CIO Spotlight

Strong hold

Ajay Rathi, Head of IT, Meraas Holding
Ajay Rathi, Head of IT, Meraas Holding

“My early educational background was somewhat scattered, staying in no place for more than three years,” Rathi recalls. “I went to school in a range of Northern Indian cities: Dehradun, Najibabad and Pilibhit.” His early interests were not specifically IT; related, in 1987 he undertook a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, which he says was easier said than done, “IIT only had six bases back then, and admission was tough.” He completed the course in 1991, and then began a Master’s course in Systems Engineering, which he finished in 1993.

After obtaining his Master’s degree, Rathi hit the ground running by joining Fortune 500 firm Indian Oil Corporation as Deputy Manager of Information Systems, and was based in Gujarat city Jamnagar, which rose to fame following the establishment of the world’s largest green field oil refinery. Although he was not initially enlisted purely for his IT acumen, Rathi says his natural calling became clear after a string of technical projects. “IT had always been with me, I had a passion for it,” he says. “While I was in Jamnagar I led the project to install a LAN network. Back in those days we had WordStar as a word processing application and Lotus123 for spread sheets. Using FoxPro, inventory management for projects was implemented.” His work would also cover a variety of other non-IT related projects, until he was transferred to Jaipur in 1998.

His time in the Pink City would cement his role as one that was IT-based. “Throughout my four years in Jaipur, my operations-based role gradually migrated towards one in IT,” he says. “Other tasks such as developing applications became an important part of my brief.” From 2001-2006, Rathi worked on implementing SAP in IOC locations throughout India, having been transferred to Gurgaon in the National Capital Region in 2003. Once widespread implementations were complete, Rathi recalls a feeling of hollowness, which would drive his next big decision.

“When we had got to a stage where everything was stable, I remember feeling very bored,” he says. “We had achieved great progress for the company, but nothing new and exciting was happening. After five years of continuous work, doing the same thing every day, I felt that I needed a change.”

In late 2007, Rathi was to receive a life-changing phone call. The caller was the CIO for Dubai-based DAMAC Properties, who was interested in acquiring Rathi’s services as Senior IT Manager. “We initially discussed a range of work relating to real estate, and then he invited me on a two-day visit to see what DAMAC and Dubai were all about,” he says. “I saw great potential for improvement in their IT. Their data centre was not the best, they needed a disaster recovery site, and there was a general opportunity for the all-round improvement of grass roots IT.”

Rathi remembers the impact that the financial crash of 2008 had on the firm, “A lot of people were asked to leave the company and that caused problems for us,” he says. “Construction began to pick up by late 2011 and company sales were improving by late 2012.”

In January 2013 Rathi was once again headhunted by a Dubai property firm, this time Meraas Holding. He says the state of the company’s IT was similar to that of DAMAC at the time of his arrival, “There was no wireless Internet, and everything that was in place was at least five years old,” he says. “Nothing had been replaced since the downturn, so everything needed refreshing. There was also a need to overhaul a lot of aspects of the data centre, which I saw as a great opportunity.” Rathi set about implementing new modules in Oracle ERP, including recruitment portal, advance procurement and contract to pay cycle. On the infrastructure front data centre migration, video conferencing and wireless solutions were implemented.

Rathi says the company’s influx of high profile developments is currently beginning to necessitate a range of upgrades to the company’s IT. Dubai-based projects that are currently on the horizon include Blue Water Island, which is set to feature the world’s tallest ferris wheel, Pearl Island, and the ‘La Mer’ complex. “We’re currently looking at process automation in a range of aspects, including governance, audit and consolidation,” Rathi says. “As Meraas expands we need to expand with it.”

In an age where IT plays an increasingly important role in affecting an organisation’s bottom line, Rathi is clear on how CIOs should liaise with senior business figures. “Before starting a project, it’s important to hold meetings and give presentations to board members and senior stakeholders,” Rathi says. “IT’s ‘alignment’ to the business is a buzzword. What good is it to ask ‘what are your requirements, what are your pain points?’ when they themselves won’t know how exactly they can get the best out of processes and automation?”

He goes on to describe how he believes it is best to deal with his peers in order to get them onside. “It’s crucial to convince them before anything starts, to gain their interest for what you’re proposing. Once they are interested they will chase you because they feel that they need what you’ve offered. You need to make them think they are in control of the project by saying it is theirs, and that the IT team is merely the custodian of it. Give the focus to the business; propose what you think would be good for them and let them decide what they want.

“I would say that IT is helping the improvement of business, but is not ‘driving’ it as some people would have you believe. We have to try and assist the business in getting better value, making things faster and more cost-efficient,” he says.

Rathi says he draws most of his pride and enjoyment from the hurdles he has had to overcome at work, “Everywhere I’ve worked, the challenging things are always those that I’ve enjoyed the most,” he says. “If there was nothing challenging in a job, I’d get bored very quickly. Every job has given me strength and helped me to raise the bar in terms of my own performance. I’m still looking for a high point in my career; I have an urge to do more.”

Rathi names Infosys Co-Found N. R. Narayana Murthy as his inspiration. “Murthy came from a humble background and continues to live a humble life,” he says. “He’s always been motivated to elevate his organisation to higher heights, and that’s what I aspire to do. Every year I look where I can improve what’s on offer, and if I’m unable to do that, then I feel I have no option but to move on.”

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