Aligning with the business’s digital transformation vision, Gulftainer’s IT department has recently rolled out SAP S4/HANA to provide ‘real-time’ insights into key business decisions. As one of the first Middle East customers to go live with the solution in September, Group IT Head Vinay Sharma reflects on the benefits that are expected to come.
International shipping and logistics is a heavy industry, and operating 13 terminals worldwide is no light task for UAE-based port management company, Gulftainer. Established in 1976, following the opening of Sharjah Container Terminal (SCT), the company now manages approximately “40 percent” of all major container terminal facilities in the Middle East.
Vinay Sharma was appointed as head of Group IT in 2012, and has since pushed the company through a series of beneficial technological developments. The attention of Gulftainer turned to global expansion from 2010 onwards, when terminal operations began in Iraq, and later in Russia and South America. “IT becomes critical when you start to become a global operation,” explains Sharma. “It’s crucial if you are to minimise turnaround time and meet business requirements across various locations.”
Despite enduring a “good experience” with Gulftainer’s existing infrastructure, Sharma admits that it was nonetheless outdated. “We had added so many bolt-on solutions and isolated systems that, prior to this implementation, we were looking to replace over 30 applications,” he says. “We previously had an application for cheque printing, one for procurement, one application for storage. It’s very difficult to find a single source to consolidate all of these services. Business was growing, and with so many systems, it was very difficult to control such a high volume of information, which is what triggered us to make a change.”
Known as ‘Project Globe’ – because of the belief that a better integrated system would consolidate and reinforce Gulftainer’s ability to position itself at a global level – the company took the decision to roll out SAP across the UAE port. The implementation of S/4 HANA – an in-memory database which can offer a query processing environment for relational databases as well as less structured data – is a particular success for the company, as Gulftainer are one of the first customers to go live with the solution in the Middle East region.
“It is a great milestone for us,” says Sharma. “We took around 10 months to evaluate SAP, along with other providers. We did more than 50 workshops before we made our decision.” Sharma describes this selection process as one of the biggest challenges in the implementation, because finding a partner who was flexible, yet one whose technology was easy to adapt to, was of the upmost importance for Gulftainer. “For many years, we had very much been an in-house software company, and we knew that by taking on SAP that a lot of process redesigning was going to have to happen,” says Sharma.
The project implementation took 16 months, beginning in June 2015 and finally going live on 1st September this year. “It was a very bumpy ride,” admits Sharma. “Our first challenge was engaging key stakeholders in the business from the beginning of the project, which I believe we did very nicely. This was a business project, not an IT project.”
Another major challenge for Sharma and his team was to ensure that the solution’s end-users fully understood this new ‘one-source’ concept. “No one was looking end-to-end, because they were used to looking at one application per service. An integrated system meant that we now had one single source of information, and that not only impacted the procurement, but also the finance department and the management team,” says Sharma. “SAP is an end-to-end process, so it was quite a challenge for the team to understand that. It also meant that people’s roles were changing, so we took a lot of time to educate them on this.”
There is currently a lack of quantitative data to support the benefits of this implementation – due to the solution having only gone live one month ago – but after a smooth execution of the first month’s payroll under the solution, Sharma is already expecting big things.
“The whole idea of HANA is the speed; we are expecting to get real-time analytics for our key business decisions. This is likely to happen gradually over a six-month period, because we don’t have enough data at the moment to optimise the system or establish a baseline,” he says. “Within this time, our consolidation and budget planning will be in place, which we can then use to compare and establish some results.”
Already very enthusiastic about the prospective long-term positives of the solution, Sharma has expressed the practical benefits which S4/HANA can assist the company with.
“We have taken the executive decision that S4/HANA will be our engine, and will handle all of our assumed data, from a management perspective as well as from a procurement maintenance management perspective. The data that we receive from our dashboards, highlighting any issues that there may be with the maintenance of our operations, will be very helpful,” says Sharma. “Let’s say a crane is down for a few hours; this is a big issue for us, and it’s important that we get that real-time data so that we can act quickly.”
The solution has also enabled Gulftainer to implement SAP SYCLO; a middleware application that typically utilises field service management processes with significantly valued hard assets to protect.
“Setting up an entire port facility with Wi-Fi, and equipping our workers on the ground with IP-67 devices has been a huge benefit following the implementation,” says Sharma. It allows workers to process orders and material reservations from the port itself, and gives them access to the real-time data concerning issues with assets whilst on-site.
Reflecting on the implementation journey, Sharma remains impressed with Gulftainer’s experience with SAP, as well as Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) – a GCC-based consulting organisation that Gulftainer used to implement the solution.
“The journey was never going to be easy with such a project,” says Sharma. “There were challenges in implementing S4/HANA because there was a lack of trained resources, which meant it was also difficult for TCS. I would like to highlight that there was a great amount of support from SAP; they acted as a sound advisory board throughout the project.”
Looking ahead to 2017, Gulftainer is hoping to extend their S4/HANA services by implementing SAP’s port management system on to the solution, in order to gain predictive analysis data. There are plans to roll out the same solution across Gulftainer’s gloal offices, and a disaster recover site for SAP is also going live at the end of November 2016.
“Now that we have this solid base foundation, we can build on it and look at implementing more real-time operations,” says Sharma.
He adds, “We have now gone live, and the IT journey starts from here. I’m very much focused on business, but in terms of IT, we now have to scale up the system from here. Our users – who have been using outdated systems for more than 20 years – just need ‘hand-holding’ if they are to come up to this next level.”