“Last year was a challenging environment,” Balall Yaqub says with some understatement. As group CEO of Emitac, he takes a holistic view of the four main divisions that make up the company – distribution, ‘enterprise value’, healthcare and mobility.
“Fortunately,” he continues, “we were very lucky to see last year’s problems coming back in mid-2008. That was our best year ever so we had expectations of 2009 being even better but, during our budget process, we saw the changes taking place in market economics in the Western world.”
And now? “I like to say we’re ‘cautiously optimistic’…”
The split of the business two years back into functional units has, Yaqub believes, allowed it to prosper through adverse conditions, with mobility as the star achiever. “Part of what we wanted to achieve was grow up the value chain and, with a close focus on each unit, there was nowhere to hide for underperformers. Each of the four key areas has six clear revenue streams, making 24 effective businesses in the Emitac group.
So what does he see as the key focus for enterprise customers this year? “Without a doubt it’s managing their hardware investments to get a real return – enterprise management is the story for 2010.” In other words, sell software like HP OpenView and consultancy services after selling the big metal last year? “Well, that’s a bit cynical but, yes, at times we in the industry do forget how applicable or how useful some solutions are. For us, a big lesson is this: always match solutions to requirements.”
For Yaqub, this marks a new maturity for Emitac, one in which it evolves as a partner rather than a supplier, a stakeholder in the business even. “We need our customers to have the same faith in us as they have in their accountants or lawyers,” he explains.
Another clear focus of activity in 2010 is security. “We take it for granted but organisations really need to mandate it from the top. I think there’s an increasing realisation of its importance, from a business perspective, partly because the market is changing. You can’t keep a competitive edge in a world of zero hour threats unless you take security seriously, thoughoput your organisation.”
One advantage Emitac enjoys is very long relationships with key customers. Etisalat, for example, has been a customer for a quarter of a century. Does Yaqub see such players investing extensively this year? “Well, it’s clear that we’re seeing a major contraction of investment in infrastructure but investment is still there. I’d point to the UAE government (especially in Abu Dhabi). Qatar and Saudi Arabia are potentially very good markets, though I do believe that the market will remain flat in terms of pure hardware sales until the second half of next year.”
Yaqub also sees real potential in developing solutions, after his in-house team delivered an open source, fully integrated, unified voice and data communications system for Emitac’s own internal use.
“We had quotes from the market in the millions of dollars, but our guys produced a winner for a fraction of that. And now we have a solution that we can sell on to our customers. I’d love us to do a lot more of this kind of thing but a perpetual problem – and it’s not just with Emitac – is finding the right staff. Quality people are hard to find, but we need to keep making that investment,” he believes.
Meeting the challenge of raising local skill levels is Yaqub’s passion. He sees a link between business and education as critical to a healthy IT and knowledge-based economy. “We need to spend time with governments and local institutions to see how we can encourage local entrepreneurs in the UAE. The potential markets are vast – the tiny percentage of Web content in Arabic, for example, represents a massive opportunity. So, yes, I want to leverage the skills across our divisions to better serve our customers but I also want to encourage a wider growth of skills and opportunities for local talent. We need to enable talent and ignite the spark in them!”
Emitac currently has some 560 sales, solution architects and support staff who are customer-facing. For any company, that would represent a real challenge in keeping skills up to date, but Yaqub is keen to grow the business, with a new office in Saudi Arabia planned for this year and a longer term expansion into North Africa underway. Internally, there is a company-wide, mandated policy of succession planning, which also drives the constant uptake of new skills. This continuous process helps drive new business for Emitac.
“One very noticeable thing,” he adds, “is that the number of visits from our partners in Europe and the US is growing faster than ever. In absolute terms this market may not represent a major contribution to a bottom line, but the industry understands that we have a growing market. And the rate of growth can be astounding – in just a couple of years, we’ve sold more than a million Blackberrys in the Gulf.”
“I think the fact that innovation is still really in its infancy. The business has been good to me and I’d like now to leave something behind that has a longlasting effect.” The rise of local ICT skills would be a great legacy for both Yaqub and Emitac.