Penguins are resilient and reliable. They enter monogamous relationships, nest in the same rookery for life and survived whatever killed the dinosaurs.
That’s why Kristine Anvik Leach, Managing Director of Jotun India, likes to call everyone she works with a penguin. “I’ll walk right up to them and say, ‘Good morning penguin!’”
It seems unusual but at Jotun they call it the ‘penguin spirit’, an effort to associate workers with the symbol of company culture.
“The penguin values loyalty, care, respect and boldness,” she tells The CEO Magazine. “These aren’t values that are written by consultants or referred to once a year. They’re the values that we live by.”
Leading the company, Kristine says her focus is on driving people, and the penguin is a helpful reminder of what she expects from the team. “I’m managing people and ensuring there’s quality from our services. That comes through the ambition I help cultivate, being in the workplace and understanding what people want. I think the penguin really drives that point home.”
One of the world’s largest paint companies, Jotun manufactures a range of performance coatings and decorative paints. Based in Norway, the business was founded in 1926 by Odd Gleditsch Sr., a man who prided himself on his “ability to find able employees and to listen … to their thoughts, suggestions and ideas”.
Operating for more than 90 years, Jotun is today present in seven regions with 40 production facilities spread across more than 100 countries.
Managing Jotun’s operations in India is Kristine. She says she is proud of its presence in the country and the fact that it produces most of the paint it sells to the local market.
“We make paint in India for India, and we have opened a brand new research and development centre because we want to target the Indian market directly while ensuring the entire supply chain is located in India.”
Kristine joined Jotun in 2011 working in the company’s Norwegian office, before moving into the role of Regional Marketing Director of South-East Asia in 2013.
“I was overseeing countries including Singapore, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, and really became focused on people. I wanted to respect and understand their culture, see what they were thinking and help them work towards their goals. It was difficult, but an important and rewarding professional step for me.”
She was there for more than four years before being transferred to India in 2017, moving into her current role as Managing Director. Having learned a lot in Malaysia, Kristine says she was excited to expand her responsibilities in a region as large as India.
“There were so many prospects in the market. I had the opportunity to oversee the production of decorative paints, protective coatings, marine coatings and powder coatings, which was exciting because this is one of the few regions where that is done. It was extraordinarily complex and challenging but it was exciting for me to take on.”
Recognising that “there’s a lot going on” in India, Kristine says her first priority was to clear away the “noise” from the company.
“There are a lot of promising ideas in this part of the world, but we can’t look at all of them. I wanted to focus on what we must do and ensure people know what they’re doing. It’s important we continue down that path of knowing our competencies and not diversifying without reason.”
Jotun is growing by more than 20% per annum in the region, and Kristine believes this will be significant going forward. She says Jotun’s “robust growth strategy” is about ensuring growth for the company is sensible and sustainable.
“India is a complex market and you can get caught in a game of volume and start overproducing. That’s not part of our business model, though. We’re not thinking of short-term benefits; we’re building long-lasting relationships with customers across all four paint segments – decorative paints, protective coatings, marine coatings and powder coatings."
“We’ve already seen the market for decorative paints growing and the market for marine paints slowing. With marine paints, we already have the market share, so we want to focus on working with our partners in the long term. On the other hand, we must target the decorative paints segment more aggressively for growth. That’s how we can be true to our strategy of sustainable, profitable growth that focuses on quality as opposed to quantity."
Part of that strategy will include understanding local factors; Kristine says the depreciation of the rupee along with political uncertainties will create challenges for the business.
“I think though that if we continue our current strategy and focus on our value as a company, then we’ll overcome any challenge. We obviously want to grow along with the Indian economy, but we also need to be ready to withstand its challenges.”
“We obviously want to grow along with the Indian economy, but we need to be ready to withstand its challenges.”
Speaking about Jotun’s Indian manufacturing facility on its 10th anniversary, Kristine returns to a familiar motif. “Looking at this business, I feel that penguin spirit. Everything is safe, clean and compliant with the highest global standards. That’s what I want to see.”
The fact that the manufacturing facilities are so pristine is the result of Jotun and Kristine’s attachment to the penguin.
“Our people are loyal. They want to improve for the company’s sake and their own benefit, even if they don’t think we need to. They feel responsible to help where they can and make suggestions if they think something can be improved. That’s what makes us penguins; everyone knows they play a part in this business. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Balram Singh Yadav is a very satisfied man. Forget for a moment the financial success this Managing Director has generated for Godrej Agrovet (GAVL) or the phenomenal growth the company has enjoyed since he took over the reins a decade ago.
There’s a lot more to Balram’s satisfaction. It goes much deeper.
