Miller Crockart has been Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing of Traffic Software at PTV Group for three years. However he’s had a varied, and international life, including a period as a professional rugby player in Japan. Paul Hutton travelled to PTV Group’s HQ in Karlsruhe, Germany, to find out more about this Zimbabwe-born Brit.
INTERVIEW BY PAUL HUTTON (Smart Highways). Due to the length of the interview it has been split. You will find part two of the interview published next week.
Paul Hutton (PH): You’re the first professional rugby player – former or current – that I’ve interviewed since Rory Underwood signed for Bedford in the 90s, but you plied a lot of your trade in Japan – how on earth did that happen?
Miller Crockart (MC): It’s a bit of a protracted story but my father was the Managing Director of Automobile Peugeot in Japan – sent there to set up Peugeot’s subsidiary based in Tokyo and I’d just finished my A-levels and was playing rugby for Northampton, and I went over to Japan on holiday. Unbeknownst to me my parents presented my exam results and scholastic aptitude tests to a university there, and my parents being quite consummate sales people sold me a vision of what life could be like in Japan. Rugby is now the third biggest sport there, but at that time was the second biggest participatory sport. Scotland’s team was out there on a tour and I got hooked up with them and I met the head of the Japanese Rugby Union, who introduced me to the people there, the heritage, put me into some training with a couple of clubs and I fell in love with it. They’re very honourable people, they love their rugby and my parents had stitched me up with a very good university in Japan and I got accepted to go there. Having lived in a number of countries before, I just thought this was too unique an opportunity to miss. I got to play rugby which was my passion that I loved, I got to eat my mum’s good food and I got to learn a new culture and a new language at the same time.
PH: I was going to ask whether you learnt the new language while you were there… so it wasn’t as though you were a Japanese speaker when you arrived?
MC: Not a word. My useage of chopsticks was pretty limited too! Nobody spoke English and we were at the beginning of when expats started going there and we were called Gaijin, which means alien. My mother was a five-foot-three blond Scottish lady and was treated like a doll and always had people coming up and touching her and looking at her hair. And for me the language was the biggest barrier so for the first year it was really frustrating because you didn’t understand the culture and the reason they did things, without being able to communicate with them properly. I was assigned a “manageress” through the rugby team and her job was to chaperone me. She’d lived in America and helped me understand a bit better, but until about 18 months in when I could start to speak, I found it quite frustrating. But once you get the language, it’s a great language to speak and I still enjoy it.
PH: You mentioned living in other countries, so where were you before England and Japan?
MC: I was born in Zimbabwe of Scottish parents who did the old ten pound ticket thing after the war, so I grew up there until I was seven when I went to South Africa and lived in Johannesburg, so there was a culture of outdoor sports, cricket and rugby being the main ones, plus Coca Cola and Biltong which was pretty much the way it was. Then Paris before landing up in the UK for my formative years at school.
PH: We’re sitting in Karlsruhe in Germany – so having your office in another country is water off a duck’s back to you?
MC: I enjoy it. The world is a much smaller place and the world is a richer place for amortising different cultures into how you conduct your life and your business life. So there are parts of me that are African, parts of me that are Japanese and now there are parts of me that are very German as well as being British. And there’s such a misperception among cultures of other cultures – for example the British have a certain perception of the Germans and viceversa that is so far from the truth. Yes there’s the stereotype that you may see once in a while but on the whole the British and German cultures have much more in common than they do with the French for example. I enjoy it here. People are very open-minded and very international. They’re maybe not as vocal as other nationalities for example Americans – we’re very timid about our marketing here – but for me there’s so much to shout about, so many good things happening that it’s nice to be involved in it here.
PH: We’ll come onto that in a minute but I just want to fill in the blanks between how you got from being a professional rugby player in Japan to being an executive with PTV in Germany.
MC: I did very well at University in Japan. I got my degree with honours and the President’s cup for academic and sporting excellence. I really loved it – I was able to study and do my passion and that gave me so many opportunities. I was offered a contract to play rugby for the NEC Corporation and I said I’d play for them but I would also like to serve an apprenticeship with their intelligent switching telecoms division, because I was thinking at that time what would be my life after rugby. I had to wear the uniform and the slippers and the jacket with my name on it and the NEC logo and had to do the exercises at ten o’clock and four o’clock to the music like everyone else. So whilst playing rugby I also translated for NEC R&D engineers talking to BT, New Zealand Telecom, AT&T in America. I had to translate the technical requirements from our customers to our engineers in Japanese and then translate back what our engineers could deliver. That got me into the technical side of life and I started to enjoy it and thought this is something I could get into.
