Tech next step for Jones post-Navitas

04/12/2017 - 14:36

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SPECIAL REPORT: Navitas boss Rod Jones talked to Business News about the next chapter for the $1.8 billion education provider he founded, and his hopes for the technology ventures he’s backing.

Tech next step for Jones post-Navitas
Rod Jones says he would go nuts if he retired. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Navitas boss Rod Jones may be preparing to step aside from his role at the education provider he founded in 1994, but he has no shortage of projects lined up to occupy his interest.

Mr Jones is involved in an array of businesses outside Navitas, the Perth-based education services provider with a $1.8 billion market capitalisation and about 80,000 current students.

The one that gets him most excited is California-based Collinear.

“That’s a partnership with Lockheed Martin that a few of us are involved in,” Mr Jones told Business News.

The company is working on production of a new type of satellite dish for the delivery of signals from telecommunications nodes to houses.

“It’s going to be a game changer, I reckon,” he said.

“It can deliver data out at up to 10 gigabytes per second, over five kilometres.”

Such technology could work in a complementary fashion with the National Broadband Network, given that model’s current reliance on copper wiring from node to home.

“Fibre goes to the node, (this would be) distribution from the node,” Mr Jones said.

“The reality is fibre is very expensive, and if you can go to nodes and you can distribute out at reasonable speeds, it’s going to have some real value going forward.”

That idea of bringing benefits to society through his family office, Hoperidge Capital, is important to Mr Jones, with Hoperidge’s investments partly focused on areas where he could add value to the world.

One example was Updater, the ASX-listed technology business that aims to simplify coordination of the many tasks involved in moving house.

“There’s a lot of other things that interest me, and I’m not the sort of person who can just go away and retire; I’d go nuts, I need things to do,” Mr Jones said.

“A few of the things we’ve been doing have really been startups.

“If you can get a startup working and working well, through that you’re adding value.”

Hoperidge chief investment officer Jon Biesse serves as Mr Jones’ eyes in a number of companies where Hoperidge has a stake, such as Merredin Energy, where he is chair (see investments in table).

Geospatial imaging business Spookfish, supplement provider Welleco and utility Perth Energy are among other investments in the Hoperidge portfolio.

Business News understands the stake in Navitas accounts for about half of Mr Jones’s total portfolio, while technology businesses are about half of the remainder.

A third of the non-Navitas part of the portfolio is in property, with a spread across commercial, retail and industrial investments around the country.

Technology will also be shaping education, which Mr Jones said was on par with healthcare at the top of the list of sectors ripe for disruption.

Rather than turning education on its head, however, Mr Jones believes changes in education would focus on delivery platforms.

Artificial intelligence and virtual reality were two opportunities, he said.

“It allows you to deliver (education) anywhere in the world; to have virtual classrooms where kids can interact as if they were in a classroom or a tute,” Mr Jones said.

Navitas has an eye on these developments via the Navitas Ventures arm of the business, which builds and invests in education innovations.

Succession

All that doesn’t mean Mr Jones, who turned 70 in November, won’t maintain a close involvement in Navitas after his planned retirement as chief executive in March 2018.

The move was flagged in October this year.

Mr Jones said he would stay on as managing director until June 2018, and then planned to take a seat on the board as a director, perhaps with a couple of months’ break.

He said the board had undertaken a very thorough process to find a successor, with chief financial officer David Buckingham, who was previously chief executive of iiNet, to take the role.

“Dave and I work very well together,” Mr Jones said.

“I think he’s got the right attributes to take this company to the next level.”

Mr Jones said he was passionate about education because it was a way to assist people achieve their goals.

“I really feel good about it,” he said.

“There’s a few hundred thousand students who probably wouldn’t have got through into university without us having provided that opportunity to them.

“The students we take in haven’t quite got direct entry.

“What you’re doing is providing them a program to take them from where they’ve come from to where they want to be.”

Journey

In the Navitas boardroom, overlooking a slice of St Georges Terrace, Mr Jones said he learned a lot from a “major road bump” in his life three decades ago, when he lost everything.

Aged 40, a business he had signed on as a guarantor for more than a decade prior went under, leaving him with a few pieces of furniture, clothes, a car, and his job.

“You will always make mistakes, don’t continue to focus on the mistakes; your focus has got to be forward,” Mr Jones said.

The second lesson was that Mr Jones said he always looked at risks and downsides first when analysing an opportunity.

“The biggest mistake too many people make is in the evaluation of risk; they always look at the upside of an opportunity, and they never put enough effort looking at the downside,” he said.

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