“Coming from my heart, the past 29 years in this job have been enormously satisfying. Seeing the farmers working with us graduate from a bicycle to a motorcycle, learning new things, growing and prospering with us, sending their kids to school. They generate enough income and surpluses to keep investing in their family’s future as well as their businesses, that is what is most satisfying to me."
“Coming from my heart, the past 29 years in this job have been enormously satisfying.”
GAVL has been committed to improving the productivity of Indian farmers since it launched as a subsidiary to the Godrej Group conglomerate in 1991, providing products and services to enhance crop and livestock yields.
The company is the largest seller of animal feed in India, boasting what Balram describes as ‘sizable’ numbers, selling 1.3 million tonnes a year, which translates to about US$450 million.
Its crop protection business caters to the complete crop lifecycle, including plant growth regulators, organic manure, generic agrochemicals, insecticides, fungicides and specialised herbicides.
GAVL is also one of the largest palm oil developers in India, encouraging growers to adhere to sustainable cultivation with zero deforestation and no cultivation on peat land.
GAVL is committed to producing 100% sustainable palm oil by 2025. The company works directly with famers in government-approved regions of the country with its sustainable palm oil policy covering 100% of the palm oil extracted, including crude palm oil, palm kernel oil, palm kernel cake, as well as the in-house processing operations and cultivation processes at the growers’ end.
Meanwhile, it’s evident Balram is not just a leader in India’s agricultural sector, which employs about 60% of the country’s workforce – he understands the business and is clearly passionate about it.
Joining GAVL as a trainee manager in 1991, armed with an agricultural science degree after graduating with honours, he was convinced the way forward to helping farmers reach a potential they probably never even knew existed, was through innovation and sustainability. Once again, his deep sense of satisfaction shines through.
“For nearly 30 years I’ve worked in a sector catering to the under-served,” he says. "I’ve worked with farmers personally, or led meetings attended by hundreds, to tell them about new products, new technology or new management practices."
“It is so heartening to see the people at the bottom of the pyramid in our rural areas coming up slowly, but surely, with the help of our products. I have not seen any farmers who are progressive and share our vision fall off our growth curve at any time. That is very satisfying.”
Balram admits taking over the role of Managing Director was neither a smooth nor normal transition. It was 2007, the company was losing money and a change in leadership was sought.
Balram was coaxed to step up from his role as executive director and president. “When this role came to me, I wasn’t thinking long-term,” he admits.
“In fact, my focus was very short-term, just to find a way to plug the leak of money pouring out of the company. I had the opportunity to try everything possible to turn the company around and that’s all I thought about, making the company profitable."
“We made many changes and our first goal was achieved quickly. We sold some businesses which were losing money to bring the losses down and focused on our core business of animal feed, palm oil plantations and crop protection. Within 18 months, we started to see profits and by FY2008 we were profitable. But when you keep achieving goals, expectations keep rising.”
By 2012, GAVL had a valuation of US$550 million, mostly from organic growth. However, Balram wasn’t satisfied. He knew the company could do more. It was time to explore other options.
“Yes, we did well over those five years, but we knew organic growth was not enough,” he says. “With our ultimate goal being to become one of the most valued agribusinesses in the country, we had to look at other options. So, in 2015, we made two acquisitions, Astec Life Sciences and Creamline Dairy Products.”
Astec is a bulk manufacturer of fungicides in India with an established track record for nurturing long-term relationships with leading companies in the US, Europe, Asia and Latin America.
Meanwhile, GAVL’s foray into the dairy business, with its controlling stake in Creamline Dairy, gives it a significant presence under the Jersey brand name in the southern states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and parts of Maharashtra.
Apart from milk, its products include yoghurt, lassi, paneer, buttermilk, ice cream and flavoured milk. Balram concedes milk is a ‘difficult’ business in India.
While the country is the largest producer and consumer of milk in the world, only around 20% of the industry is supported by local cooperatives and private dairies.
Most of the sector is disorganised, hampered by disjointed methods of supply and logistics, including a lack of veterinary facilities, nutritious fodder and technology.
“We were never involved in milk, so we have had to spend time understanding the industry,” Balram says. “We need to consolidate the business and integrate Creamline to a more professional level. While it is one of the top things on my agenda right now, it takes time."
“We are growing, we are redefining our aspirations and it’s a great story to come from not being a profitable company, to making it profitable and then to enter into an entirely different sector.”
Balram cites another, albeit surprising, problem farmers face in various parts of India where crops are thriving. While too much rain, or too little, can affect crop production adversely, sometimes when nature deals a great hand, crops produce too much.
“This is a very different kind of challenge. Some of the agricultural space where we have operated has not suffered massive drought or floods, which leaves us with a different problem, that of plenty. We have surplus production of sugar, milk, cereals and many other agri products,” he explains.
