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Bain company leader addresses new challenger of digital era

Published on Saturday, 03 Nov 2018
As a leader, Cottrell is fully conscious of the firm’s need to evolve as part of a fast-changing ecosystem.

With digital transformation and new technologies fast reshaping large parts of the business world, Dale Cottrell finds himself right at the heart of the action.

He and his team are out there offering cutting-edge advice on everything from AI, machine learning and blockchain to automation, robotics and IoT (the internet of things). And, in the process, they are helping businesses become more efficient, cost competitive, and future-ready in order to contend with the disruption now facing every sector.

“We work with clients who need and want change,” says the Asia-Pacific managing director for leading consultancy Bain & Company. “It’s definitely on everyone’s agenda, but clients are at different stages on the maturity curve in understanding how it will impact their business. They want to know which technologies can actually help them and where things like advanced data analytics can be used to take out costs, improve existing processes in the value chain, or create something new for their customers.”

A key question for many big companies, he notes, is whether they should aim to drive innovation in their industry or just be a fast follower. Once that’s clear, Bain might typically be asked to work on solutions to digitise the customer experience, for example in buying an insurance policy, making a claim, or opening a bank account. For other projects, the main focus might be to get clients into new markets or scale up their business through innovative thinking and smarter use of technologies.

In some cases, there is an element of catch-up, as the client looks for ways to match industry rivals. In others, it is a matter of working with leading-edge players, platforms and “unicorns” to see how and where recent breakthroughs can be more widely applied.

“We have a model that is very collaborative, which focuses on results, not reports,” Cottrell says. “We start by laying out the options and look at the pros and cons of each. If necessary, we run a ‘test and learn’ pilot scheme for the client, [as a way of assessing] the risks, how to mitigate them, and how the process can be scaled up if it works.”

As a leader, Cottrell is fully conscious of the firm’s need to evolve as part of a fast-changing ecosystem. That means having a vision and strategy for what the region and industry might look like 10 years from now, showing clients what start-ups are doing, and helping them to create adjacencies in their own operations.

And it means hiring more people with a background in computer and data science who can write algorithms, design websites and user interfaces, conceive new products and services, and draw out insights.

“We look at where venture capital and investment is going in relation to different industries to see where the potential disruptors are.”

One of four children, Cottrell started life in Bellingen, a small town in rural New South Wales where his great-grandfather, a wheelwright, had been one of the first settlers.

However, his mother, a single parent who sometimes struggled to make ends meet, moved the family to Coffs Harbour where, as a teenager, Cottrell enjoyed the famed Australian lifestyle revolving around weekend cricket matches and the great outdoors.

He made pocket money by retrieving lost balls from the lake at the local golf club and then by caddying, which stirred new ideas and perspectives.

“Most of the players I met were in business and well off; they were nice people and seemed to have a great life,” he says. “A few said you must go to university, so I learned the importance of education on a golf course and started thinking about a career in business.”

To that end, he completed a three-year bachelor of commerce at the University of New South Wales in 1982 and took the logical next step by becoming a trainee accountant at Touche Ross.

The standard audit assignments of the first two years were a little repetitive, but he knuckled down and then moved to Coopers & Lybrand to focus more on M&A work. That led to stint with Deloitte in London in the late 1980s, handling business valuations, corporate turnarounds, management buyouts and financial investigations – and seeing the wider world. So, not too surprisingly, the subsequent return to his old role in Sydney prompted a major rethink about direction and goals.

“I wanted to reposition myself to do more ‘upstream’, strategic work, not just staying on the corporate finance side and possibly becoming a CFO,” Cottrell says.

Accordingly, he did an MBA at the Australian Graduate School of Management, tried consultancy work with McKinsey & Co, and then, caught up in the enthusiasm of the late 1990s, joined an internet start-up. It was an applications server business creating middleware, and though headcount quickly grew from 25 to 175, there were storm clouds ahead.

“We had funding and impressive shareholders, but were 20 years too early,” Cottrell says. “The demand just wasn’t there because customers weren’t online and didn’t yet need broadband solutions. It was the right idea at the wrong time.”

Things came right, though, with an offer to join Bain in Sydney as a principal in 2003. Responsible for HR, financial services and then the industrial practice, he advised clients in consumer goods, retail, telecoms and healthcare and thoroughly enjoyed the problem solving and intellectual challenges.

After seven years as managing partner in Australia came the move to Hong Kong in 2013. First, though, he took a six-month sabbatical to drive a motor home through Europe with his wife and two kids, ticking off a number of lifetime dreams along the way.

“I believe in doing your dreams,” says Cottrell, a keen trail runner who also does kite-boarding off Lantau. “And I really encourage young people to spend time overseas.”

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