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The buddy autocrat

Gary Chalmers doesn't think a company should be run as a democracy. That's why he's the only one at the helm of iPulse, making all the decisions.

Read time 5min 20sec
Gary Chalmers, iPulse.
Gary Chalmers, iPulse.

IT veteran Gary Chalmers is the source of some fascinating stories. He's seen a lot during his career, and turned his good and bad experiences into amusing tales that, just occasionally, you suspect have been embellished a fraction. No matter. He's a born raconteur who probably found keeping a low profile for the last couple of years quite maddening.

Now he's decided it's time to make some noise about iPulse, his company that designs biometric GSM-based technologies for access control and security.

As the CEO, Chalmers has turned around the once-ailing business, reshaped it, and won some high-profile customers, including Internet Solutions and McDonald's.

Years ago, Chalmers was the founder of Training Connection, part of the Connection Group, then launched another IT training company, Torque IT. I remember meeting him then and finding him one of the liveliest, most sociable and most opinionated people in the industry, in a refreshing, entertaining kind of way.

"I'm a different man these days," he says, drinking a red cappuccino. He's been married for 15 years and has three boys, aged 12, 11 and seven. "Aside from my wife's mid-life crisis three years ago, where she partied hard for six months and I tagged along, we're mostly pretty quiet," he says.

"You grow up. You just get older and more tired more quickly. With the boys at this age, our weekends are very much centred on what they're doing with sports and friends, so we don't go out too much."

After he left Torque IT, he joined Richmark Holdings to turn around two companies that weren't faring well. "It took me two years to trade them to a point where they weren't haemorrhaging money. Once I'd traded them out of their liabilities, they were going to be shut down. So I got together a consortium of investors and decided to take over the companies myself because I believed I could take them to the next level."

Soft touch

He folded the two into one, renamed it iPulse, and became the majority shareholder, with Richmark retaining 26%. Chalmers kept the two companies going rather than starting something from scratch because they had good intellectual property and a lot of employees. "I'm a very soft touch when it comes to people," he says. "I've spent most of my life doing things I didn't want to do because I was worried about my secretary's sick daughter or my gardener's pregnant wife. According to some people, it's my biggest weakness, while others say it's my biggest strength."

I've never been a boss; I've always been one of the guys.

Gary Chalmers, iPulse

He doesn't draw a boundary between friends and workmates, and treats his employees as friends. "I've never been a boss; I've always been one of the guys." Yet a moment later, he seems to contradict that by describing himself as an autocrat. How can he be, if he's one of the guys, I ask.

"I'm a dictator when it comes to decisions," he replies. "Many companies try to run as a democracy, and they tend to have a lack of decision-making. Everybody is vying for position and ideas get killed for the wrong reasons. I'm the one person who runs this business, and although I'm quite soft, I create a place of excitement, enthusiasm and loyalty, and that's my brand of success."

New industry sectors

He pauses to sip his now-cold coffee, then carries on. "I don't ride people hard and measure every target every five minutes, but I can be an absolute pain in the ass for someone who isn't delivering value. And I can be ridiculously light on people who are doing what they're supposed to be doing but are seemingly getting away with murder."

iPulse survived many tough months when it wasn't generating money because it was focusing on developing its products. It 2011, it won the Department of Science and Technology's Top Emerging Enterprise Award. Now research and development has switched to adding additional features to serve new industry sectors.

Most people are like sheep, Chalmers says, and their buying decisions follow the trend. To crack the market, iPulse focused on winning the 'biggest, baddest, meanest' players in each industry sector. Once they were on board and praising the products, smaller, more timid businesses were willing to follow suit.

Mentoring

As he talks non-stop, emphasising the need for a single person to head a company, steer the ship, and theorising about the Titanic, I ask if he gets involved in mentoring, since he has such a broad sweep of experience and opinions.

He does. He's a volunteer for ORTJet, an organisation that helps businesses that are in trouble by providing training and mentoring. ORTJet assesses the business to identify the problems holding it back, then assigns a mentor experienced in that field.

I help people with marketing and finding a vision and direction for their business.

Gary Chalmers, iPulse

"I help people with marketing and finding a vision and direction for their business. It's a fantastic organisation and I'm mentoring three people at the moment. We'll keep going until they feel ready to let go of that crutch."

Chalmers lives in Kempton Park, having grown irritated with the Sandton lifestyle. He tells funny tales of a son aged four demanding a cellphone like all his classmates had; and of a neighbour who sent a lawyer's letter instead of strolling around for a chat when a wall behind his tennis court collapsed. "I didn't even know I had a wall behind the tennis court," he says. "I didn't want my children growing up in such a money oriented society. The kids are all wearing branded clothes and stressing to fit in, so we moved."

Chalmers has never stressed much about fitting in, but it's certainly good to see him popping up again.

First published in the September 2013 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine

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