“When we are in surplus, farmers don’t make money and that of course results in shortages for the future. This puts a lot of pressure on the farmers in terms of price and working capital management, and that in turn affects us and the sector as a whole. Traditionally, India is not an agricultural exporter, so we and our farmers have to learn how to manage surpluses. Working with the farmers and encouraging them to continue to invest in their farming is a strong focus and huge challenge for us.”
“Traditionally, India is not an agricultural exporter, so we and our farmers have to learn how to manage surplus.”
Crop diversification is another priority GAVL is encouraging farmers to consider and implement. Balram admits the education surrounding diversification has been slow, but he believes farmers, the government and the private sector are gradually coming on board as they realise the advantages of expanding India’s agricultural sector to other markets.
“This is critical, and something we should be very conscious of in terms of crop production,” he says. “We may be producing lots and lots of certain crops, but we still have shortages of oil seeds, for example or, in some seasons, of vegetables. Whereas, if we diversify, the crop in surplus will be produced less and the crop we are currently importing can be produced more."
“GAVL is helping disseminate all this information to help our farmers. Ultimately, depending on their conditions, working capital status, and irrigation capability, the farmer is the best judge of what to grow. But when they seek guidance and information, GAVL is there to help and provide immediate support.”
Ironically, and perhaps more predictably, while the lack of natural calamities result in surplus for some of India’s farming communities, others are still victims of the devastating effects of disease and monsoons.
Last year, India’s monsoon deluged 20% of the country’s districts in floods, while another 40% faced drought due to a 20% deficit in rain and another 10% suffered a 10% rain deficit.
“Anything can come and hit our crops and animals and this is another aspect of tremendous focus for us,” Balram says.
“In spite of the fact we are a profitable company, our margins are still narrow which, from my point of view, is a risk. Agribusinesses are so dependent on God’s will, that we have to keep on improving the sustainability of the company.”
Balram is convinced one solution to improving farming practices is to connect farmers via digitalisation.
Government schemes, including the direct benefit transfer scheme for fertiliser subsidies, are already delivered electronically and Balram believes technology will continue to spread to rural areas at a rapid rate. “I feel very strongly about this,” he says.
“Many goods and services delivered to our rural population in the future will be through digitalisation, and my sense is that rural India will digitalise much faster in terms of transactions. So, GAVL has to be ready and ensure that in all areas of business, farmers are connected to technology. This will be critical and is a key focus for the future.”
Meanwhile, within GAVL, efforts are being made to retain and engage employees, particularly following acquisitions. While Balram acknowledges the tremendous challenge of integrating a new business into the company, he doesn’t discount the difficulties involved in assimilating new teams.
“It takes time to adjust when new teams come on board after acquisitions,” he admits. “Culturally, we are very different in the sense that we are a value-driven company with our own norms of financial prudence and discipline. So, one of our particular challenges is finding experienced people within GAVL to look after these new businesses and blend them into our working culture."
“Every two years, we conduct an engagement survey of our employees and our last survey score was 81% satisfaction, which is much higher than the Indian average. That is important to us because engaged employees mean they see this as a place, where they would like to work and contribute. It is heartening to know that we’re doing well on this metric because that means the company has a good future.”
A vital lure GAVL dangles to attract good employees is its commitment to diversity ratios. The company boasts targets to include women in all areas of its business, recruiting, developing and training them to succeed.
“I strongly believe that 50% of the world’s talents and capabilities rest with women. Nobody can achieve their targets if they do not hire women in greater numbers. We have started taking women in sales, administration and production in our plants."
“Nobody can achieve their targets if they do not hire women in greater numbers.”
“Diversity is an important metric for us and not just with women. We want to include people with different backgrounds and those who are physically challenged as well. This is close to our heart and one way we can give back to society. We need to give people a start to forge their futures.”
Balram remembers his own start, when GAVL was a small company in animal feed and he was working in factories and sales. He credits all that experience with equipping him with the confidence he needs today to run a business.
“That’s where the rubber hits the road,” he says. “As people rise through the ranks their decision-making becomes sharper. It’s because they have a rich understanding of the consumer, the market and the environment in which they’re working. All that grassroots training definitely helped me.”
The deal values Worldpay at far more than the £2 billion it was sold for by Royal Bank of Scotland in 2010 when the bank was forced to dispose of it under EU state aid rules. The deal creates the world’s biggest electronic payments business by market value, linking banks and credit card companies with billions of consumers who are increasingly shunning cash.
