First to market

CEB was established as a general software development house in Jordan 26 years ago by a group of young and ambitious entrepreneurs. They owned 80% of the company, after it was acquired by Al-Faris National company earlier this year, and went public on the Jordanian Stock Exchange earlier this year. Two months ago Jordan's Kawar Group acquired the 80% shareholding with a view to raising capital to finance an aggressive expansion plan enabled by key acquisitions and new partnerships. Colin Edwards talks to general manager Ayman Arafeh about the company's past and how it got to a point where today it is looking to become a major regional IT force.

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By  Coline Edwards Published  October 31, 2006

Arabian Computer News When the company was formed 26 years ago was its vision to become a regional player in what has become a very competitive sector?

Ayman Arafeh We had the vision from the outset to be a leader providing innovative software solutions to local and regional markets.We started life as a software development house. From the beginning it was a pioneer. These were early days for IT in the region. By 1984, CEB was the first company in the region to work with Oracle and introduced Arabised applications utilising relational database management system (RDBMS) concepts.We had offices in Kuwait and Iraq in the mid 80s.

ACN As a company that was in at the ground floor of IT in the region, what have been the most significant challenges and technological changes you've witnessed?

AA When the company started there was no internet, no sophisticated programming languages and databases, no speedy networks, and definitely very few technical experts. The introduction of the PC, Unix and relational database systems and concepts, were definitely the biggest changes CEB lived through from a technology perspective.

ACN How did you cope with all these technology changes?

AA We tried always to be a leader in implementing new ideas and technologies. For example, we were the first company in the Middle East to introduce and implement solutions based on Oracle and its RDBMS concepts.We were also among the first to go with Unix.We also worked very hard to address the issue of applications portability which was a very big issue then. Regarding the markets, when we started we were going horizontal. We were doing all sorts of software, but then we realised this was not the proper way to go so we focused on three main sectors - government, education and financial.

ACN You also moved from a strictly software focus to become a systems integrator. What were your objectives there?

AA Yes, by about 1986, and based on increased customer demands, we implemented a new strategy by shifting its focus from just being a software house to become a systems integrator and total solution provider of hardware solutions, infrastructure and networking. This was in addition to our main software development business. The mission then was to be the leading SI and software house providing Arabised solutions in the region.

ACN So had you identified a need for Arabised solutions in the regions, and is it something that helps you generate business?

AA Definitely, when we started there were not many providers of Arabised solutions in the region. You're talking 26 years ago. There were not many people in the market. So, we filled that market gap. Today Arabisation is not such a big deal.

ACN While you play a key role in the whole IT delivery chain, has it been necessary to go beyond general SI services delivery to ensure and enable your own business growth. Was this something you set out to do?

AA Yes, we've established ourselves as a leading SI over a 20-year period to the point where today we're recognised as a true SI providing total solutions with a comprehensive range of services from hardware, software, networking, database and training.We also established a network of resellers in the region.

ACN What was the next step in your development that got you into a position where you could think about being the first IT company in Jordan to list publicly?

AA We decided in the late 1990s to streamline our own software operation and focus specifically on three main areas - document management, workflow, insurance and banking. This was a major step that helped us reposition ourselves as a key IT player in the country with good and stable financial results. It also set the stage for us for the next big step, and that was going for a public listing.

ACN So being a broad-based service provider didn't really work for you?

AA We were too broad-based.We realised that if you want to deliver proper professional software it has to be well-written, tested, documented and packaged. As a broad-based solutions provider this would have required a huge number of people. So, with the limited resources we had at the time, we decided the best strategy was to streamline our software operation and focus on these three main areas.

ACN You mention limited skills resources - what have you done to develop and retain the skills you have attracted to CEB?

AA In CEB we invest a lot in the training and certification of our staff to keep them up to date so that they are better able to serve and support our clients.We also review our remuneration packages regularly to try to stay competitive in this challenging market. It is a problem retaining staff.We have international companies opening here in Jordan, and the Gulf continues to be wide open and dynamic. These are significant challenges for us, but they are ones which I believe we have addressed in the past, and will continue to do so, to the best of our abilities.

ACN Having focused on three main lines and three major target markets, you're now planning to diversify. What's being planned here and why?

