The name of the game

Digicom is building a growing name for itself as a systems integrator in Saudi Arabia, with an impressive list of projects including involvement in e-government projects. Abdulaziz Albakr, president and managing director, Digicom, talks to ACN about the company's vision for the future and the principles that have been behind its success.

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By  Daniel Stanton Published  October 1, 2006

|~|digicom200.jpg|~||~|Arabian Computer News You're a growing name in Saudi Arabia, but what about beyond the Kingdom? Do you have customers in Dubai, for example?
Abdulaziz Albakr Right now we are building a customer base in Dubai, but we have some companies that we are already working with on projects to be formalised. But there is a business relationship. Also we are looking into the other areas of the GCC. We look at the GCC as an integrated market, they're all related to each other in the sense of requirement and demand. Most of the IT projects or software projects require a certain experience and certain communication. So it's the same within the GCC.
We've completed now our 10th anniversary. It's been 10 hard years but 10 successful years. If you look at where we started and where we are now it does make us feel good and proud of what we have accomplished. We were a very small company - we are now considered one of the leading systems integrators in the region.

ACN When you get a big customer does that help to boost your reputation and get you more custom?
AA We look at the type of target and reputation of the customer. Sometimes the size of the customer is not what matters. What matters for us is reputation, the position in his industry. Are we talking about a simple plug-and-play networking project or are we talking about integration of multiple systems on multiple platforms? That’s what makes a difference.
You're going to put in the effort and the hard work but you'd rather have it in a more sophisticated project with a sophisticated customer that will add value once you put him in the reference list. Also, once we deal with a customer we assume that we are partners and we work with them based on that principle, and that really builds the confidence with the customer.
Also we have a project management division within Digicom. Some of the companies have tested us and they've seen us work and even the areas we don't have experience in, they might request us to do the management of that project.

ACN Why would they do that when there appears to be plenty of specialists available on the ground?
AA They have confidence in the people at Digicom, and in Digicom's ability to be able to explore and find the best solution and integrate it with their existing systems. I think that makes a difference because most of what I see is that most the companies in IT here try to come in and remove or take out whatever investment was done by their customers. We try to do it another way. OK, you've invested in something. Let's try to save that investment and utilise it better, and integrate it with our solutions. That's the name of the game: having all of these systems talk to each other. The other thing is mapping the existing process and future plans - does it fit, do your systems and your whole structure fit to accommodate your future plans or not? If not, then you will be looking at a different solution or even a phased out transition. It depends on the industry, it depends on the customer, the size and financials.

ACN How do you differentiate Digicom in the market? What would you like your clients be thinking when you've finished a project?
AA I dealt with Digicom and I dealt with other companies. What did I benefit, what did I gain, other than financials? What did I benefit in experience, in knowledge transfer and satisfaction? We look at it in a totally different way. We see that we are a services company, so a services company leans on their reputation and they expand also based on their reputation, so any small project can hurt that reputation, whatever investment you put into marketing. If there is a bad reputation, nothing can fix that, so we try to maintain the satisfaction of the customer, and we go the extra mile to meet his needs. And, thank God, we've reached that goal. We've exceeded the 200 customer base. We started only based in Riyadh, now we've expanded to Jeddah and Al Khobar, and soon we're going to be reaching outside those areas.

ACN The Saudi e-government project sounds like it is aiming very high, have you been involved at all?
AA It's about a 3 billion riyal project. That’s what has been budgeted. They will be more overseeing the project, but each entity or each government department will be handling their own department. But that's just the start.
We started with SWCC (Saline Water Conversion Corporation), one of the first e-government initiatives, and that was in 2003. It was a successful project, governed by the Ministry of Water and Electricity. We did enterprise asset management application implementation - that was the largest in the Middle East as an enterprise asset management project - and we did the data cleansing and the cataloguing for them. SWCC is the largest organisation in desalination, they have more than 30 desalination plants in Saudi Arabia and they generate around 30% of Saudi Arabia's electricity. So all of their plants and facilities and the operations and maintenance division are working on the Datastream (asset, work and information management suite) application.