Worldpay, formerly Streamline, was set up in 1989 as a subsidiary of National Westminster Bank. Natwest was bought by RBS in 2002 and the payments business was renamed RBS Worldpay. RBS then developed the business through acquisitions in Europe and America.
In 2010 the bank sold RBS Worldpay to Advent and Bain, the private equity firms, for about £2 billion, to comply with EU rules on state aid after its £45.5 billion government bailout during the financial crisis. The private equity firms floated Worldpay five years later at a valuation of about £5 billion. At the start of last year Worldpay was sold to Vantiv for £8 billion, with the combined entity adopting the Worldpay name.
Worldpay, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, processes about 40 billion transactions a year in 126 currencies. It has 3,700 employees around the world and reported revenue of $3.9 billion last year.
Fidelity National Information Services, better known as FIS, was founded in 1968 as Systematics, a financial technology company.
It grew quickly through acquisitions that began in the early 2000s, culminating in its purchase in 2015 of the financial software company Sungard for $9.1 billion. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, FIS, which is valued at $35 billion, is responsible for moving $9 trillion a year through its payment networks. It employs 47,000 people worldwide and reported revenue of $8.4 billion last year.
Gareth Wilson, managing director for global payments at Accenture, the management consultant, said: “This deal is huge for the payments industry. Consolidation in the market looks set to continue in order for payment companies to grow globally at scale and compete with the threat of new entrants.”
The web shopping boom is driving more consumers to electronic payments and growth is likely to continue as more people in developing countries come online.
The electronic payment market will be worth $2.4 trillion by 2023, Boston Consulting, the management consultant, has predicted.
Gary Norcross, 52, chairman and chief executive of FIS, will remain in the same roles at the merged company, which will retain the FIS name. Charles Drucker, 55, executive chairman and chief executive of Worldpay, will be executive vice-chairman of the new FIS.
Mr Norcross said: “Scale matters in our rapidly changing industry.”
FIS shares closed down $0.76, or 0.7 per cent, at $108.12 in New York. Worldpay shares were up by $9.64, or 9.8 per cent, at $108.32.
Shareholders in Worldpay have been offered $11.00 in cash and 0.9287 FIS shares for each Worldpay share, giving a deal cost of about $35 billion excluding debt. This represents a premium of about 14 per cent on Worldpay's value at close of trading on Friday.
Worldpay shareholders will own 47 per cent of the new company and FIS shareholders the remainder if the deal goes through. FIS said that it expects to refinance about $8 billion of Worldpay's debt.
Ocado’s move today to hive off half of its UK grocery business to Marks & Spencer for £750 million has moved it one step closer to becoming a pure technology company. Talks of the joint venture were first reported in theEvening Standardyesterday. The news sent shares in Ocado soaring 106p, or 12 per cent, to 992p, yesterday valuing the company at £6.9 billion. The shares rose 32p, of 1.7 per cent, to £10.04.
Mr Steiner’s stake is worth about £230 million and he is due to collect a further £40 million in May from a long-term share bonus scheme. Lord Rose of Monewden, 69, the former M&S chairman and chief executive who heads Ocado’s board, owns £12 million of shares in the online grocer.
The deal with M&S will provide some much-needed capital for Ocado. The company is still investing heavily in its high-tech warehouses, where robots pick and pack customer orders from stacks of grocery crates. Its commitments don’t end there. Under its six licensing agreements, the Hatfield-based company must shoulder some of the cost of building new distribution centres, which eats up cash. It has signed deals with Bon Preu, a Catalan retailer, Casino in France and Sobeys in Canada.
However, last year’s tie-up with Kroger, the American grocery group, propelled Ocado into the big league, sending the shares up 44 per cent in a day and pushing it into the FTSE 100. That agreement will mean that as many as twenty warehouses are built within three years.
Question marks remain over how profitable Ocado can become ultimately. Transporting groceries to customers’ homes is an inherently expensive business. Last year, Ocado’s revenues rose 12 per cent to £1.6 billion, but it lost £44 million on a pre-tax basis.
Mr Steiner said recently that Ocado would have generated significant pre-tax profits if he had wanted it to. “We’ve chosen to invest faster, to invest in more stuff and to create and expand a global intellectual property business,” he said.
Sainsbury’s boss Mike Coupe will not have opened many emails more devastating than the one he received from Linklaters last Tuesday evening. His advisers at the law firm relayed the news that the competition watchdog had, in effect, killed Sainsbury’s £14bn merger with Asda — the centrepiece of Coupe’s business strategy and the focus of the companies’ attention for more than a year.
Coupe, chairman David Tyler and a handful of shocked colleagues, hunkered down in a room at Sainsbury’s London headquarters to try to make sense of a verdict so severe that they had not seriously countenanced its possibility.
The Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) indicated that to stop the combined companies abusing their power, they would have to sell more than 300 storesto a single buyer with a proven online offering, and potentially dispose of the Sainsbury’s or Asda brand entirely.
After working till midnight, the executives decided to go on the attack. The usually unflappable Coupe was booked for a BBC Radio 4 interview at 7am, soon after the CMA hammer blow was made public.
Coupe became synonymous with a deal that drew the ire of suppliers and politicians when he was caught on camera singing “We’re in the money” last April. On Wednesday morning, his voice was shot through with frustration.
“The CMA have fundamentally moved the goalposts, changed the shape of the ball and chosen a different playing field,” he told the BBC. “Who would invest in this country? This is just outrageous.”
Coupe vowed to fight on, but there is little chance of the CMA backing down, having dismantled the merger with a ferocity few in the City had expected. Sainsbury’s share price sank 17% on the day, leaving the chief executive and the rest of the board bruised, battered — and contemplating where to go from here.
The humiliating turn of events could set in motion a fundamental reshaping of the £190bn grocery industry, putting Sainsbury’s into play and leaving Asda’s American owner, Walmart, looking for another way to extract itself, possibly through a deal with private equity.
Sainsbury’s sales have started going backwards — they fell 1.1% over Christmas — and its stretched finances offer limited room for manoeuvre. At 234p, the shares value the business at £5.2bn. When former boss Justin King left in 2014, before its £1.4bn takeover of catalogue retailer Argos, it was worth £7.1bn.
“Sainsbury’s is doing lots of grumbling . . . but this is almost certainly a waste of time and money,” said one of the chain’s top 10 shareholders. “If anything, the competitive landscape has got more competitive. Sainsbury’s continues to lose market share, and has now blown money and credibility on this merger.”
An industry source said: “Sainsbury’s has got to get back on its feet. The business is perfectly sustainable, it’s not go–ing to crumble and disappear, but there is a risk they will get psyched out and start thinking the situation is irretrievable.”
At an emergency board meeting on Wednesday, Coupe is said to have received unanimous support. The next meeting will be chaired by Martin Scicluna, also chairman of the insurer RSA, who is replacing Tyler at a critical juncture in the chain’s 150-year history.
Sainsbury’s evidence to the CMA showed that the Asda deal was conceived from a position of weakness — an awkward union of a company desperate for scale with one whose owner, Walmart, was eager to sell. Coupe is fond of saying that Sainsbury’s values make it different — a lofty ideal at odds with Asda’s singular focus on low prices — but the more natural merger partners for Sainbury’s, such as Waitrose and the Co-op, were unavailable due to their ownership structures.
When the CMA gave the green light to a merger of the bookmakers Ladbrokes and Coral, then to that of Tesco and Booker, Coupe inferred that the rule book had been rewritten and pushed ahead with the Asda deal.
“When Mike’s saying the CMA have changed the rules and changed the shape of the ball, in reality, it’s the same rules and the same ball. Sainsbury’s and Asda just misread some of the CMA process, its models and approaches. I’m surprised they were so surprised,” a senior retail source said.
Independent observers have questioned the suitability of those models and approaches — as well as the watchdog’s contention that “Sainsda” would lead to higher prices for customers.
“With [the discounters] Aldi and Lidl so prevalent in the market, it would be commercial suicide to put prices up. From the outset, the CMA’s approach was ‘computer says no’ — and then they just set about finding a way for the computer to say no,” said Bryan Roberts, a director of the marketing consultancy TCC Global.
One argument the CMA seemed to ignore was the impact of the merger on suppliers, but their delight at last week’s events undermined Coupe’s contention that the merger would benefit them. In a survey conducted by the retail consultancy GSCOP for The Sunday Times, 70% of suppliers said they were happy the deal was unlikely to proceed, with 13% describing themselves as “overjoyed”.
While Coupe and his counterparts at Walmart, including international boss Judith McKenna, may have misread the CMA, few could accuse them of misreading the market.
Sainsbury’s is in a tight spot because of its relatively weak balance sheet. Adjusted for lease obligations, its net debt is 3.6 times underlying earnings — more than twice the level of Tesco or Morrisons. Also, the retailer needs to refinance £650m of debt this year, which will be costlier because its profit margins are under pressure, according to Andrew Gwynn, an analyst at the stockbroker Exane. He believes Sainsbury’s may now have to tap shareholders for cash.
The company said its free cash flow was strong and that it was focused on lowering its leverage.
Under Coupe, whose pay package is worth £3.4m, Sainsbury’s has slashed costs by £540m and pledged another £500m over the next three years — a move the City expects to drive a 3% rise in pre-tax profits to £608m this year.
