OMER SALEEM

Saudi Arabia 2021 | ECONOMY | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Omer Saleem, Deputy CEO of Proven, about the effects of the pandemic, ongoing business demand, and expectations for 2021.

How have you managed the COVID-19 crisis internally and with your customers whose credentials you manage?

Since 2018 we have been internally diversifying our service delivery model, change was needed, and the industry had to evolve. We can proudly say that we have successfully created a distributed team model, moving away from just having our team based in Saudi Arabia. We established our UAE team in 2013, however, it was limited in size, and in 2018 we started expansion into Kuwait and Bangalore, India. These functional teams and offices were just an extension of the base team here in Saudi rather than performing back-office activities. Allowing us flexibility as the SOPs and work delivery modules we had were all very modular and technology-based. With humble beginnings, we were able to fine-tune, adapt, grow, and up-scale our model in 2019, and when our offices opened in Bangalore and Belarus, our team almost doubled in size. Our diversification strategy unknowingly prepared us for the pandemic we are still facing now, fortunately, the model was already in place when Covid hit. A remote work model was no longer a foreign concept, and the team was comfortable working in the new norm of WFH. Technically speaking, nothing much changed internally for our Riyadh office since they collaborated with their teams using virtual workflow tools from the start. Overall, from a service delivery perspective, we were marginally affected, however, adjustments were made to account for the productivity losses, and we had to modify the way we interacted from sector to sector. The change was to our advantage and allowed us to be better prepared and resulted in a far lesser negative overall business outcome.

What was your experience in terms of business demand during the pandemic?

Most of our IT services sector clients experienced growth in this period, however, there was a lesser growth seen with our specialized services clients such as audit and consulting, but progress was still visible. Therefore, services that can be delivered remotely were faring much better than those who may have had multi-projects frozen due to budget constraints and the current situation's implication. The first half of the year was tough on the revenue stream, but many of our clients are retainer-based, and it was business as usual for most of them. However, new business was essentially frozen for the first half of the year as per our projections in March, highlighting some clients as high risk. Proven functions on a partner model rather than a service provider, this allows us to adjust our strategy with the help of real insights from our direct and regular client interactions, understanding where their pain points are. One of the ways we tried to help, was to put some of their operations under freeze while waiting for things to clear up. Once business levels started to level out and the demand was returning around September, we got back on with deliverables in Q4, as projected. In this Quarter, we saw a surge in mobility and the PEO deals that we closed. From a consulting perspective there were no surprises. Still, there has been an immense amount of regulatory changes and updates this year, so most clients were trying to get back on track in Q4 to line things up in January when flights and projects would open up again.

Can you tell us about the development of your business offerings?

We projected 2021 or 2022 to be a starting point for our new business efficiency service offerings, but the market is already there due to the WFH experience. Productivity gains from new working models for the Saudi and global economy, in general, will start materializing over the next 2 to 3 years. If you have an employee base of 80 employees and 50 of them can be based as your core structure/team, then the remaining 30 can either be booked out as a scope of work, or better yet the team can be efficiently scaled up in markets where there is a deeper human capital pool. Recruiting and cross-checking the best talent is a function we perform by building you a team without barriers to any specific locale. Your new team member joins without the hassle of recruitment, onboarding or getting them operationally prepared. They will arrive ready and in line with your policies and procedures. Our HR advisory service will help if you are struggling with managing or administering your remote teams and can work with your HR to get the best out of the team members in terms of productivity. Your service delivery model's quality levels will rise with low up-front risk and a more efficient cost structure. Due to the maturity of the current BPM model, we will see an increase in these service models. Meanwhile, there is an acceleration and an emphasis on decentralization of operations. Since 2018 we have received a high volume of queries from prominent large family offices, with shared services being a major focus area. This kind of distributed offshore team will allow clients to scale up and build that capability and capacity bandwidth required to tackle tomorrow's demands.

What are your business expectations for 2021?

The Saudi government's reaction to COVID 19 was exceptional, their swiftness and strict regulations allowed businesses some level of positivity for a COVID-free future. The strict policies and regulations were necessary, and the results speak for themselves. Due to the measures taken, the Kingdom was and still is one of the better countries to live in during the COVID crisis. The impact on business was felt in the first half of the year but the positive results of their decisions materialized in the latter part of last year. Given that there is a very effective plan afoot for disseminating the vaccine and effective management of returning to business and projects, overall, from the second Quarter onwards, we will see quite a volume of business return to the Saudi market. There should be business to capture on the table, however, the global economy is where the tricky part will come. If you are a firm solely dealing within the Kingdom on internal deliverables and your value chain is limited to the Kingdom, you stand to have a good year. There is a lot of pent-up demand from last year, and a push from the top down at a macro to the micro level to get things moving. However, if your value chain stretches beyond the Kingdom, there is general positivity within the North American business landscape due to the new administration and hopefully less centralization of policy. Yet uncertainty inevitably remains, and it comes down to when Europe and North America's economies recover as they are ailing from a core structural perspective, which is not helping with quantitative easing and the financial markets being wholly disconnected from the real economy. The real impact for those markets will be felt in 2021. Any firms or companies operating in Saudi Arabia whose value chain spans out to those markets need to be better prepared to tread through a choppy 2021.