The CIO Series | Bob Mulumudi
Bob Mulumudi is the Group CIO of RAK Ceramics. He has had 2 years in the region delivering a significant IT transformation. ThinkTech, caught up with Bob to understand how he found working in the Middle East and how he managed to achieve so much in a relatively short space of time.
Can you give us an overview of RAK Ceramics?
RAK Ceramics is one of the largest ceramics’ brands in the world. Specialising in ceramic and gres porcelain wall and floor tiles and sanitaryware they produce 110 million square metres of tiles and 5 million pieces of sanitaryware per year at their 16 state-of-the-art plants across the United Arab Emirates, India, Bangladesh and Iran.
Headquartered in the United Arab Emirates, they serve clients in more than 150 countries through a network of operational hubs in Europe, Middle East and North Africa, Asia, North and South America and Australia. Across the global operations they employ approximately 15,000 staff from more than 40 nationalities.
They are a publically listed company on the in the United Arab Emirates and on the Dhaka Stock Exchange in Bangladesh and as a group have an annual turnover of approximately US$1 billion.
How long have you been in the region?
I arrived in Dubai 2 years ago, completely by accident.
What brought you here in the first place?
By chance, I met the operating partner of our major investor, Samena Capital, in London and we got talking. I have a very niche expertise working with private equity backed businesses who haven’t maximised the use of their ERP. When I explained this niche his eyes lit up – it seemed I had described the then situation with RAK Ceramics.
I came to have a look around RAK Ceramics plus meet the management team in Feb 2015. I was offered a consulting contract specifically to setup a SAP support and change management service and before I knew it I was in Ras Al Khaimah!
Give us an overview of your career background?
I made up my mind before my career even started that I was going to be a supply chain professional. ‘Supply chain’ is something that has evolved more recently into a discipline as back then there was no such terminology and it was just linking up functions.
I have spent about third of my career in supply chain operations, running things with companies such as Shell, Proctor & Gamble, Rotary Watches and Kimberley Clark. I was lucky enough to work with some very good teams managing procurement to physical logistics plus all the three levels of planning. I've got a mind that likes to “connect the dots” so supply chain by its cross functional nature was a great fit.
I spent another third of my career in consulting with Accenture, DHL and Satyam Tech Mahindra working with an array of clients and cultures. This allowed me to build up significant knowledge of how to deliver IT solutions in time bound situations like start ups, restructuring environments, mergers and separations. Good examples of these are Birdseye from Unilever and Jaguar Land Rover from Ford. Compressing time and getting it done became something I was known for.
As with many consultants, I moved to client side for stages of my career to fix various issues and worked as an IT leader. I did this for small businesses such as iForce and larger enterprises such as RAK Ceramics. The differences in work culture has always been appealing to me.
In my view, in order to become a leading CIO you need to have worked in other aspects of the business, not just IT. It was never my specific intention to become a CIO! Plus you need to be very “human” towards people having issues with technology.
How does being a CIO in this region compare with other regions you have worked in?
You must understand the “ownership mentality” and the “imported culture” here in the Middle East. More than anywhere else I have worked there is often a stark lack of knowing what “good looks like” – and never under estimate the hidden processes that are not in systems!
Across many of the companies I have met here, there doesn’t seem to be a link between IT and the business – there’s often no joined up strategy. The conversations I have had with other IT leaders have been more about technology assets and not about how we in IT can improve the business. I cannot understand why IT isn’t always perceived as business critical in this region. The owners have huge ambition but hold IT at arms length.
Tell us about your journey here in UAE? Frustrations? Successes? Lasting legacy?
(Bob laughed at this point) Where do I begin?
I came by luck rather than design, I started as advisor, then as consultant, then as an interim and finally as the permanent CIO. I was dropped into “IT” with the directive to “Fix it”. “It” was just a collection of people that other people only spoke to when their laptops were broken. The business’s relationship with IT was dysfunctional. It was under-valued. Technology was not linked to services or business processes yet they had made a massive investment in SAP software and HP hardware. The overwhelming sense to me was a significant under investment in skills and a profound lack of purpose ...they were lost in their world of “bits and bytes” whilst the business ached for more streamlined efficient ways of working.
It has been a journey of:
- Acceptance – the business and our major investors needed to know the scale of the issue and the contribution of IT in valuing the business.
- Corrective action – we needed to make sure we had the right people in the right jobs with right skills at the right cost.
- Education in IT – re-building, re-designing, re-configuring the business into a global function and to be more connected, more responsive and able to deliver reliable IT services.
I wrote 40 new job descriptions, we had alienated all our key partners. I needed to win theirs and the businesses good will – at times it felt like I was running up the down escalator. The local management culture has a very short memory so you need to continue to deliver regular major business benefits otherwise everything starts to be questioned again. Management is still fixated about getting the ROI on SAP but has slowly come to realise that business adoption is the most important thing.
We’re in a completely different place now - in just 2 years. Thanks to an aligned roadmap, investment in people and money from the business to find some very necessary infrastructure projects. I believe we now have a genuinely recognisable IT function – a department who’s structure, governance and working practices would be common to any IT team supporting a similar business in Europe. From Riyadh to Dhaka through Mumbai, from Bologna to Sydney thru RAK we have one global IT function with good visibility and a strong commercial focus.
If you were to advise an IT leader coming to the region to work for the first time, what would your key bits of advice be?
- Don’t under-estimate the ignorance of IT from your senior business colleagues, be prepared to explain things in cartoons rather in dictionaries.
- Culture will always hold you back – it is important to continue to push, you must have a resilient mentality to cope with all the push back you'll get
- Never under-estimate how long it takes to find good people – never ever compromise.
- Build partnerships with your key suppliers. I have met some fantastic people at SAP, CSC, HP and Microsoft plus at our niche partners like GainInsights, Mobistat and of course our recruitment partner ThinkTech!