AA We see big room for us in the egovernment and e-business spaces. From a product portfolio expansion perspective, we’re adding specialised kiosk solutions and portals integration offerings.We’re addressing all types of e-businesses applications such as in banks, telcos, hotels, tourism, malls. It has also payment processing functions and you can do e-ticketing for airlines, theatres, utilities and e-government. We're also introducing ITIL - IT Infrastructure Library - the methodology for service management organisations. CEB has implemented ITIL in its maintenance department and after we realised the benefits, we’re now offering ITIL to the market in terms of training, consultancy and implementation. A third new offering is our documentation and publication services.We have an internal department that used to do all types of users and technical manuals and now we are offering this service. There are many companies out there that do good software, but they do not do good manuals and good documentation. Basically, it’s a user and technical documentation and translation service in Arabic and English for both online and hard copy needs.

ACN Will these additional offerings help you build up your business in the region? I take it there would have been limitations to you relying purely on your SI operations to penetrate markets beyond Jordan?

AA As far as distribution is concerned we are limited to the Jordan area by hardware distribution agreements This is why we’re concentrating on marketing and selling our software products in the region. It’s also why we moved into documentation and translation and ITIL services and, of course, our new kiosk solutions. For that business we have an agreement covering the whole region, whereas our other hardware agreements are only for the Jordanian market.With our new portfolio of offerings it makes business sense to open new branches and offices as we implement our expansion plans in the region.

ACN Will you still be developing your vertical in-house solutions?

AA We will still be doing our own development. The document management, workflow, banking and insurance systems are our own internally developed software. On the kiosks side we're working with Friendlyway, a German company, for the hardware. Our job comes in packaging those kiosks with applications - Arabic applications. It will also include integrating the kiosks with existing applications, so integration will also be a part of it. ACN What would you rate as your biggest success as a company to date?

AA Our biggest success has been the branding of CEB in the region.We have qualified thousands of skilled IT staff who are now working all over the region. They know what CEB means as a company. You will find a lot of people who have been CEB employees or trained by CEB. So for us the company branding has been the single biggest success..

ACN What about being the first IT company in Jordan, if not the region, to be listed? Surely that's a major achievement?

AA Going public was certainly a big achievement for us.We were the first IT company to do so in Jordan. I don't know of any specifically IT company in the region to have listed either. This was a big challenge and definitely a huge achievement. Now, we’re trying to set the model for other companies to follow so that the whole sector can benefit from our experiences. Eight months ago, three people owned the company as a local enterprise. Today, over 220 individuals own this company.

ACN We've spoken about your successes, but what about things you would do differently if you had to do it all again?

AA There is one thing we should have done that we didn't do strategically - we should have invested more in going regional at an earlier stage.We should have capitalised on our early presence in the market. Our regional set up should have been done and maintained earlier.

ACN The new ownership is now going to be a key factor in the company realising its regional plans. What difference has being a publicly-owned company meant to CEB to date and what impact do you see it having on the company in the future?

AA We are still in the transitional phase so we will not feel the immediate impact this year, but we certainly expect to see major results next year and going forward. The main objective of raising capital now (see news story page 16) is that we want to grow through the acquisition of other IT companies throughout the region. Basically we are trying to expand both our market and product line and services. To expand our markets we have just launched CEB Qatar, a joint venture company between CEB and Al Majaz. It's a 50-50 company focusing on CEB software products : document management, workflow, banking and insurance. We'll also be providing services on consultation and training for ITIL and Oracle services through data migration solutions in addition to our kiosks solutions.

ACN And what's the next stage of your expansion plan?

AA The next thing on the list - after the capital increase - is to establish a big presence in Saudi Arabia. The focus of the new group will be very much on Saudi Arabia, but we have not decided yet whether this Saudi expansion will be through a partnership or acquisition - but we see either of them working for us.

ACN Are you looking to expand into any additional vertical markets or increase your geographic footprint further?

AA Our key markets today are government, financial and education. But we're also targeting new markets in the telecom sector as we expand with our new product offerings.We see our biggest growth coming in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but we're also seeing some major wins in Sudan.We have secured a major deal with Sudatel, the Sudanese telephone utility. It's a large contract for a big document management system for over 400 users. There are other projects there, so we see Sudan as a big potential growth market for us as well.

ACN Where do you want CEB to be in five years' time?

AA We see ourselves as one of the leading players in the region providing solutions and services covering everything from management consultancy and training to implementation and support services.

Ayman Arafeh “Now,we are trying to set the model for other IT companies to follow so that the whole sector can benefit from our experiences.”

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