I got badly injured in a practice match and spent two months in hospital. I had shattered my face – my nose, my top jaw, my lower jaw – I had them all wired and my parents said “listen son, it’s probably time to get a real job now” and I thought they were probably right, so I got a job as the sales manager for what was Westinghouse Signals based in Chippenham in Wiltshire, which involved dealing with train control signalling systems. Very quickly I was asked to open their Hong Kong office at the age of 27 and managing and supporting their operations throughout the region. That got me into the transport and again served a technical apprenticeship in the rail industry. Through that I was sent to Australia to merge with a company called Foxborough and to learn electrification systems for railways. I set up a new division for what ended up being Invensys Rail but soon got poached into transport planning.
I was dealing with city and national governments all around the world on railways, and the starting point is always the plan – where do we want the railways, why do we want them there? So I started to get involved in that and it was actually Heidrick and Struggles who approached me for an interesting job which was “we’ve got a guy who’s got a mathematical equation that can show how people will move in a virtual world, and I thought “that’s quite interesting” so I went along and got introduced to the company that became Legion software. It was very much at the beginning of that company where they had some seed money, they had an idea and a thought that the rail industry was probably the most fertile ground for this product because it had already been done. I talked to my friends in the rail industry around the world and they said if you can get this right then this is exactly what we need. So that got me into transport planning, that got me into simulation software and I served eight years there as their Head of Business Development where we won a number of marquee contracts, the biggest being with London Underground and that was the beginnings of the microsimulation of pedestrians as a specialism and now it’s increased in size and shape all over the world.
So that got me into this simulation virtual reality world – the biggest player in that of course is PTV Group who’s been doing it for 30 years with a very strong pedigree and of course it’s multi-modal and this is the way things are going in the world and I could see that. It’s not pedestrians alone that construes mobility, it’s pedestrians with bikes, with cars, with trains, with planes – all of them mix and if you want to be looking at that line of business in the future you have to be looking at all those modes of transport and that’s what we can do here at PTV – we’ve got that facility and that software program and programs where we can look at everything, walking, cycling, cars, autonomous vehicles, and for me that’s where you have to be, so from a scientific transport perspective PTV was the place to come and to ply my trade here.
It’s a great company, it’s got an ethos rather like a rugby team – you’re part of a fraternity and it’s a bit unusual in that regard. We’re not a hire and fire approach to business, we’re a bit more paternalistic – maybe it’s because of the academic background coming out of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) – we’ve continued that, we want a good working environment for our people where it’s innovation rather than worrying “will I be fired tomorrow?”, so it’s quite different from an Anglo-Saxon environment and I enjoy it and maybe that’s the rugby link, it’s about a team of people playing a game together and it’s much more fun that way.
PH: You talked about how the Americans shout more than the Germans and the Europeans do, but we’re kind of sitting in the European equivalent of Silicon Valley, the difference is that people here are quietly getting on with things rather than loudly getting on with things…
MC (laughs): It’s a good way of describing it. What I’ve found here is there are companies – there’s one just across the road, I’m looking at the building now, FZI – which is a research institute which is doing some incredible things with autonomous vehicles. They’re even building some of the moon landing equipment, but you would never know that. I’ve sat here for four years and you slowly learn that there are these little nuggets of gold just sitting round my building alone. There’s Init doing all the stuff for commuter technology, you’ve got Bosch here, and you’ve got a lot of small start-ups that have all created hugely popular technologies but there is this culture in Europe where it’s almost frowned upon to eulogise yourself, sometimes in Europe it’s construed as arrogant where in other countries it’s construed as good marketing and that’s a frustration for me.
I hear a lot of noises coming out of Silicon Valley that they have the latest and greatest solution for everything and we’ve been doing it for the last 30 years! People talk about smart cities or data analytics, well we’ve been doing data analytics for the last 30 years and we have a hugely strong pedigree in that topic – we know what data can be used, what quality there should be, how to fuse different sources, how to clean it and extrapolate it with simulation and prediction. But people are seduced by marketeers who think they’ve come up with the latest whizzy word to use and unfortunately that rather blurs the lines between what’s fact and what’s fiction so customers are being given a bum steer in certain directions when actually, fundamentally, the concept of data analytics is correct but don’t go down a channel that is driven by marketeers, go down one driven by a scientist or an academic that’s created something smart and has been commercialised properly to deliver a solution that can actually bring benefit on the ground. That for us the challenge from a marketing perspective is to stand up now for the silicon valley of Europe which is here. We’ll be more vocal but we’ll do it on fact rather than the latest buzzwords.
Next week: Find out how PTV started as a small student research program and over the years became a multinational worldwide company. Get to know more about what internationality means to us, what we see as our responsibility and what plans we have for the future.
This post is also available in: German