Those savings have come at a price. Analysts say that axing thousands of manager roles and restocking shelves during the day, rather than at night, has reduced the availability of fresh produce — one of Sainsbury’s strengths. “The cost cuts are notable all over the stores,” said Steve Dresser, who runs the consultancy Grocery Insight. “It’s hard to see how Sainsbury’s recovers without a change in strategy and investment in their stores.”
There is a chance that events will overtake Coupe and the board. Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods Market and interest in Waitrose in 2017 show that it wants to delve deeper into the pockets of the affluent. Sainsbury’s still has an enviable estate of supermarkets and convenience stores in southeast England.
Amazon is understood to have considered tabling an offer for a block of supermarkets if Sainsbury’s and Asda were forced to sell them. A move for the whole of Sainsbury’s could be a nice use of petty cash for the $800bn (£614bn) behemoth.
“The Amazon conspiracy grows by the moment now because Sainsbury’s is in a very weak position. They’re vulnerable and being taken out is a distinct possibility,” a senior industry source said.
That could see Coupe in the money again, but for now sympathy from industry rivals is in short supply. Sir Malcolm Walker, the boss of Iceland, chortled: “He’ll have to find a new song.”
For 26 years, Sri Lanka was embroiled in civil war. Until peace was declared in 2009, tens of thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands more were displaced. Today, thankfully, the nation moves towards reconciliation, and has seen steady growth in recent years, as its economy moves towards urbanisation, manufacturing and services.
The unrest preceding the war, however, was a difficult time, especially for those growing up. For all the adversity he experienced, Seelan Nayagam, Managing Director of DXC Technology Australia, believes he also learned valuable lessons.
Seelan Nayagam, Managing Director of DXC Technology Australia
“In our family, there were always ups and downs,” Seelan recounts. “You were trying to survive. An experience like that teaches you a level of resilience, which was instilled by my parents.
You learn to always adapt, take setbacks in your stride and then to build yourself from there, trusting that times will keep you in good stead. Through my upbringing, my parents have taught me to deal with problems, pick myself up and then go forward.”
Seelan went on to study accounting and computer science at the University of Buckingham, though accounting failed to engage him entirely. He therefore decided to pursue computer science, which saw him spend a decade with IBM, moving into progressively more senior positions, overseeing the Asia–Pacific region.
“That led to the opportunity to join CSC (Computer Sciences Corporation), and it was a conscious decision,” says Seelan. “When I joined, I knew it would be a turnaround story, a transformation story. At that point, it was going to be a challenge. I felt that if we could execute our strategy, we would clearly change the landscape in the marketplace.”
With concepts such as digitisation and automation now firmly entrenched in industries across the world, Seelan took on the role because he believed he could play a part in building up both the capabilities of CSC itself and the digital infrastructure of Australia. His position as head of CSC’s ANZ division meant he could take an active part in both.
In March 2017, CSC merged with the Enterprise Services division of HP Enterprise to form DXC Technology. Today, the company boasts 130,000 employees across 70 countries, who assist in servicing nearly 6,000 clients, facilitating their transition to digital systems.
Though DXC has existed in its current form for only a few years, Seelan is impressed by the speed with which the company has found its feet.
“Last year was an incredible year for DXC, and unprecedented in change,” he says. “In the context of everything else, we’re the largest start-up in the world, both locally and globally, having formed from separate companies in 2017.
“ Last year was an incredible year for DXC, and unprecedented in change.”
As part of that merger, it would be remiss for me to say everything has gone according to plan. We clearly have some challenges, which we’re learning to work through in the spirit of continuous improvement. We’ll continue to do that moving forward.”
The challenges involved in a merger of two global corporations would have been a tumultuous period for all involved, not least Seelan himself. Of course, his childhood lessons of resilience would have been invaluable in helping him through that experience, and he’s certain that DXC has come out of the merger better able to serve its customers.
After all, DXC’s ambition is to be known primarily as a company that can help its clients thrive on change, and indeed succeed.
“Eighteen months ago, if somebody had told me that we can maintain our success through all this change, I would’ve been happy. But year on year, we’ve dramatically improved our Net Promoter Score.”
There’s no doubt DXC has been able to maintain that strong NPS and healthy customer relationships through its status as a world-leading, end-to-end IT services provider. Certainly in the ANZ region, it’s the largest independent provider, in terms of scale.
The company’s size has allowed it to engage in more in-depth support for its customers. For example, DXC has opened Digital Transformation Centres in Melbourne and Canberra, based on existing centres in Belgium and the UK.
By working with local universities, the Centres will encourage academia–industry collaboration, and, as well as improving communication with local clients, they’ll help upskill Australia’s IT workforce.
