple of these big poles here and there, so connections kept dropping out and we often couldn’t get a reliable connection. Then, as the uptake grew along with our need for consistent, reliable services, more and more towers were built.”
John predicts the same thing may happen with Edge Computing. “We will have these little data centres strategically placed to assist in the processing of data. We are seeing this already in the planning of smart city communities.”
“We’ll have all these little data centres situated throughout the CBDs and out west. They’ll be everywhere to ensure we can provide data to the users instantly.”
As the company continues to grow and learn more about work–life balance, it has begun to encourage more healthy habits such as yoga, meditation and working from home. More employees are donating blood, raising funds for charity and getting involved with their communities.
John himself participated in the Vinnies CEO Sleepout, a one-night event over one of the longest and coldest nights of the year. It’s where hundreds of CEOs, business owners and leaders sleep outdoors to support the many homeless Australians.
A VOIP communication system has also been recently installed, allowing greater flexibility in terms of work conditions for employees. Cloud-based systems, where appropriate, have been implemented as STULZ ANZ transforms itself to stay competitive, relevant, efficient and adaptive to its customers and their own changing needs. It has progressively moved away from relying on paper towards having all of its management systems on the cloud, with the end goal of becoming a paperless office. With shredding bins and recycling plans in place, the company is benefitting the environment as well.
One employee even took it upon himself to develop a GUI interface, allowing capture of input from the teams on how the company could be more innovative in its processes, ideas and actions. And as part of the company’s main initiatives this year, it has a plan to brainstorm 100 new ideas or changes for processes.
John says the company is proud that it cools the IT equipment of the Amazons, Facebooks and Microsofts of the world. And, as the company continues to excel, he notes that he often contemplates what’s on the horizon. He has always believed that the cloud is “here for the foreseeable future” and that society has gone from centralisation to decentralisation, to centralisation and back again.
So, there will be something after the cloud, he says. But what? He doesn’t know for sure, but he knows that history repeats itself, so something will come after the cloud, and it will impact all of us again as suppliers of products and services.
So far, STULZ ANZ has received many awards including four internal company awards from the STULZ Group. The awards have recognised its achievements in running a successful start-up, creating strong market awareness for a new product range, business growth and market diversification.
The company’s attitude of readily embracing change and innovation translates into its ability to implement new strategies almost immediately. John’s forward-thinking nature has led to him being invited to participate on the global strategy team. All the current representatives are from different STULZ factories from around the world.
John is also often asked to speak to other subsidiaries, because STULZ Group look to him to help motivate them and grow their businesses. STULZ ANZ is continuing to successfully diversify and expand into new industries away from data centres too. For example, its solutions are being used in the medical industry, in museums, art galleries and archives, through to wine storage, the pharmaceutical industry and many other areas. In fact, there isn’t a sector it doesn’t work with. From a spare room to a wildly successful concern, STULZ ANZ has become a benchmark for other subsidiaries of the STULZ Group globally.
And as the digital landscape continues to expand, John continues to lead STULZ ANZ from peak to peak. Thanks to his leadership, it’s safe to say the company’s direction is only up from here.