James Farnell: The ‘grizzly negotiator’ behind Flight Centre Travel Group’s technical operations

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From negotiations with vendors to exco, James knows how to ensure FCTG gets the best value for its money.

With an engineer for a dad, James Farnell has been very technically minded from a young age, and continues to enjoy the complexities of troubleshooting technology today as the technical operations team lead at Flight Centre Travel Group (FCTG).

However, James explains that his role has become a lot more of a leadership position as he heads up the global networks division of the travel management company. But with a BCom in industrial psychology, he knows how to work with people too. “Having empathy, knowing how people understand your words and being able to convey them correctly really helps when managing different people in your organisation,” he says.

When it comes to his executive team, James knows how to negotiate in order to get what he wants. “For our CFO, Euan McNeil, it’s very much a numbers game. He trusts me to do what I need to, as long as there’s return on investment. Our MD Andrew Stark needs convincing and likes to see the product, as well as the benefit it will have to the customer, which is the FCTG staff.”

And, as a product leader, James also has to motivate the product to the global CIO, who has a better understanding of the products and their value-adds. “Our business is structured in such a way that, if I want to implement a new firewall in South Africa for instance, it doesn’t necessarily have to go through the South African leaders anymore, but rather, it would go to the global technical team, who are accountable for the product and the return.”

When it comes to vendors and partners, James describes himself as a “grizzly negotiator”. “Holding the supplier accountable for what they need to deliver is crucial,” he says. “We’ve had problems with suppliers where there was too much scope creep or projects were never finished. You have to know where to draw the line and not pay the invoices.”

Before he joined Flight Centre, the company had spent a lot of money on their software and systems. During his first year working with the group, he had cut out about R2.5 million worth of unnecessary contracts with vendors and moved to cheaper, better technologies. “FCTG was always a Cisco house, from the technology systems to the phones on our desk. But Cisco isn’t cheap, so I spent a lot of time relooking at the partnership and negotiating to get a better solution for the group,” James explains.

Similarly, he has had to renegotiate the company’s partnership with MTN, which is responsible for the fixed networks in all FCTG’s stores and offices. “At the beginning I had to do a deep dive into the costing, realising that some sites were being charged considerably more than others, for the same product.”

Making sure that the organisation is getting good value for its money on its technology is where James has made his mark in the organisation. “Technology is moving quicker than any other part of the business at the moment and businesses need to take the opportunity to use that to their advantage,” he says. “If you’ve got massive cash reserves, you can make big changes to your business regularly, and if you’re agile enough, you can implement them quickly and really reap the rewards.”

Non-negotiable parent
Outside of work, James spends a lot of time with his two daughters who are nearly five and two years old. Unlike his leadership style at work, when it comes to his daughters James doesn’t negotiate. “I am the strict parent, while my wife is the softer one,” he says. “But we have a very good understanding and work well together when it comes to playing the good cop, bad cop routine.”

James is also passionate about fitness and has participated in his fair share of Comrades and ultra marathons. “For a lot of the time you’re on your own, despite the people around you. I see it as a method of therapy and meditation – my quiet time.”

And as marathons are starting to pick up again after two years of Covid-19 restrictions prohibiting public gatherings and events, James is well on his way with training for the upcoming Sanlam Cape Town Marathon in October.

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