“IT is often seen by the business as a function that says ‘no’ too much”, says Mark Foulsham, head of IT at insurance firm esure. “Let’s say ‘yes’ first and then work from that premise.” That approach to business technology filters through every aspect of Foulsham’s work, from his management of in-house IT to his influence in a broad range of expert advisory services. Foulsham is a man with fingers in many pies. And the flavour of the pie – in-house, external, non-IT – depends on the wider, business objectives. His wide remit has led to Foulsham being given the nickname Emperor. Such is the gravitas associated to his status that Foulsham – half self-mockingly, half as an inspirational call – has a quote on his door from the gladiator Marcus Aurelius: “Because a thing seems difficult for you, do not think it impossible for anyone to accomplish.”
The sentiment provides appropriate shorthand for Foulsham’s can-do attitude. A civil engineer by education, Foulsham’s first job after graduation was with design specialist WS Atkins. His work involved responsibility for IT from day one, with Foulsham quickly shown the firm’s Unix boxes and asked to take control. “I’ve always thought that civil engineering provides a great training ground for the management of resources”, he says. “As an engineer, you turn up and fix down the variables. All the skills I’ve gained through engineering have been used in IT.” After six years at WS Atkins, Foulsham took his IT skills to French construction and services giant Bouygues as a programme manager and subsequently IT director. “They were interesting days”, says Foulsham, reflecting on his multiple roles and responsibilities. “The company worked across a range of components, such as water, civil engineering and facilities management. Working in the UK for a centralised IT function of a French business created an interesting situation.”
After eight years, certain parts of the business were divested, including the European IT function. After presenting to the City, Foulsham helped bed-in technology as IT director of Macquarie Bank’s infrastructure fund. He became head of IT at esure a year later in 2004. “It was very different to anything I’d done before”, he says, reflecting on his move to the financial services sector. “I came for an interview here and the view from esure then, as now, is that it’s good to think objectively and out of the box – so limited knowledge on the industry is not a barrier.”
Objectivity for Foulsham involves a series of changing responsibilities, both in regards to business and project aims. “I keep being given more work”, he reflects. “In short, I think it’s because I recognised pretty quickly that I work for esure chairman Peter Wood, not the company.” After launching Direct Line in the 1980s, Wood founded esure in 2000, using the Internet as the company’s key sales channel. The company grew quickly, including the successful creation of female insurance brand Sheilas’ Wheels. Wood recently led a management buy-out of esure from Lloyds Banking Group. Wood and his senior colleagues, like Foulsham, continue to drive innovative projects (see box). In addition to his daily responsibilities at esure, Foulsham is heavily involved in online comparison site GoCompare.com. He works in a consultancy role alongside the IT director, helping to ensure the firm does not make mistakes in regards to architecture planning. Foulsham’s consultancy work extends to cloud computing specialist Cobweb Solutions. As non-executive director, he provides IT leadership experience and connections. “A lot of CIOs still don’t get the cloud and there’s potentially some real value. I help by giving Cobweb an objective perspective of the challenges CIOs face.”
His close interaction with Peter Wood and his diverse consultancy interests means Foulsham needs to rely on a strong IT team at esure. Because of such reliance, he is sensible enough not to be concerned about letting go of responsibility. “When I interview people, I always ask whether they aspire to take my role”, he says. “I need strong people and I always need a single point of contact. Having people you can trust makes the job easier. Modern IT leaders must utilise their existing human resources. If you have great people, you can let their light shine and that gives me more opportunity to think strategically.” ?
Source: CIOnet Magazine, winter 2010