In their first few months on the job, most CEOs would still be finding their feet, getting to know the team, and familiarizing themselves with the future vision—not Amr Refaat; he’s already more than well prepared.
Although he only became CEO for Gulf Business Machines (GBM) in July, Refaat has been working with GBM’s leadership team for 12 years through its strategic partner, IBM. Although the current CEO is still pretty new, GBM itself is far from it. Established in 1990 as the independent sole distributor for IBM in the GCC (excluding Saudi Arabia and certain products), today GBM works with more than 1,500 employees and a number of strategic partners. This still includes IBM, but also encompasses Cisco and VMware, SAP and Red Hat amongst others. Last year GBM reported revenues of over $600 million, growing the digital transformation business year on year.
Surprisingly unassuming and disarmingly friendly, Refaat is a rare find. Having started his career as a technical expert, he moved on to become a specialist in sales before beginning his journey in leadership. Now he is focused on using that all-round perspective to boost GBM’s deals by showing the region’s businesses how accelerating their adoption of the most disruptive digital technologies today is a vital move.
“Technology is at the core of everything,” insists Refaat, who ranked at number 37 on Forbes Middle East’s list of the Top 50 International CEOs Heading Local Companies 2019. “In the 90s it was a nice to have, as we moved forward it was important—now it’s a mandate, it’s not a luxury.” Refaat is now guiding his team in how to connect clients with the opportunities offered by artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, data analytics, and security.
Digital transformation is big business and GBM is looking to cash in. The International Data Corporation (IDC) forecasts that worldwide IT-related spending on digital transformation could hit more than $7.5 trillion by 2022. And the development of smart cities and a commitment to leading the world in technological advancement means the Middle East is a hotbed for technology investment. However, many companies are still struggling to understand what transformation means for them.
Refaat is keen to address the evident skills gaps, and help to remove the barriers that are causing many businesses to stall in their digital journeys. “There is a big transformation happening in the marketplace and it cannot be fulfilled with traditional ways of doing business,” he explains. A big part of this is first educating clients so they understand that digital transformation does not sit only in the IT department, but should lie within all business units, and then showing them how to leverage and use their data.
Earlier this year, GBM developed a whitepaper, titled Breaking the Deadlock and Accelerating Digital Transformation, together with IDC, exploring the challenges being faced by CIOs and explaining what it goes on to define as a digital deadlock.
“Many organizations are able to execute relatively smaller digital projects within departmental or functional silos,” says Jyoti Lalchandani, Group Vice President & Regional MD for the Middle East, Turkey & Africa at IDC. “A large proportion of them are unable to move beyond these ad hoc digital projects and achieve scale. They are stuck in a ‘digital deadlock’, unable to accelerate their digital transformation.” This deadlock occurs when a business either lacks the capabilities, the infrastructure or the understanding. This is where GBM steps in.
“Digital partners can provide the vertical, business, technological and technical expertise to undertake three strategies: building a scalable, agile and secure infrastructure, developing a robust information architecture and digitally transforming their business processes,” adds Lalchandani. “A strong, empathetic, long-term digital transformation partner can provide the relevant service models, technology solutions and support necessary to successfully implement these strategies in the least time possible.”
The research shows that roughly 53% of large Middle East businesses across all sectors have begun projects to start moving to digital solutions, 25% are preparing to start projects, and 19% are still watching and considering how it applies to them. It’s this entire audience that the CEO wants to connect with. “The companies not considering technology to be at the core, they have to reconsider,” says Refaat. “It’s not a technical discussion anymore. We need to elevate it to be a business discussion.”
To do this, over the next two years GBM will be investing more in building industry-specific solutions to market dynamics. “It’s a big challenge. You need to have the language of the industry. If you go to speak about cloud for example or AI, it’s different for a bank or for healthcare,” Refaat reveals.
Although a big challenge, it’s one that he is uniquely qualified to meet.