DXC’s partner network is comprised of 250 key partners worldwide 15 of those based in Australia, and is therefore considered a pillar of DXC’s growth strategy. “We treat our partner–supplier ecosystem as part of the DXC family,” Seelan says.
“We act as one when we go to our customers. Most of our partners have access to our offices. One of the most important goals for us was that we needed to work as one, a collective, in order to deliver the expected outcome to our customer base.”
DXC Australia hosted its annual Partner Advisory Council Awards in the Gold Coast last November, celebrating the accomplishments and contributions of its partners. In keeping with the company’s broad focus, the awards recognised not just the benefits these partners provided to DXC, but to the wider industry.
With the participation of more than 120 DXC partners, Seelan believes the event also serves as a forum to keep its suppliers informed, and solicit advice from partners, in a two-way communicative relationship that offers learning opportunities to all parties.
“ A successful leader is able to lead their teams to outcomes and results that they wouldn’t have thought possible to do alone.”
DXC works alongside its partners in the same way Seelan leads his team: by being forthright and open. “A successful leader is able to lead their team to outcomes and results that they wouldn’t have thought possible to do alone,” Seelan says.
“That’s what leadership is about. The way you do that is through clear communication, clear goal-setting, and most importantly, leading them to goals that they never thought were possible.
“I’m a big believer in sharing issues in the open, so you can do something about resolving them. Communication is not always easy. No matter how much you communicate, it may never be enough. You’ve got to have different platforms.
We have a collaboration platform that we use extensively to communicate with the teams, which also allows for teams to communicate among themselves with the same interest groups and so forth.”
Said collaboration platform is Workplace, an offering from Facebook. Implemented by DXC, the cloud-based collaboration program offers (what is for many people) a familiar user interface, ideally making it easy to use.
DXC was the first company to adopt the platform in the ANZ region, and not only has it found success here, it’s been implemented globally within DXC. Seelan says it facilitates communication across the company, a crucial task given the number of mergers and acquisitions DXC undergoes.
Throughout 2018, DXC integrated more than 10 companies, each one a distinct organisation with varying capabilities and growth. As a result, the company experienced a little difficulty in combining these companies, with some divisions declining while others grew faster than the market.
The solution was improved communication to better unify these previously disparate bodies, and to ensure internal cohesion.
“Integrating these companies brought its own set of challenges, which were around unifying the company’s culture, and defining it as we move forward,” Seelan explains.
“How do you implement significant changes without losing focus on our customers and, more importantly, the employees? From there, we need to work out how to lead the employees as we make those changes. To see this come to fruition is motivating and rewarding from a personal perspective.”
The efforts to engineer a smooth-running workplace has not gone unnoticed, with DXC named an employer of choice by global HR consultancy Randstad, based on a survey of thousands of Australian jobseekers.
Within the ANZ division, the IT services provider has also spent A$13 million on training and upskilling its staff. Naturally, Seelan gauges the organisation’s accomplishments through quantifiable success, being validated by and delivering solutions to customers.
But equally, the extent to which employees feel passionate about their work defines a large part of Seelan’s concept of success.
“Most importantly, throughout all this significant change, our employees are engaged, during both the good times and the difficult times along the way,” he says. “Our employee engagement continues to improve.
We see the employees focused on both delivering solutions to our customers and solving the problems we have, as we go through these integrations.”
To further boost the strength of its workforce, DXC has been running what it calls the DXC Dandelion Program, which was designed to help those on the autism spectrum find work.
“What we see is that those individuals have an incredible ability to recognise patterns,” says Seelan. “They’re typically successful in cybersecurity, testing and analytics, where their productivity and results are outstanding.”
This embrace of neurodiversity has been ongoing for four years, and its success has already been expanded to include those with dyslexia and ADHD. At present, it employs around 80 people across Australia, also providing leading research on autism in the workplace, with interest from hundreds of organisations around the world.
As it continues to expand the program, DXC has established partnerships with universities with the ultimate aim of building a pipeline of young talent for employers that are neurodiverse-friendly.
Seelan believes a workforce that welcomes neurodiversity creates a better internal culture that celebrates differences and uniqueness. “We have a retention rate of approximately 92%,” he says. “That’s unbelievable in a segment where a lot of companies are going down this path, but often struggle to retain their employees.
We’ve created an ecosystem that supports diverse thinking and allows these individuals access to meaningful employment, but also deliver outcomes for our customers.”
In October last year, DXC announced the expansion of the DXC Dandelion Program with the launch of a new DXC Social Impact Practice, aimed at helping clients and the community develop and run programs that benefit individuals and society.
