In Focus Interview with Arlene Wherrett, Vice President & Managing Director, Sage Asia


Arlene Wherrett & Lucy Haydon

This article was originally published in Orient magazine, November 2019.

Our Editor meets the woman at the helm in the Asia region for the iconic British technology brand Sage. In the discussion, they cover topics from female representation in technology to cloud-based solutions, and the company’s award-winning approach to CSR.

You have spent over 20 years in the IT and services industries across Asia and Australasia. During that period the technology sector has seen an increase in attention on the need for more women to become involved in technology, particularly at leadership levels. What has been your perception over time and how do you see yourself and companies such as Sage helping to shift the stereotype?

I have been in male-dominated industries for most of my career, so I have not considered technology as any more dominant than, say, management consulting or financial services. Joining the tech sector around 12 years ago, I actually haven’t noticed a gender imbalance as much as in financial services. In my earlier career in healthcare and HR, both of which sectors are traditionally female-dominated, my leadership role models were women so I have always assumed that it does not matter what gender you are, leadership comes from the strengths that you have. Female leaders bring a balance between the discipline of leadership and being more engaging, warm and personable with colleagues.  

For technology, there have been some amazing global examples of female leaders such as Ginni Rometty (IBM), Meg Whitman (formerly of HP), and Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook) who have made a huge impact on the sector. On this side of the world, Libby Roy (PayPal Australia) is an admirable leader. The real challenge is in the people at the heart of technology – R&D, engineering, product delivery - in many tech companies these roles are male-dominated. When I took the role at Sage I was pleasantly surprised to find that the company has a strong proportion of women within our engineering and product management teams. Recruiting for the best talent for the role is key, whoever that happens to be. Having a diverse team helps in solving problems and coming at problems with a different perspective. Our CEO Steve Hare is driving a lot of thinking internally around cognitive diversity, focusing on a having a diversity of perspectives.

Incredibly, 1 in 3 people in the UK are paid using Sage Payroll, and 50% of businesses in the private sector use the technology to pay their employees. It is not surprising therefore to hear that the company now operates in 23 countries and employs an estimated 13,500 people, serving 3 million customers. How do Sage’s offerings differ in the Asia Pacific region and what are the company’s ambitions for the future here?

We are aligned around with the world with a strong focus on customers, helping them to solve their everyday problems and providing technology solutions that become the engine room which drives their business. Providing compliant solutions and paying people on time with accurate data are critical business practices.

In Asia, we offer accounting, payroll and ERP technology solutions. In Singapore, we have an offering called Sage EasyPay which was the pioneer of payroll software. Recently we offered an Employee Self Service enhancement, a cloud-based solution that helps employees interact with their payroll manager to apply for basic services such as their payslip, annual leave, etc. Many companies in Singapore are still using manual processes for these tasks. We also offer core financial services, providing solutions that are effective and provide reliable, compliant functionality. Shortly we will be announcing Sage 300, which will offer customers a new module to monitor cash flow, which is often a big challenge for mid-size companies.

Recently, we were proud to win the Frost & Sullivan award for Malaysia Financial Accounting Software Vendor of the Year 2019, and the previous year the 2018 Asia-Pacific Accounting Software on Cloud Provider of the Year. These awards are a testament to how our solutions are being used by our customers and making a real difference. We also won the Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI) award for CSR, for our Sage Foundation activities. Together with SHRI, we launched the HR Technology Lab earlier this year in a strategic alliance, creating a space where HR professionals can learn real-time how to use HR and payroll technology, in a practical setup.

Technology changes at an incredible pace and with many service companies shifting to cloud-based solutions, competition is increasingly based around agility and innovation. How is Sage future-proofing the company to remain relevant and anticipating your client’s needs?

In the product development process, we consider how our customers would like to interact with our technology. Some companies like to have control with an on-premise option, whereas others are looking for flexible cloud-based solutions. Sage is able to meet the customer needs regardless where they are in their digital transformation journey or their operational model.

The most important outcome is to automate processes which can be manual and repetitive to be more efficient, productive, and release the human talent to add more value in other areas. We also need to help companies make decisions based on the analytics of their business, in real-time. Having connected solutions really helps to drive this goal, in the field.

Can you tell us a little about The Sage Foundation?

The Foundation is the heart of our business, focusing on building social, economic and entrepreneurial opportunities in our local communities across the globe. All of our employees are able to take advantage of 5 volunteer days a year and some employees volunteer to become Foundation Ambassadors, helping to co-ordinate the various activities the offices engage in. The focus of the Foundation is perpetually on youth, veterans and women, though we have opportunities across all different areas. Employees may fundraise and donate to their charity of choice, and the Foundation will then match their contribution. In 2018, Sage volunteering was worth £2.8mn to charities and our CEO has recently challenged colleagues around the world to raise a further $2mn for local charities by 2022.

Examples in Singapore of recent activities include a food drive for the disadvantaged, and community engagement activities with the elderly. We find giving back to our community is a great opportunity for our employees to embed purpose in their actions and they take pride in showcasing their involvement through the H.A.P.P.Y programme, where they earn a badge for every day that they volunteer. In a recent employee poll, the Foundation was one of the key reasons that people quoted for their enjoyment of working at Sage.

We invite our 300 Partners in the Asia region to get involved, exponentially expanding the reach of the Foundation. On an annual basis, we host the Sage Partner Summit and work on activities which our Partners can also get involved in. For example, last year we had around 150 people packing meals for those who had been affected by a natural disaster in the region, and they achieved a huge amount together in a very tangible way.