A self-confessed technology buff, the executive’s passion for digital began with designing and building electric circuit boards as a child. Growing up in Egypt in the 70s, computers were not easy to come by. Eventually, the young Refaat convinced his father to purchase one—it was the beginning of a lifelong passion. He began creating programming tools and even entered international competitions, eventually studying electrical engineering at Cairo University.
By the time Refaat walked away with his bachelor’s degree, the computer era was well underway, albeit still in its nascent stages. Tech giant, IBM, already had a large, established presence in the Egyptian capital, which piqued Refaat’s interest in the company. In 1987, the new graduate applied for an entry-level position during a recruitment drive. He wasn’t expecting to be successful. “The hiring was very difficult in IBM. They picked me out of many people, but I think I was lucky,” Refaat laughs.
Starting in the technical side of the business, Refaat began learning his trade at a time when IBM was reinventing the concept of computing. In 1981, the company had unveiled the IBM Personal Computer (PC). At that time, the monitor and keyboard together cost $1,565 and it was famously powered by an Intel microprocessor and Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system.
Working on automation in the Egypt base, Refaat found himself being the go-to expert in the new technology when the first IBM PC arrived in the office. “Not many people knew how to make it work even in the office. They were used to big giant computers and mainframes and lead systems,” he remembers. “They said who can make it work? I said I can do that. I became the custodian of this one machine in the office. Everyone was trying to play with it to see what it was.”
It was the start of a long career with IBM. In 2003, Refaat eventually moved to the headquarters in Vienna to lead the emerging technologies program. He began working with clients from countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Poland and Russia to name a few. The budding leader stayed in Europe for four years before moving to the U.A.E. 12 years ago to become IBM’s general manager for the Middle East and Pakistan region.
Refaat was tasked with building the region's sales capabilities. Over the years he opened offices in Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, as well as two client centers and IBM’s first digital design studio in the U.A.E. “I was driving business, focusing on building skills and empowering transformation in the organization. It’s all about how we elevate our capabilities to help clients move and build their future business,” he explains.
Then, earlier this year, GBM’s board approached him to make the natural move to become CEO of the company. “It attracted me because I thought this is a good opportunity to jump into a leading digital transformation organization, where you have the flexibility, agility and speed to help clients.”
GBM and IBM maintain tight communications and working practices. “Our strategic relationship with GBM extends to almost 30 years since its inception in 1990 and is amongst the most valued globally,” says Andy Parkinson, Vice President, Partner Ecosystem at IBM Middle East & Africa. “A large, highly-skilled sales force, with deep knowledge of IBM offerings and solutions, combined with a geographical reach of seven offices in the GCC ensures the highest level of representation and commitment to our clients.”
GBM also partners with other companies to build the best solutions for clients in the Middle East. “We own our own destiny,” says Refaat. At the moment partners include multinational technology conglomerate, Cisco Systems, VMware, SAP and Red Hat amongst others.
“Cisco and GBM have been partners for over 20 years. Throughout this we have been committed to transforming our relationship and the markets we operate in,” says Shukri Eid Atari, Managing Director for the Gulf Region at Cisco. “We are excited to see Amr Refaat leading GBM, one of our largest partners in the region. Amr’s long experience in the industry will prove valuable to our joint growth and transformation.”
Looking ahead, Refaat is clearly excited for the future. In a similar way to how the internet, smartphones, and WiFi have changed the world, he cites AI, big data and 5G as being the biggest disrupters going forward—but he believes there needs to be stronger investment in research and regulations. “There is more to be done in the whole Arab region regarding investing in research. It needs more exploration,” he confides. “Regulations, legislations. All these things need to be in place. And you can’t have this in one country and the other country doesn’t have it. It has to be a collaborative decision on these to be done together.”
It’s an ongoing journey. “It’s a very exciting moment, I’m so thrilled. We are building together the future,” he smiles. Having been there before the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution, Refaat is now firmly cementing his place as a key player within it.