Ster-Kinekor's Hilton Martin is revolutionising cinema

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Digital transformation improves processes, empowers employees and addresses challenges, he says.

Covid-19 had a devastating impact on Ster-Kinekor, which had excellent content delivery plans prior to the pandemic hitting. The effect was so significant that the company had to go into business rescue.

"In fact, before the pandemic, the company was cash-flow positive, all creditors had been paid, and we were performing exceptionally well. Then came March 2020, and we had to close shop, and the last 18 months have been extremely difficult," Hilton Martin, Ster-Kinekor’s chief of ICT, explains.

"Retrenchment became a reality, there were salary cuts and sacrifices, and we're currently undergoing business rescue, and through this process, we've gained new shareholders who acquired the business, and we may emerge battered and bruised on the other end, but we'll come out stronger," he says. "We don't sell movies; we sell an experience and cinema is here to stay."

Despite being limited to Covid-19 capacity restrictions, Hilton notes that more people are returning to the movies. "Even at half capacity, it was so refreshing to see the auditorium packed to the brim when my wife and I went to see a movie last month," he says.

Hilton's father was the IT director for a computer bureau. As a result, he was constantly around computers growing up. "Both my brother and I were interested in computers, but I was more interested in sales. After finishing matric, I got a part-time job with Nedbank Computer Services and this was my first role in IT, but my true passion was sales," he says.

After a brief stint in sales, another opportunity to work in the IT sector presented itself, which Hilton couldn't turn down. "I work in IT today, but my journey has been slightly different compared to other IT professionals. I don't have a formal IT qualification: most of my knowledge is based on pure experience, and that's how I grew from strength to strength in this industry," he explains.

"If you look at large companies like Apple and Google, they're not just looking for people with a tertiary education, they're looking for people who have IT capabilities and the intrinsic skills that can't be taught in university that are required in IT," he says. "This is not to say that a tertiary education isn't important, but I don't think young people who are interested in the field should be discouraged or even intimidated from entering the space.

"I would've been 10 steps further in my career if I had an IT qualification; more doors would've opened up, but it's all about how hungry and passionate you are: these are two qualities no formal education can replicate," he says.

He went on to hold senior IT positions at IBM, Mail & Guardian, and, most recently, Ster-Kinekor, where he is responsible for all the ICT aspects within the company, including data centres, cloud infrastructure and content delivery to the 53 cinemas nationally.

When Hilton joined Ster-Kinekor in 2016, the company was in the midst of a massive digital transformation journey and getting content into cinemas was a manual process.

"Back then, everything was put onto hard drives that were shipped across the country – digital cinema packages – and the cinemas would then download it into the projectors," he explains. "We were sitting with an archaic legacy multiprotocol label switching network and had to transform that entire process, which involved digital content delivery to cinema.

"Now we can place orders for specific movies with the film studios or distributors and these films get pushed down to us automatically from the United States straight to our cinemas. We then receive a specific key that decrypts the content for it to be shown at our various locations," he says.

Hilton says electronic content delivery eliminates issues such as courier costs, delays and content loss. South Africans can now enjoy global releases at the same time as consumers in other parts of the world.

"Another advantage of the digital transformation journey is that we now have qualified ICT engineers on site and no longer use projectionists. In fact, one engineer can manage three sites at the same time."

He did note, however, that the staff who worked in the projection environment were not laid off, but rather were transferred to other parts of the business to ensure that guests who enter the cinemas have that face-to-face engagement.

For Hilton, the empowerment aspect of this process is even more important because these former projectionists have now been upskilled to become ICT engineers and can use those skills anywhere in the world. "Knowledge sharing is power," he says. "I enjoy upskilling people because the end result is perfect camaraderie: passionate workers who go the extra mile without being asked, and a much more enjoyable working environment.

"As a leader, you're only as strong as the people who report to you, and if you don't look after them, you'll fall hard and fast," he says.

Something of an action hero himself, Hilton is an unashamed thrill-seeker who enjoys skydiving and paragliding. You only live once, as he puts it. And his adventurous spirit isn't limited to Planet Earth. He hopes to travel into space one day, once it's officially commercialised and, more importantly, when he can afford it. 

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