But with many of these developments yet to be fully implemented, the Social Impact Practice remains most heavily focused on assisting those living with autism, and the transformational effect on their lives is something that gives Seelan purpose.
“It’s what we as an organisation have achieved to date in our social responsibilities,” he says. “It’s amazing to see people on the autism spectrum participate in meaningful work, delivering results to our customers. The customers recognise the value of these individuals. To see them having a normal life and getting married, buying a house, buying a car, is incredibly rewarding.”
Cybersecurity is an increasingly critical issue for organisations worldwide. In Australia, recent studies have found companies to be, on average, worryingly unprepared for data breaches. Half of business leaders surveyed admitted their existing cybersecurity practices and systems were inadequate, especially in larger businesses. DXC’s own research says that between 75% and 90% of ANZ organisations believe they have gaps in cybersecurity.
“Cybersecurity is at the top of everybody’s agenda, and it’s a broad agenda,” says Seelan. “It’s going to be an ongoing concern. One thing that we do know, no matter how sophisticated you are as an organisation, you’re always going to have those threats. But the more important issue comes up when something like that happens. “How do you respond, how do you contain it, how do you move forward? For us, it’s not just about prevention, it’s also about reacting and responding when those types of things happen. That’s going to be a continuous challenge in the marketplace, especially in a fibre-connected, digital world.”
The Social Impact Practice also includes plans to aid other disadvantaged groups within society, such as veterans, indigenous people, and those with disabilities. Alongside the government, a program based in Cape York has already established an indigenous workforce.
On top of this, an annual social challenge is chosen by DXC employees, to work towards solutions for issues they think can be addressed by technology. It’s not for nothing that DXC Technology was named the 19th Best Corporate Citizen of 2018 by Corporate Responsibility Magazine.
In the few years since it opened for business, DXC has enacted considerable organisational transformation, though it’s proven itself more than capable of handling this. Seelan is thus in an opportune position to assist the digital transformation of Australia, more so than at any point previously in his career.
DXC takes this broader societal role seriously, working alongside numerous groups adjacent to the digital industry. As well as supporting its clients, DXC collaborates closely with community, academic and governmental institutions to bring the country into the digital revolution.
“We participate in several ways,” explains Seelan. “One is leading our customers through their transformation to digitisation, since the industry is moving at an incredible pace, and we’ve been in the market for a long time.
Our relationship is substantial and longstanding with a lot of our customers, and helping them transform themselves along their digital journey clearly enables us to participate in the whole Australian economy.”
DXC’s digital capabilities are extensive, as is its ability to assist clients with digitisation, thanks to advances in areas such as cognitive AI and robotic process automation. Only a year ago, DXC released a “new digital-generation services delivery model” called DXC Bionix, which employs many of these innovations in a single IT services system.
The extent to which Bionix has improved IT service efficiency is remarkable: global delivery operations have gone from 50% to 80% time reduction, with substantial drops in defects, and costs and time of testing.
At the same time, DXC provides the industry with insightful research on surviving digital transformation, evidence of Seelan’s broad focus.
“The second key piece of our strategy,” he continues, “is contributing to the community and creating the skills necessary for our industry. We have a chronic skill shortage in this industry.
DXC is actively addressing this, by creating talent pools that previously haven’t been tapped. We’re working with universities to co-create courses that provide next-generational skills.”
As mentioned, DXC collaborates with universities as part of its Digital Transformation Centres. But this approach also extends to a partnership with TAFE in Tasmania, through which students have the option of working at DXC’s Tasmania facility.
At the end of their study, students are added to the company’s Young Professionals program, offering them a position with DXC.
The third major method of effecting change is by influencing policymakers. “For example, we’re a major contributor to a lot of the debates that take place in Canberra,” Seelan says, “all the way from cyber to the fibre network, and we actively contribute our point of view and perspective, which for us is an important part of Australia participating in this global digital economy.
One of the crucial areas here is cybersecurity, so we’re actively involved in guiding policies, providing leadership, and, importantly, imparting lessons that we’ve learned as a global organisation, to Australia.”
It’s appropriate that Seelan’s formative years provided those lessons of resilience – such is the fast-moving nature of humanity’s digital capabilities, that it’s no easy task to stay on top of it.
The IT industry is no different, and the tumultuous-though-profitable time since the CSC–HP Enterprise merger has proven to Seelan that there’s no benefit in playing things safe.
“Three years ago, I received a piece of advice about taking calculated risks,” he says. “It’s a significant part of learning.
“ You have to continue to challenge yourself and take calculated risks along the way.”
You have to continue to challenge yourself and take calculated risks along the way. You should never shy away from taking on those risks – correcting them if need be – and then moving forward from there.”