ACN What about private companies in Saudi Arabia? Are you starting to see more demand from them?
AA That's one of the positive signs you can see - the private sector is getting into automation more and more. The awareness is there. It's late, but it's better late than never coming. We have a number of private sector companies in Saudi Arabia which we have been working with. We have some international companies also like Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline. These are international companies so they already have awareness of IT, but for local companies it's getting really close, and that's a good thing. They came to understand the value of automation, they're working on it and they want to prepare for competition because competition is coming from everywhere, from GCC companies and from international companies. And that's a good thing, although it's late, at least they're starting. And it's just the start for enterprise automation, also for re-engineering and restructuring. It gives them time to see how their business processes look and then to re-evaluate them, re-engineer them based on best practices that come with the applications we provide.

ACN So is your workforce mostly Saudi?
AA No, not mostly, but we have met the requirements. It's around 15% Saudisation. There is also a plan we have signed with HRDF, which is the human resources development fund, to employ and train Saudis in different areas: the sales areas, the technical side also, and let them gain their experience there. Most of the consultants that work with us are from different countries and each one comes with a different kind of experience. Like if we work in the utilities area we try to bring in consultants who are experienced in utilities, so that consultant will be coming with a very big experience in that area. So we try to gain as much experience as we can through them. And that's some of the fruits of the international partnership that we have with different organisations.

ACN What kind of challenges does your business face at the moment?
AA Most of it is maintaining the satisfaction of the customers. Expanding our presence in the region with the same reputation and the same quality that we've been delivering. And, oh yes, there is much bigger competition now. There are a lot of international companies that just came in and opened offices - from India, also from Europe and North America.
If you look at IT spending worldwide, here in this part of the world, and the GCC especially, IT spending is higher than anywhere else because the need for automation and the awareness has come later than in Europe and the States. Also the growth in the IT market is bigger.

ACN So would you say most of your customers are in Saudi Arabia and the UAE?
AA There are some that have branches outside the Kindom of Saudi Arabia and part of the contracts we have with them are for the rollout to other sites that they have outside Saudi Arabia.

ACN Is it a family business?
AA It's a company owned between me and my brother, Essam, who's the vice president. We're working together on it. We're involved in it not only as an investment.

ACN What was your interest in setting up this kind of company?
AA To be very frank, it started when we had the opportunity to bid in a project, that was an IT project. It involved networking and software development. We won that project, and we developed and completed it successfully. Then we started thinking about IT and we researched the market. We decided it was a very feasible potential market that we should invest in.
Other companies work in a very different style. Only two or three companies in Saudi Arabia are considered to be systems integrators - real integrators - so this is where we wanted to be, this was where we would fill in the gap in the market. There is potential but it's going to take time for awareness.
Y2K helped actually in bringing awareness to the market. Everybody started asking about IT. Then after Y2K was the stock market hype. A lot of people had never touched a PC. Then, when this happened, they started using internet banking, and they bought laptops. They hadn't even seen a computer before then and now they know how automation can make things easy.
All of these things have helped us as a company. Trading stocks, you don't need to be doing it during bank working hours, and that's the best choice. So that helped. People saw they could take their applications wherever they are. That gave them an idea of how easy it is and how useful.

ACN What are your aims for the future?
AA To be located in Dubai and the rest of the GCC - also Egypt. We have a lot of solutions and services to add. We will also be providing managed services.
People are outsourcing the management of their data centres because they lose a lot of money in managing their IT. By employing the right IT manager, you get what you want within the estimated budget.
We have been working with multiple solutions that fit different industries. This helps Digicom gain experience in areas like retail, food and beverage, utilities, and trading. It gives us experience and helps us find a niche. Each segment has its own way of dealing.
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